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Puerto Rican Cuisine

The Caribbean island of Puerto Rico is a United States territory with commonwealth status; Puerto Ricans are United States citizens and are well represented in many communities on the American mainland. Like all aspects of Puerto Rican culture, the island’s food reflects a rich cultural mix: the indigenous Arawak and Taino peoples, the influence of Spain, the importation of African slaves, and the hundred year association with the United States. Puerto Ricans refer to their way of cooking as cocina criolla.

Chicken and rice are undoubtedly the most popular ingredients in Puerto Rican cuisine. In addition, two key flavor-bases are widespread. Adobo is made using crushed peppercorns, oregano, garlic, salt, oil and either lime juice or vinegar. The Puerto Rican cook uses the adobo as a rub or marinade for meats and poultry. Sofrito is made from onions, garlic, sweet peppers, coriander, cilantro and oregano, sautéed in oil, lard, or bacon fat and mixed with crushed achiote (annatto seeds), which give the sofrito its distinct reddish-yellow coloring. Sofrito is used as a flavor base for soups, stews, and rice dishes. Both flavorings are available off the shelf in many food markets on the mainland.

A typical meal in Puerto Rico may consist of one of many soups, stews, rice and beans, and the side dish tostones, savory twice-fried cakes made from mashed breadfruit or plantains. The plantain is an extremely popular vegetable on the island; it is shaped like a banana, but unlike the banana cannot be eaten in its raw state. Arróz con pollo (rice with chicken) and chicken rice soups are mainstays. The rich stew called asopao is much like a gumbo, using the meats, vegetables and legumes that may be on hand; every Puerto Rican cook has a recipe.

Deep-fried salt-codfish fritters (bacalaítos fritos), alcapurrias (banana and taro root croquettes stuffed with meat), the fried meat turnovers called pastelillos, and the fried pork skins called chuchifritos are popular quick snacks. Lechón asado, a whole roasted pig, is served for large groups at festive occasions like weddings or at picnics. The island produces a rich array of vegetables, including the sweet potato (used for both savory dishes and desserts), the chayote (a member of the squash family), the yuca (a root vegetable like cassava), and the yautía (a type of starchy taro root).

Puerto Rican desserts and sweets are numerous. Many contain coconut or guava, but probably the best known on the American mainland is flan, a rich baked egg custard. Bread pudding, often with coconut flavoring, is a favorite, as is arróz con coco (rice with coconut). Fresh tropical fruits like papaya, mango, coconut, guava, custard apples, and passion fruit are incorporated into pastry fillings, hard jellied fruit confections, and desserts or enjoyed on their own. The piragua is a special treat, a cone of shaved ice covered with syrup.

Café-con-leche (made from equal portions of strong espresso coffee and scalded milk) is a favorite at breakfast or at the traditional 3:00pm coffee break that all islanders enjoy. Although beer and non-alcoholic malt beverages are popular, local rum in many varieties is the island’s most famous beverage. Puerto Rican distilleries produce more that three-quarters of all the rum consumed in the United States. The Piña Colada, based on rum, coconut cream (a sweetened form of coconut milk) and pineapple juice, is the cocktail of choice at Puerto Rican resorts.