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Comida Criolla: Puerto Rican Cuisine

Some of Puerto Rico's finest chefs -- Wilo Benet and Alfredo Ayala -- have based their supremely successful careers on paying gourmet homage to their mothers' and grandmothers' cooking. A whole new generation of rising culinary artists is following in their footsteps by putting Puerto Rico's comida criolla at the front and center of their Nuevo Latino experimentation.

Comida criolla, as Puerto Rican food is known, is flavorful but not hot. It can be traced back to the Arawaks and Taínos, the original inhabitants of the island, who thrived on a diet of corn, tropical fruit, and seafood. When Ponce de León arrived with Columbus in 1493, the Spanish added beef, pork, rice, wheat, and olive oil to the island's foodstuffs.

The Spanish soon began planting sugar cane and importing slaves from Africa, who brought with them okra and taro (known in Puerto Rico as yautia). The mingling of flavors and ingredients passed from generation to generation among the different ethnic groups that settled on the island, resulting in the exotic blend of today's Puerto Rican cuisine.

Its two essential ingredients are sofrito, a mix of garlic, sweet peppers, onion, and fresh green herbs, and adobo, a blend of dried spices such as peppercorns, oregano, garlic, salt, olive oil, and lime juice or vinegar, rubbed on pork or chicken before it is slowly roasted. Achiote (annatto seeds) is often used as well, imparting an orange color to many common Puerto Rican dishes. Other seasonings and ingredients commonly used are coriander, papaya, cacao, níspero (a tropical fruit that's brown, juicy, and related to the kiwi), and apio (a small African-derived tuber that's like a pungent turnip).

The rich and fertile fields of Puerto Rico produce a wide variety of vegetables. A favorite is the chayote, a pear-shaped vegetable called christophine throughout most of the English-speaking Caribbean. Its delicately flavored flesh is often compared to that of summer squash. Native root vegetables such as yucca, breadfruit and plantain, called viandas, either accompany main meals or are used as ingredients in them.

If you're in Old San Juan and are looking for a noshing tour of the local cuisine, we highly recommend Flavors of San Juan (tel. 787/964-2447; www.flavorsofsanjuan.com).

Strange Fruit -- Reading of Capt. James Cook's explorations of the South Pacific in the late 1700s, West Indian planters were intrigued by his accounts of the breadfruit tree, which grew in abundance on Tahiti. Seeing it as a source of cheap food for their slaves, they beseeched King George III to sponsor an expedition to bring the trees to the Caribbean. In 1787, the king put Capt. William Bligh in command of HMS Bounty and sent him to do just that. One of Bligh's lieutenants was a former shipmate named Fletcher Christian. They became the leading actors in one of the great sea yarns when Christian overpowered Bligh, took over the Bounty, threw the breadfruit trees into the South Pacific Ocean, and disappeared into oblivion.

Bligh survived by sailing the ship's open longboat 3,000 miles (4,830km) to the East Indies, where he hitched a ride back to England on a Dutch vessel. Later he was given command of another ship and sent to Tahiti to get more breadfruit. Although he succeeded on this second attempt, the whole operation went for naught when the West Indies slaves refused to eat the strange fruit of the new tree, preferring instead their old, familiar rice.

Descendants of those trees still grow in the Caribbean, and the islanders prepare the head-size fruit in a number of ways. A thick green rind covers its starchy, sweet flesh whose flavor is evocative of a sweet potato. Tostones -- fried green breadfruit slices -- accompany most meat, fish, or poultry dishes served today in Puerto Rico.

Appetizers & Soups

Lunch and dinner generally begin with hot appetizers such as bacalaitos, crunchy cod fritters; surullitos, sweet and plump cornmeal fingers; and empanadillas, crescent-shaped turnovers filled with lobster, crab, conch, or beef. For starters, also look to tostones or arepas, baked flour casseroles, stuffed with seafood or meat. Fried cheeses in dipping sauces made with tropical fruit are another option.

Soups are also a popular beginning, with a traditional chicken soup caldo gallego being a local favorite. Imported from Spain's northwestern province of Galicia, it is prepared with salt pork, white beans, ham, and berzas (collard greens) or grelos (turnip greens), and the whole kettle is flavored with spicy chorizos (Spanish sausages). Sopón de pescado (fish soup), is prepared with the head and tail intact and relies on the catch of the day. Traditionally, it is made with garlic and spices plus onions and tomatoes with the flavor enhanced by a tiny dash of vinegar and varying amounts of sherry. Variations differ from restaurant to restaurant. Recently, thick comfort soups made with viandas, such as plantain or pumpkin, have been taking a flavorful stand at many nuevo criolla restaurants.

There are also ever present accompaniments at every Puerto Rican meal. Yucca is often steamed then served in olive oil and vinegar with sweet roasted peppers and onions. Fried plantain disks called tostones accompany most meals. The plantains are also smashed with garlic and other seasonings and cooked into a casserole called mofongo. White rice and delicious stewed pink beans, called arroz y habichuelas, are also ever present side dishes to most main meals. Another is arroz con gandules, stewed rice with pigeon peas.

Main Courses

Stews loom large in the Puerto Rican diet, and none larger than asopao, a hearty gumbo made with either chicken or shellfish. Every Puerto Rican chef has his or her own recipe. Asopao de pollo (chicken stew) takes a whole chicken, which is then flavored with spices such as oregano, garlic, and paprika, along with salt pork, cured ham, green peppers, chili peppers, onions, cilantro, olives, tomatoes, chorizo, and pimientos. For a final touch, green peas might be added. Seafood lovers will adore versions using lobster or shrimp. The most basic version simply uses rice and pigeon peas, a healthy, more economical alternative that loses little on the flavor front. Stews are usually cooked in a caldera (heavy kettle). Another popular one is carne guisada puertorriqueña (Puerto Rican beef stew). The ingredients that flavor the chunks of beef vary according to the cook's whims or whatever happens to be in the larder. These might include green peppers, sweet chili peppers, onions, garlic, cilantro, potatoes, olives stuffed with pimientos, or capers. Seeded raisins may be added on occasion.

While mofongo is a dependable side dish, it also takes center stage at many meals when it is formed into a hollow casserole and stuffed with seafood (shrimp, lobster, or the catch of the day) or chicken in tomato sauce. It's called mofongo relleno. Pastelones de carne, or meat pies, are the staple of many Puerto Rican dinners. Salt pork and ham are often used for the filling and are cooked in a caldero (small cauldron). This medley of meats and spices is covered with a pastry top and baked.

Other typical main dishes include fried beefsteak with onions (carne frita con cebolla), veal (ternera) a la parmesana, and roast leg of pork, fresh ham, lamb, or veal a la criolla. These roasted meats are cooked in the Creole style, flavored with adobo. Chicharrónes -- fried pork with the crunchy skin left on top for added flavor -- is very popular, especially around Christmastime. Puerto Ricans also like such dishes as sesos empanados (breaded calf's brains), riñones guisados (calf's kidney stew), and lengua rellena (stuffed beef tongue). Other meats tend to be slowly grilled or sautéed until tender.

Both chicken and fish are important ingredients made dozens of different ways. Two common ways of serving them are al ajillo, in a garlic sauce, or a la criolla, in a tomato sauce with pepper, onions and Spanish olives. Puerto Ricans adore chicken, which they flavor with various spices and seasonings. Arroz con pollo (chicken with rice) is the most popular chicken dish on the island, and it was brought long ago to the U.S. mainland. Other favorite preparations include pollo al kerez (chicken in sherry), pollo en agridulce (sweet-and-sour chicken), and pollitos asados a la parrilla (broiled chicken).

A festive island dish is lechón asado, or barbecued pig, which is usually cooked for a party of 12 to 15. It is traditional for picnics and alfresco parties; one can sometimes catch the aroma of this dish wafting through the palm trees, a smell that must have been familiar to the Taíno peoples. The pig is often basted with jugo de naranja agria (sour orange juice) and achiote coloring and then rubbed with garlic and adobe. Slow roasted, lechón done right is juicy and just melts in the mouth. Green plantains are peeled and roasted over hot stones, then served with the barbecued pig. A sour garlic sauce called aji-li-mojili, made from garlic, whole black peppercorns, sweet peppers, lime, and olive oil, sometimes accompanies the pig. Pasteles, a kind of Puerto Rican turnover, are also popular at Christmas. A paste is formed from either plantain or yucca, which is then filled with seasoned beef or chicken. After it is shaped into a rectangle, it is wrapped in plantain leaves and tied up. They are then boiled and unwrapped, served steaming hot.

Local cuisine relies on seafood, with red snapper (chillo) and dolphinfish (dorado) most likely to be offered as fresh catches of the day. Shellfish, especially conch (carrucho), squid, and octopus, are also frequently used in dishes. Mojo isleno is a delicious oil-and-vinegar-based sauce from the south-coast town of Patillas that is poured on fresh grilled fish. The sauce is made with olives and olive oil, onions, pimientos, capers, tomato sauce, vinegar, garlic, and bay leaves. Caribbean lobster is usually the most expensive item on any menu, followed by shrimp. We find it lighter but just as sweet as the more common Maine lobster. Puerto Ricans often grill shrimp (camarones) and serve them in an infinite number of ways. Another popular shellfish dish is jueyes (crabs), which are either boiled or served inside fried turnovers.

Puerto Ricans love salted codfish, with codfish fritters being one of the more popular beach snacks, always available during festivals. A better way to experience this staple is serenate de bacalao, in which the cod is served in an olive oil and vinegar dressing with tomato, onion, and avocado. It's a popular Easter dish.

Many tasty egg dishes are served, especially tortilla española (Spanish omelet), cooked with finely chopped onions, cubed potatoes, and olive oil.

The Aroma of Coffee

Puerto Ricans usually end a meal with a small cup of the strong, aromatic coffee grown here, either black or with a dash of warm milk. Although the island is not as associated with coffee as Colombia or even the Dominican Republic, it has been producing some of the world's best for more than 300 years. It's been known as the "coffee of popes and kings" since it was exported to Europe's royal courts and the Vatican in the 19th century, and today Puerto Rico continues to produce some of the world's tastiest.

Coffee has several degrees of quality, of course, the lowest-ranking one being café de primera, which is typically served at the ordinary family table. The top category is called café super premium. Only a handful of three coffees in the world belong to super-premium class: With Puerto Rico's homegrown Alto Grande, coffee beans sought by coffee connoisseurs around the world, joining Blue Mountain coffee of Jamaica, and Kona coffee from Hawaii.

A wave of boutique high-quality local coffee brands have popped up more recently, including Yauco Selecto, with a new generation of farmers catering to the booming worldwide demand for gourmet coffee. Alto Grande Super Premium has been grown in Lares since 1839, in the central mountains known as one of the finest coffee growing areas in the world. Yacuo Selecto, grown in Yauco on the southern slope of the Cordillera Central, also traces its roots to this period when island coffee was courted by royalty. Other coffee-growing towns are Maricao, in the western mountains, and Adjuntas, at the island's heart.

You can ask for your brew puya (unsweetened), negrito con azúcar (black and sweetened), cortao (black with a drop of milk), or con leche (with milk).

Rum: Kill-Devil or Whiskey-Belly Vengeance

Rum is the national drink of Puerto Rico, and you can buy it in almost any shade. Because the island is the world's leading rum producer, it's little wonder that every Puerto Rican bartender worthy of the profession likes to concoct his or her own favorite rum libation. You can call for Puerto Rican rum in many mixed drinks such as rum Collins, rum sour, and rum screwdriver. The classic sangria, which is prepared in Spain with dry red wine, sugar, orange juice, and other ingredients, is often given a Puerto Rican twist with a hefty dose of rum.

Today's version of rum bears little resemblance to the raw, grainy beverage consumed by the renegades and pirates of Spain. Christopher Columbus brought sugar cane, from which rum is distilled, to the Caribbean on his second voyage to the New World, and in almost no time rum became the regional drink.

It is believed that Ponce de León introduced rum to Puerto Rico during his governorship, which began in 1508. Under his reign, landholders planted large tracts with sugar cane. From Puerto Rico and other West Indian islands, rum was shipped to colonial America, where it lent itself to such popular and hair-raising 18th-century drinks as Kill-Devil and Whiskey-Belly Vengeance. After the United States became a nation, rum was largely displaced as the drink of choice by whiskey, distilled from grain grown on the American plains.

It took almost a century before Puerto Rico's rum industry regained its former vigor. This occurred during a severe whiskey shortage in the United States at the end of World War II. By the 1950s, sales of rum had fallen off again, as more and different kinds of liquor had become available on the American market.

The local brew had been a questionable drink because of inferior distillation methods and quality. Recognizing this problem, the Puerto Rican government drew up rigid standards for producing, blending, and aging rum. Rum factories were outfitted with the most modern and sanitary equipment, and sales figures (encouraged by aggressive marketing campaigns) began to climb.

No one will ever agree on what "the best" rum is in the Caribbean. There are just too many of them to sample. Some are so esoteric as to be unavailable in your local liquor store. But if popular tastes mean anything, then Puerto Rican rums, especially Bacardi, head the list. There are 24 different rums from Puerto Rico sold in the United States under 11 brand names -- not only Bacardi, but also Ron Bocoy, Ronrico, Don Q, and many others. Locals tend to like Don Q the best.

Puerto Rican rums are generally light, gold, or dark. Usually white or silver in color, the biggest seller is light in body and dry in taste. Its subtle flavor and delicate aroma make it ideal for many mixed drinks, including the mojito, daiquiri, rum Collins, rum Mary, and rum and tonic or soda. It also goes with almost any fruit juice, or on the rocks with a slice of lemon or lime. Gold or amber rum is aromatic and full-bodied in taste. Aging in charred oak casks adds color to the rum.

Gold rums are usually aged longer for a deeper and mellower flavor than light rums. They are increasingly popular on the rocks, straight up, or in certain mixed drinks in which extra flavor is desired -- certainly in the famous piña colada, rum and Coke, or eggnog.

Dark rum is full-bodied with a deep, velvety, smooth taste and a complex flavor. It can be aged for as long as 15 years. You can enjoy it on the rocks, with tonic or soda, or in mixed drinks when you want the taste of rum to stand out.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.