When you think about Puerto Rican food, what comes to mind? Rice and beans? Roast pork? Rum? There's a lot more that you're missing. With a range of influences that include indigenous Taino Indian, Spanish, and African, the island's cuisine gets its distinctive flavors from its seasonings, which can either be homemade or store-bought (think Goya). These include adobo powder, achiote (also called annatto, it's the stuff in Sazón seasoning that gives rice a bright orange hue), and either sofrito or recaito (tomato- and cilantro-based purées, respectively). Check out these five iconic dishes for a true taste of the island:
1. Rice With Pigeon Peas (Arroz con Gandules)
Often served around holidays alongside pernil (slow-roasted pork shoulder), arroz con gandules is a classic one-pot dish. It gets much of its flavor from sofrito, a base flavoring sauce of tomato, onion, bell pepper, garlic, and a mix of herbs and spices. A few Spanish olives, as well as diced ham or bacon, are popular add-ins. And even though pigeon peas are technically legumes, don't even think of mistaking this dish for rice and beans.
2. Stewed Red Beans (Habichuelas Guisadas)
Speaking of beans, this traditional dish, often made with kidney or pinto varieties, is almost always served alongside white or yellow rice. The key to nailing it is patience: Allow the beans to cook long enough that they soften and soak up the seasonings, which include sofrito, tomato sauce, and Sazón. Some cooks add ham and a starchy vegetable, such as potato, or a squash, like pumpkin.
3. Fried Plantains (Tostones)
Tostones are made from green (unripened) plantains that have been sliced, flattened, and double-fried. You can also go a step further and use them to make mofongo, mashing them into a ball and seasoning with garlic and either chicharrón (pork cracklings) or bacon. A huge debate rages over which is better: savory tostones or sweeter maduros, which are fried only once and made from overripe (brown) plantains. If you've got time on your hands and can find fruit in varying stages of ripeness, make them both and have a taste test (and a very full stomach).
4. Salt-Cod Fritters (Bacalaitos)
The perfect partner for an icy beer, bacalaitos are one of Puerto Rico's most popular fried street snacks. If you plan to make these at home, note that the fish must be soaked for several hours in advance. Salt cod not your thing? Sorullitos de maiz (deep-fried corn fritters similar to hush puppies) or alcapurrias (yuca fritters often stuffed with ground beef or seafood) are tasty fritter alternatives.
5. Coconut Pudding (Tembleque)
Tembleque is a deliciously creamy concoction made from coconut milk and coconut cream and garnished with cinnamon. As for its consistency, its name, which means "trembling" or "wiggly" in Spanish, says it all.
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