Roots and routes of Puerto Rico

Posted in John's Current Blog on February 16, 2017

February 16, 2017. Savannah, Georgia. I just spent a long weekend in Puerto Rico, where I had never been. Though I lived in the Virgin Islands and have sailed and traveled throughout the Caribbean, I somehow had heretofore missed this US territory, which has the second oldest European-settled capital city in the Americas (Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic is older).  Founded in 1521, it is 44 years older than St Augustine, Florida, the oldest city in the US. Old San Juan is a beautiful colonial fortified town of brightly painted homes that open onto the narrow streets of blue-glazed cobblestones. We spent a day wandering around the charming historical district, where we had a remarkable meal at the venerable El Jibarito, a working class restaurant jam-packed with locals.  I couldn’t resist ordering the croquetas de bacalao, easily the best I’ve ever had. Of course cod is from the Northern Atlantic, but food traditions die hard, if at all. Salted cod was originally imported to the Caribbean to feed the enslaved, but in one of the ironic twists of the culinary history of the African diaspora, the food has been kept in high esteem throughout the Antilles. Recipes vary, but in Puerto Rico the fritters are likely to include garlic. With a crisp coating encasing a surprisingly creamy center, these Puerto Rican bacalaitos were better than the acrats I have had on Martinique and the codfish cakes on Barbados. Though nearly identical to those from the Virgin Islands, there was not one drop of oil in the bowl they were served in.

The abuelita-style camarones al ajillo were also superb. I have never been a fan of mofongo — a dish of fried green plantains mashed with aromatic vegetables and pressed into ramekins, the starchy bland mass then turned out onto diners’ plates to accompany all sorts of buttery dishes. But when I re-mashed the mofongo and covered it with the shrimp, it was sublime.

Throughout the Caribbean, meals are served with all sorts of starches — some, but not all, from root vegetables. Arrowroot is used to thicken sauces; calabaza (a type of squash usually referred to as pumpkin) goes into breads, curries, soups, and side dishes; cassava (Manihot utilissima, also known as manioc or yuca) is boiled and dressed like potatoes, dried and ground as meal for breads and cakes, and is the source of both tapioca and cassareep, a juice squeezed from the roots and an essential ingredient in Pepperpot; both sweet potatoes and true yams are revered; jackfruit and breadfruit are common; and taro (which we call “elephant ears”) is of several varieties — and is known as eddoe, dasheen, coco, baddo, malanga or tania, depending on the island; the leaves of several varieties  are called callaloo (various spelllings) and are used in an eponymous stew (a recipe appeared on the blog in November 2007). The calabaza we had on the “Pork Highway” was undoubtedly the most delicious of all the many starches we tasted on Puerto Rico. (The white food in the photo at right, in the upper left of the image.) It was boiled till tender, then dressed with sautéed onions and peppers. And I’ve not yet mentioned the various renderings of rice and beans.

La Ruta de Lechon is a bit of a misnomer, since many of the pigs are not suckling. (I wrote about the much disputed size of suckling pigs, as well as blood pudding, below, in this blog last year.) The highway joins the Ruta Panoramica, which is a scenic two-lane blacktop that twists and turns through the mountainous southern portion of Puerto Rico, traversing the entire island. It’s beautiful, but it took us an hour to go a couple of miles, so we turned back to the Pork Highway to pig out. Much has been written about this back road lined with all sorts of purveyors of pork, from tiny roadside shacks to cavernous dance halls. The spit-roasted hogs have been featured on television shows, in travel magazines, and in Garden & Gun. You can look for a lechonera with lingering smoke, but more than likely you will be there long after the slow cooking is done. You’re probably better off just finding a place with lots of cars. The food will be good and the  pork will be among the best you’ve ever had, even if it was cooked over gas:  the larger pigs are like yard hens, allowed to root around in the tropical forest, brought in at night, fattened up on root vegetables before slaughter, bathed in a citrusy bath of lime or sour orange juice bolstered with garlic and oregano, and slowly cooked until the flesh is fork-tender and the skin totally crisp. Be sure to get some arroz con gandules (rice and beans — in this case, pigeon peas), deeply colored with achiote (also known as annatto). And, while you’re at it, do try the morcilla, delicate Puerto Rican blood pudding (left).  I wrote about this type of charcuterie on the blog ten years ago, with a traditional lowcountry recipe.

The island is blessed with beautiful bays and beaches, and we had all manner of fresh seafood as well: spiny lobster, grilled tiny octopi, paella de marisco, fried just-caught snapper whose eyes were still bright yellow, several different escabeches, and conch. One night we ventured over to the jubilant Placita de Santurce, the city square that encircles the old market,  filled with revelers drinking, dancing, and dining in the restaurants that line the streets. We ate in one of the traditional seafood restaurants, Tasca El Pescador, where we struggled to be understood, but where the food was flawless. Santurce and Condado are popular neighborhoods filled with modern eateries as well, with full bars and wine cellars and dishes that rival the hippest places stateside. We ate in a few, but I nearly always prefer to eat the way the locals do.

We also ventured into the El Yunque rainforest and hiked to a waterfall, but, being the weekend, the paths were packed with people. I would suggest going during the week.

Read More