reliving spring break culinary experiences
While for most, traveling revolves around the discovery of new sights and cultural experiences, for me, traveling is about the food. Instead of exploring through tours of cities, nature, or ruins, I learn about places and people through dishes. Whether driving thirty minutes to the south shores of Rhode Island, flying to another state, or journeying to a foreign country, food is often a part of celebrations and values and is a great window to understanding the past and present of different places.
As we re-enter the world of routines and realities in the second half of the semester, many are left with spring break memories of vacations, friends, and, of course, food. Some may have returned home for the familiar joy of parents’ cooking, while others may have traveled to new states and discovered local specialties, and some may have even journeyed across seas and encountered new culinary experiences.
This break, I checked another adventure off my travel and food bucket list: I, for the first time, enjoyed Caribbean lifestyle and cuisine during my trip to Puerto Rico. Going in, I didn’t know much about Puerto Rican cuisine or, really, much about the place. Swept up in the chaos of midterms, I didn’t have much time to research the country and its culture. I figure doing some investigation after the fact is better than none at all, and though I am by no means an expert after five days and a few Google searches, it’s enlightening to understand the history of what I was chowing down on.
The cuisine of the Caribbean island is a blend of Taíno, Spanish, African, and American influences, the Taíno Amerindians being the aboriginal population that dominated the island before Columbus’ arrival. Many of the island’s traditional foods include ingredients like tropical fruits, plantains, coriander, seafood, and yampee (white yam). From the 16th through the 19th centuries, Puerto Rico was under the rule of the Spanish, whose widespread impact influenced Puerto Rican language, culture, and food. The Spanish introduced beef, pork, rice, wheat, olive oil, and sugar cane to the island. After the Spanish-American War, when Puerto Rico was ceded to the United States, some American influence crept into the island’s culture, resulting in today’s Spanish-American mix.
The locals call traditional Puerto Rican cuisine “cocina criolla,” and during my time there, I had the pleasure of sampling a few of the specialties. The most-talked about dish was mofongo, an Afro-Puerto Rican dish that was described by a friend traveling with me as a “gelatinous mound of starch.” In reality, it is a deliciously flavorful dish of mashed fried plantains meant to absorb the sauces and condiments of the dishes with which it is served. The fried plantains are mashed with salt, water, and chicharrón (fried pork belly or rinds); formed into a ball; and dressed with olive oil or the broth of the accompanying dish. Sometimes the plantains are mashed with other starchy roots like cassava. Depending on the place, meat can be stuffed inside the mofongo or served on top. While popular with locals, it was also a dish tourists were highly encouraged to try.
I experienced mofongo as a side dish to a well-seasoned piece of barbeque chicken, but other friends tried the plantain dish filled with meats like shrimp, pork, or chicken. Though we had heard a lot about it, by the second-to-last night of our trip, my friends and I hadn’t yet tried the dish. We were on an island off the coast of mainland Puerto Rico, and from the small selection of restaurants and eateries, we found Jiribillas BBQ. We got takeout containers that were filled with salty and tender roasted chicken and mounds of mofongo doused in a garlicky olive oil. It was definitely a mild and starchy dish, but when paired with the dressing and heavily salted and spiced chicken, the flavors balanced each other.
Tacos and seafood dishes made up many of our other culinary experiences, and plantains were a recurring side dish to most meals. A few of the other dishes we encountered included empanadillas, meat-filled pastries that have roots in many cultures; ceviche, raw fish cured in citrus juice; and churros, strips of fried dough rolled in cinnamon sugar and served with chocolate dipping sauce. Many of the common flavorings in Puerto Rican cuisine were coriander, garlic, onion, lime, and oregano. I particularly enjoyed tasting familiar flavors in Puerto Rican dishes, like tropical fruits such as guava, mango, and even breadfruit, all of which were commonly used in the Hawaiian cuisine I grew up with.
Of course, no spring break trip is complete without drinks, especially given that Puerto Rico is the world’s leading producer of rum. Distilled from sugarcane, rum is a sweet alcohol used in drinks like the piña colada or mojito, or served alone, with fruit juices, or even with sangria. Depending on the distillation process, the alcohol ranges from white to amber to gold in color. White rum is most commonly used in drinks like piña coladas, which I learned were created in Puerto Rico around the 19th century. The coconut milk, pineapple juice, and white rum frappe-style drink are hard to miss on the island. Mojitos, though they originated in Cuba, were heavily featured on menus and in the happy hands of tourists around Puerto Rico. Made by muddling mint, sugar, and lime juice, adding white rum, soda water, and ice, and mixing well, we found mojitos at dive bars and Bacardí factory tours. Even the drinks have a history behind them—of sugarcane agriculture, innovation, and social life.
I’ve constantly been advised by seasoned travelers that I should spend as much time as possible in the places I visit. Every time I return from a short trip, I recognize how true that advice is. Though the beach was relaxing, old town was interesting, and culinary adventuring enlightening, I felt as if I didn’t have enough time to fully enjoy all that Puerto Rico had to offer. I missed opportunities to try traditional flan, asopao gumbo, and fresh grilled fish. But who knows, maybe I’ll make it back one day for mo(re)fongo.