Beyond Pasteles

By Jackie M. Young

POSTED: Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Puerto Rican food — pasteles and gandule rice, right? Wrong.

“;In Puerto Rico, gandule rice or pasteles are mostly cooked around Christmastime or special occasions,”; explained 71-year-old Ramona Caraballo, co-owner of Ramona's Pasteles in Waianae. “;Over there, they're not everyday dishes; over here, they are.

“;Locals probably like the pasteles and gandule rice so much because that was what the Puerto Ricans shared with other races when they came here as plantation workers in 1900.

“;But we have a lot of variety in Puerto Rican food.”;

Similar to Hawaii, Puerto Rico is an archipelago, so seafood and tropical fruit abound. According to various food references, the original island settlers were the Taino and Arawak Amerindians, and they employed indigenous ingredients such as coriander, papaya, cacao, plantains (bananas), yams and corn. Puerto Ricans called that cuisine “;cocina criolla,”; or creole cooking.

When the Spanish arrived in the 15th century, they introduced beef, pork, rice, wheat and olive oil, and they brought African slaves who carried with them okra and taro and introduced deep-frying to the cuisine. Likewise, Americans brought their own culinary influences when Puerto Rico became a U.S. territory in 1898.

The result was an exotic blend of ingredients and flavors.

“;There's a lot of Spanish influence in Puerto Rican cooking, and some dishes take a long time to prepare compared to American dishes,”; Caraballo described. “;We use a lot of condiments in our food — it's not bland. Puerto Ricans from Puerto Rico don't like a lot of spicy (hot) food, but it seems local Puerto Ricans like spicy food, probably because of the Asian influence here. I'd say Puerto Rican food is more tasty than spicy.

“;But we do have some African dishes, such as mofongo, which is green plantains, fried, then mashed along with pork rinds and seasoned with garlic,”; she said. “;And most Puerto Ricans don't do a lot of steaming; we mostly boil. We do a lot of frying — it's a lot like American food that way.”;

Julie Robley, co-author of the cookbook “;Recipes from the Heart of Hawaii's Puerto Ricans,”; said, “;Our food can range from relatively simple dishes (salads, roasts, rice) to the 'exotic' ... empanadillas (pork-filled turnovers), morcillas (blood sausages), etc.”;

With such a wide variety to choose from on the Puerto Rican menu, it might be time to step outside your comfort zone of pasteles and gandule rice and try something different instead.