Even native Spanish speakers might have a little trouble deciphering a Puerto Rican menu. Words like mofongo and tembleque won’t appear on a menu at many Latin restaurants. But these are two staple (and delicious) dishes in Puerto Rico, and two examples of a rich and flavorful cuisine that blends indigenous, African, Spanish and even American (ask any Puerto Rican about Spam and corned beef; there’s a history there) culinary influences.
Dining out is one of the true pleasures of a visit to the island, thanks to the variety, quality and creativity of the food you’ll find here. But if you want to stick to pure comida criolla, here are 10 must-try foods of Puerto Rico:
Puerto Rico’s quintessential dish, mofongo is a mash made of fried green plantains, usually with pork cracklings mixed in. Mofongo can be served on its own as a filling side dish or as an entrée, with a choice of filling. Mofongo relleno, or stuffed mofongo, can be made with steak, shrimp, seafood, chicken, vegetables or a mix of ingredients. If you only try one local dish in Puerto Rico, make it this one. The only thing mofongo doesn’t have going for it is that it’s not the prettiest plate of food… but that won’t matter once you taste how delicious it is.
Asopao is often described as a Puerto Rican take on gumbo. This aromatic chicken and rice soup is made with garlic, onion, sofrito (a tomato-based sauce that serves as a base for many Puerto Rican dishes), ham, and a variety of seasonings. You’ll find many customized asopao recipes, with olives, capers, avocado and a variety of other ingredients. We haven’t met a version we didn’t like!
Rice with pigeon peas (gandules) is a simple but extremely popular dish that makes for a tasty accompaniment to an entrée. The aforementioned sofrito is key to this dish and give it that delicious flavor and seasoning. And when you order arroz con gandules, try to get the pegao… the crunchy, slightly burnt rice that sticks to the pot.
Roast suckling pig is more than food in Puerto Rico; it’s tradition. It’s a Sunday family gathering, a guest of honor at Christmas and a dish so revered it has a whole road dedicated to it. Deliciously seasoned and spit-roasted until tender, this is a must-try dish for carnivores.
Did you know that one of the most popular cocktails in the world was born in Puerto Rico? Exactly where in Puerto Rico is a matter of light-hearted debate. A plaque on the wall of Barrachina Restaurant proclaims that the famous libation was conceived here in 1963. However, a bartender at the Caribe Hilton also claims to have invented the drink. Either way, it’s Puerto Rico’s national drink and can be found all over the island.
A simple dish, chillo frito is fried red snapper. We recommend you order the whole fish fried, which keeps the meat tender and the crunchy skin perfectly seasoned. The dish pairs perfectly with tostones, which are thickly sliced fried green plantains.
The kids will love this one. Arañitas are composed of shredded green plantain strips clustered together and fried. Arañitas means “little spiders,” and that’s what these look like when they come out, crispy and ready to be crunched and munched on. Plantains are a ubiquitous ingredient in Puerto Rican cuisine, and this is one of its more fun executions.
Those of you who studied Spanish at school probably learned that “crab” translates to cangrejo. In Puerto Rico, it’s juey. Crabmeat is used in a variety of ways on the island, but our favorite is salmorejo, a rich stew made with crab, tomato, garlic, onion and peppers. One of the best places to enjoy this treat is at a roadside kiosk.
If you like the combination of sweet and savory flavors, you’re going to love piononos. These are fried sweet plantains (known as maduros because they’re ripe, or mature, when cooked) stuffed with ground beef that’s seasoned with sofrito. It’s a filling and tasty appetizer.
Puerto Rican cuisine isn’t particularly heavy on desserts, which is somewhat surprising considering all the tropical fruit (and rum!) available. But a signature sweet dish on the island is tembleque, a coconut custard dusted with cinnamon that makes for a welcoming and light conclusion to a heavy meal.
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