I recently had the opportunity to escape to San Juan on business. We left Chicago on a cold, snowy February morning and landed a mere four hours later in a sunny tropical Caribbean climate – the juxtaposition of which became one of weather, culture and food.
Originally settled between 3000 – 2000 BC by the Taíno people, Puerto Rico became part of the Spanish Empire after the discovery of the “New World” by Columbus in 1492. The country was colonized by Spain and remained under Spanish rule for the next 400 years.
In the early 19th century, the Puerto Rican culture was further diversified upon the arrival of people from non-Hispanic countries such as Africa, Ireland, France and Germany. At the conclusion of the Spanish-American War, the United States took over colonial control of Puerto Rico in 1898. The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico remains an unincorporated territory of the U.S. today. The evolution of Puerto Rico set the stage for a rich and interesting blend of cultures and cuisines.
Locals refer to Island cuisine as, “cocina criolla” (Creole cooking), which is a unique blend of old and new Island influences. Tropical roots and tubers such as, yautía (taro), and Yuca (cassava), hot peppers and fruits came from Taíno influences. Cilantro, capers, olives, beef, pork and cheese were brought in from Spanish and European influences and coffee, yams, sweet bananas, plantains and Guinea hen are attributed to African influence.
The U.S. contribution to Puerto Rican cuisine rests in cooking. Olive oil from Spain was used for cooking and frying, but as it was very expensive to import, locally produced lard was commonly used instead. When U.S. influence introduced corn oil, it changed the way Puerto Rican cooks fried food.
Much of Puerto Rico’s contemporary cuisine is fried today. Some of the Island’s most popular dishes are:
Mofongo: (the most popular dish): Fried mashed plantains mixed with garlic and olive oil filled with vegetables, shrimp, steak, pork, seafood or any combination thereof.
Bacalaítos: (a traditional snack): Deep-fried codfish fritters garnished with cilantro, garlic (mojito) and onions.
Tostones: Double-fried smashed green plantain slices served like French Fries or Potato Chips.
Alcapurria: A doughy mixture of mashed yuca or green plantains filled with heavily seasoned meat and deep fried.
Two Chefs & Their Cuisines
I had the opportunity to experience the best of old and new world Puerto Rican cuisines by spending time with two of the Island’s standout chefs at their restaurants.
One of Puerto Rico’s trendiest restaurants, Marmalade, by Owner/Executive Chef Peter Schintler, is located in Old San Juan. Passionate about vegetarian gastronomy, Chef Schintler emphasizes sophisticated vegetarian and vegan dishes derived from Taíno influences. Carpaccio-style candy stripe beets with shaved fennel and moro blood orange vinaigrette is just one example.
The use of local farm to table ingredients coupled with sustainably raised all natural proteins are standard fare at Marmalade. Dishes such as Morrocan-French Style braised Lamb Tagíne and Jardiniére Style Beef Tenderloin are prepared with all natural, sustainably raised lamb and grass fed beef. The combination is a delightful blend of Puerto Rican aromas and complex flavors.
Chef Schintler is an Iowa native who first came to Puerto Rico as a consultant. A protégé of Master Chef Peter Timmins, Schinlter has worked at some of the most celebrated restaurants in the world such as Le Cirque in New York, Le Manior Aux Quat Saisons in England, and La Contea in Italy.
Outside of old San Juan near Santurce’s Plaza del Mercado, a Puerto Rican farmer’s market is where one of the Island’s trendiest chefs, Jose Enrique, has his eponymous restaurant. It is an unpretentious casual restaurant known for serving culinary delights with masterful creativity.
A personalized menu is created and prepared from scratch daily at Jose Enrique. Natural and organic products are incorporated into the menu with a focus on fresh Puerto Rican produce; climate derived and fresh ingredients direct the day’s menu choices. The menu includes main courses such as, Red Snapper, All Natural Skirt Steak, Rib Eye, Short Ribs and Berkshire Pork and Minutas, the Puerto Rican version of fast foods: Alcapurria stuff crab, Deep Fried Swordfish and Baby Snappers.
Born in Santurce, Puerto Rico, Chef Enrique graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in New York in 1998 and went on to work in restaurants in New York, Florida and Louisiana. He was chosen as a semi-finalist for the 2013 James Beard Foundation award in the category of “Best Chef South”. This was the first time in history a Puerto Rican chef had participated in this award.
Puerto Rico offers a wonderful variety of cuisine, rich with tradition, historical influence and modern gastronomy. Culinary delights can be enjoyed anywhere on the island, from roadside food trucks to elegant restaurants and everything in between. (See the Flipagram here.)
It was a treat to get away from the Midwest winter for a couple of days. People on the Island were laid back – they enjoyed taking in all that life had to offer. Commenting on the relaxed atmosphere one day, someone described the difference between the U.S. and Puerto Rico to us like this: we live to work and you work to live. I couldn’t help but think, ‘exactamundo!’