Culture Tuesday is a weekly column in which Best of Vegan Editor Samantha Onyemenam explores different cultures’ cuisines across the globe through a plant-based and vegan lens. In today’s column, she is taking a closer look at vegan Puerto Rican cuisine.
Culture Tuesday – Puerto Rican Cuisine
Puerto Rican cuisine, also known as, ‘Boricua Cuisine’ is the general cuisine of Puerto Rico – an island in the Caribbean Sea. It is a blend of the cultural cooking styles of the Taíno (indigenous people of the island), Africans, and Spaniards with the flavors of locally sourced ingredients.
The Taíno people thrived on locally sourced, fruits, vegetables, roots/tubers, legumes, spices, nuts, and grains such guava, pineapple, achiote (annatto), corn, beans, avocados, cassava (yuca) malanga (yautía/eddoe), chili peppers, allspice, sawtooth coriander, and arrowroot. However, unlike the indigenous people of Mesoamerica and South America, corn plays a less dominant role in the cuisine of Puerto Rico as the grains often get destroyed during the relatively frequent hurricanes experienced by the island. Therefore yautía and cassava were more dominantly relied on than corn by the Taíno people.
The cuisine of the island evolved with the invasion by the Spaniards and migration of other Europeans (mainly the Dutch, French and Italian people) to Puerto Rico.
The cuisine of the island evolved with the invasion by the Spaniards and migration of other Europeans (mainly the Dutch, French and Italian people) to Puerto Rico. They introduced ingredients from their countries as well as those from other countries and regions they colonized (or traded with) to the locals. These included olives, chickpeas, garlic, onions, aubergines (eggplant), capers, bell peppers, papaya, rice, tomatoes, cocoa, potatoes, and sugarcane, some of which can not be cultivated on the island and therefore, till this day, being imported into Puerto Rico as they are commonly used and important to the cuisine.
The invasion and settlement of Europeans in Puerto Rico also led to the introduction of African ingredients, cooking practices, and styles into the cuisine of Puerto Rico. This was through the forceful migration of enslaved Africans to the island. During the transportation of the enslaved people to Puerto Rico ingredients such as plantains, okra, tamarind, coconuts, yams, taro (cocoyam), beniseeds (sesame seeds), and specific herbs.
The invasion and settlement of Europeans in Puerto Rico also led to the introduction of African ingredients, cooking practices, and styles through the forceful migration of enslaved Africans.
The influence of the Africans in Puerto Rico is most evident in towns such as Loíza which was the center of the slave trade in Puerto Rico. In Loíza, the regional cuisine features a beautiful blend of Taíno and African cooking styles and ingredients.
Excluding breakfast, meals in Puerto Rico often start with a hot appetizer such as empanadillas, asopao de gandules, or escabeche.
Empanadillas are half-moon or crescent-shaped filled pastries. Their fillings often contain animal products. However, vegan ones exist which contain black beans, vegan meat substitutes, or tofu along with the sofrito (caramelized/fried onions, garlic, tomatoes, and bell/sweet peppers) and achiote (annatto). They are fried or baked for a hearty appetizer although this dish can also be served as a breakfast food, snack, or lunch.
Asopao de gandules is a pigeon pea soup thickened with short-grain rice and containing plantain dumplings/balls. It is not always vegan, but vegan versions have been made using vegetable stock or broth. Other ingredients include sofrito, tomato sauce, olives, capers, vegetables of choice (such as carrots and potatoes), herbs, and spices. The plantain balls, more commonly known as, ‘bolitas de platanos,’ are made from green (unripe) plantains, salt, and garlic, but some cooks also include onions (fresh or powdered) and achiote oil for more flavor and color.
Escabeche is a pickled dish usually made with animal products but can be found made with mushrooms, green bananas, cassava (yuca), and/or vegetables for a plant-based version. To make it, the cooked mushrooms (or alternative meat substitute), cassava, or green bananas are pickled alongside other ingredients such as squash, onions, garlic, spices, and golden beets in an olive oil and vinegar mixture. It can be left to marinate overnight for a fuller flavor and served on crackers prior to the main meal.
Main meals in Puerto Rico are usually rather hearty and contain a combination of vegetables, starchy tubers, protein, and grains. These dishes include sancocho, habichuelas guisadas, arroz amarillo, bistec encebolado, and mofongo.
Main meals in Puerto Rico are usually rather hearty and contain a combination of vegetables, starchy tubers, protein, and grains.
Sancocho is a stew consisting of root vegetables/tubers, vegetables, meat (substitutes), stock, herbs, spices, coconut milk, squash, green bananas/plantains, squash, and corn on the cob. It is a fusion of African and Taíno ingredients to make a filling and healthy meal. Sancocho is usually made early in the day and left to stew or slow cook for several hours so it can be eaten at the end of a workday. Variations of sancocho exist from household to household. However, in all, it is usually served with rice, bread, or tostones for a more filling meal.
Habichuelas guisadas are a stewed pink bean (habichuelas rosadas) dish in which the beans are stewed in a tomato sauce and vegetable stock mixture containing sofrito and spices such as adobo and sazón as well as herbs, capers, and green olives. Potatoes, carrots, and/or squash are often added to bulk up the dish although it is usually served with rice as opposed to being served on its own.
Arroz amarillo, or yellow rice, is, as the name suggests, a rice dish with a light reddish-yellow color. Its recipe varies with the cook. However, one thing that stays the same is the use of sazón to season and add a yellowish color to the dish. Other ingredients commonly found in arroz amarillo include sofrito, achiote oil, tomato purée, bouillon or stock cubes, herbs, spices, capers, olives, and corn or legumes.
Bistec encebolado means, ‘steak and onions.’ A similar dish to this is pollo encebolado. Both are non-vegan. However, vegan versions exist which are made using vegan meat substitutes, tofu, or mushrooms. To make this dish, the meat substitute of choice is marinated in a mixture of oil, spices, and vinegar then it is cooked with sofrito, onions, water, tomato sauce, water, and stock until the liquid thickens and the onions caramelize to a desired state. This dish is often served with rice and fried plantains or as the filling for jibarito (a sandwich made with flattened and fried green plantains in place of bread).
Mofongo is a mashed plantain dish. Vegan versions of it can be made by mashing fried green plantains with garlic, olive oil, salt, and vegetable stock until it reaches the desired consistency. It can be topped with a sauce, caramelized onions, stewed vegetables, or meat substitutes of choice.
Snacks and Desserts
Some of these dishes can be served as appetizers as opposed to just mid-day snacks or desserts. These include pastelitos, bacalaitos, and tembleque.
Pastelitos are rather similar to empanadillas. However, they tend to be smaller. Their fillings are usually (for a vegan version), a ground beef substitute, spices, and jalapeños with potatoes, onions, bell peppers, and tomato sauce. After filling and sealing the pastelitos dough it is deep-fried in corn oil till golden brown and crispy.
Bacalaitos are salted codfish fritters that are made vegan using shredded hearts of palm or jackfruit in place of the fish. They are made by marinating the fish substitute with adobo as well as lemon juice and nori (for a fish-like ocean flavor) for about an hour then combining it with a mixture of flour, sazón, sofrito, baking powder, salt, other seasonings, and water until a thick batter is formed. This batter is then deep fried till golden and with a set exterior. The resulting dish is crispy on the outside and a bit chewy on the inside.
Tembleque is a coconut pudding made from full-fat coconut milk, cornstarch, sugar, salt, vanilla extract, and optional lime peel. It is cooked till the mixture reaches a custard consistency then poured into a mold and left to cool and set in the fridge till it can hold the shape of the mold when removed from it. As tembleque is a cooked custard-like dish, some cooks have turned the pudding into ice cream for a cooler dessert.
Recipe from Vegan Puerto Rican Cuisine – Carne Guisada (Beefless Beef Stew) by Plant-Based and Broke
Carne guisada is another meat dish that is plant-based Boricua cooks have veganised. In this recipe, Aly Michell of @Plantbasedandbroke on Instagram shows you how she makes her beefless carne guisada using a vegan beef substitute, potatoes, carrots, olives, tomato sauce, adobo, sazón, and sofrito.