The Best of Puerto Rico
Why go to Puerto Rico: Well, because it’s the best secret hiding in plain sight in the Caribbean! …and due to massive migration to the US over the years, it is said there are more Puerto Ricans living in New York than in San Juan. Growing up in New York City, I long ago got a big taste of Puerto Rico’s culture and cuisine but not the full flavor of the island’s diversity. I wanted to visit the “real” Puerto Rico – and believe me, this Caribbean island is no West Side Story. Steeped in an amalgam of complex influences, the cuisine clearly reflects the island’s history: from original Taino native tribes to its Spanish occupation and subsequent influx of African slaves, to its current status as a Commonwealth of the United States. Nothing reveals the history of Puerto Rico more than the impact it has had on the cuisine. Spanish, African, and native Taino influences can be tasted in nearly every traditional Puerto Rican dish. Sound intriguing? I thought so.
Best Food Eaten on the Go: African slaves first brought the method of deep frying food to the island of Puerto Rico, and it remains a huge part of the Puerto Rican cuisine. Today deep fried food is commonly sold by the side of the road, at the beach, and in little kiosks. In fact, most meals on the island begin with a hot fried appetizer. I drove all around the island with my pal Shorty, especially along Puerto Rico’s northern coast to sample some of the food that can be found when you are on the go. Our last stop was in Pinones where dozens of battered shacks line the road and serve up deep fried delights that have been cooked in giant kettles on wood stoves. We saw and ate a lot of treats, including:
• Bacalaito – salt cod fritter
• Octopus cone – paper cone containing fresh octopus salad
• Mofongo – mashed fried green plantains (African)
• Pionono – sweet plantain stuffed with seasoned ground beef (deep fried)
• Mavi – a drink made from the Columbrina tree and sugar
• Alcapurria – fried tube shaped snack made of a mixture of plantains, yautia, and stuffed with meat
• Pasteles – a tamale-like loaf made with plantain and root vegetable paste, stuffed and wrapped in banana leaves
• Tostones – twice fried smashed plantains
• Chicharron -fried pig skin
But the highlights of the day came in the tiny town of Arecibo where we went to sample a traditional fish native to the area called Ceti. No bigger than an inch, the Ceti fish is transparent in color and only fished at night when the moon is waning. The mashed root vegetable tamales the ceti were cooked in were insanely good, and lucky for us we got there early. After stuffing ourselves silly we stopped in the town of Lares, the home of an ice cream Parlor with more than a thousand flavors, including some designed only for the more adventurous palate. Don’t skip it on your next visit.
• Garlic ice cream
• Rice and Beans with Chicken ice cream
• Avocado ice cream
• Corn ice cream
• Sesame Seed ice cream
Best Restaurant: Restaurant owner, author and rock solid awesome dude, Chef Wilo Benet, is known for raising the bar on modern culinary trends in Puerto Rican cooking. His flagship restaurant Pikayo has won more culinary awards than any other in Puerto Rico, thanks to the emphasis of traditional Spanish, African, and Taino elements used in his unique recipes. Chef Wilo uses indigenous ingredients and traditions to keep the true flavor of authentic Puerto Rican cuisine alive, while giving it a modern twist. I cooked with Wilo at Pikayo in San Juan, where the team cooked up some of Wilo’s specialties using all local ingredients. Alcapurrias, Jueyes and a killer pig foot stew were some of the highlights. Later, Wilo took me out to the yacht of a friend for a get together on the water. It’s the best place to see the sunset over Old San Juan. But don’t go to San Juan without booking a meal or two at Pikayo, it’s the best.
Best Place to Get Lost: Puerto Ricans have a strong sense of family, and big mealtime gatherings are an important part of the culture. Cooking together is an essential bonding activity, and a wide variety of traditional dishes are always served. I went off the beaten path to get a glimpse into the part of Puerto Rico that many tourists never see. Dinner with a family high up in the Toro Negro National Forest. I took an amazing adventure through the jungle-like vegetation, dove into a hole in the rocks under a waterfall (on air) and we almost died in a rainstorm when our van got swept off the road and we had to bail out of the car and push it back on the mountain top switchback before the car slid away down the peak. So when I tell you I was really grateful for the family meal that day, I wasn’t kidding. I also got to eat some great little treats, all fresher than fresh.
• Gandinga – a stew of pig liver, kidneys and heart
• Morcilla – sausage made with blood and rice and the popular culantro herb, similar to cilantro
• Sancocho soup – stew made with pork, pumpkin, plantain, etc
• Guinea Fowl stew