The cuisine of Puerto Rico has its roots in the cuisines of Spain, and the Amerindian Taínos. The cuisine is also influenced by the cuisines of the rest of the United States and other countries like Ethiopia and Mexico.
The cuisines of Spain, Taino and Arawaks Amerindians, Mexico, and parts of the African continent like Ethiopia, all have had an impact on how food is prepared in Puerto Rico. Some dishes also show traces of the island’s original inhabitants, the Taino Indians. Although Puerto Rican cooking is somewhat similar to both Spanish and Mexican cuisine, it is a unique tasty blend of influences, using indigenous seasonings and ingredients. Locals call their cuisine cocina criolla.
Taino Amerindian influences – From the diet of the Taíno (culturally related with the Mayas of México and Guatemala / Mesoamérica), and Arawak people come many tropical roots and tubers like yautía (taro) and especially Yuca (cassava), from which thin cracker-like casabe bread is made. Ajicito or cachucha pepper, a slightly hot habanero pepper, oregano brujo, recao/culantro (spiny leaf), achiote (annatto), peppers, ají caballero (the hottest pepper native to Puerto Rico), peanuts, guavas, pineapples, jicacos (cocoplum), quenepas (mamincillo), lerenes (Guinea arrowroot), calabazas (tropical pumpkins), and guanabanas (soursops) are all Taíno foods. The Taínos also grew varieties of beans and some maíz (corn/maize), but maize was not as dominant in their cooking as it was for the peoples living on the mainland of Mesoamerica. This is due to the frequent hurricanes that Puerto Rico experiences, which destroy crops of maize, leaving more safeguarded plants like conucos (hills of yuca grown together).
Spanish / European influence – Spanish / European influence is also seen in Puerto Rican cuisine. Wheat, garbanzos, olives, olive oil, black pepper, onions, garlic, cilantrillo (or cilantro), oregano, basil, sugarcane, orange, grapefruit, eggplant, ham, lard, chicken, beef, pork, and cheese all came to Boriken (Puerto Rico’s Amerindian name) from Spain. The tradition of cooking complex stews and rice dishes in pots such as rice and beans are also thought to be originally European (much like Italians, Spaniards, and the British).
United States influence – The last century as a territory of the United States has also impacted Puerto Rican cooking traditions and favorite foods. The most significant has to do with how people fry food. The early Spaniards brought olive oil for cooking and frying, but importing it from Spain made it very expensive, and cooks on the Island shifted over to lard which could be produced locally. For 50-60 years, corn oil produced in the United States took the place of lard for making cuchifritos and alcapurrias.
Puerto Rican Dishes – Puerto Rican dishes are well seasoned with combinations of flavorful spices. The base of many Puerto Rican main dishes involves sofrito, similar to the mirepoix of French cooking, or the trinity of Creole cooking. A proper sofrito is a sauté of chopped garlic, cilantro, oregano, onions, recao/culantro (not cilantro but a similarly flavored green leaf), cachucha peppers, tomatoes, and small chunks of fatback bacon.
Holiday dishes – Stuffed Turkey – From November to January Puerto Ricans enjoy holiday parties and large family dinners almost daily, starting with the Thanksgiving turkey which is stuffed with a ground beef and/or pork mixture containing almonds, raisins, olives, hard boiled eggs, tomatoes, and garlic. Instead of the thin slices seen in the North, a baked turkey in Puerto Rico is often cut into large blocks or chunks to be served on a plate. Rice is a mandatory course in dishes such as Arroz con Gandules (rice with pigeon peas), Arroz con Tocino (rice with bacon), Arroz Mampostea’o, and the sweet dessert Arroz con Dulce (rice pudding).
Roasted Pork – Pork is central to Puerto Rican holiday cooking, especially the lechon (spit-roasted piglet). Holiday feasts might include several pork dishes, such as pernil (a baked fresh ham shoulder seasoned in garlic and oregano), morcilla (a black blood sausage), tripa (tripe), jamon con pina (ham and pineapple), gandinga (stewed pork innards) and chuletas ahumadas (smoked cutlets).
Sweets – Sweets are common in Puerto Rican cuisine. During the holidays, the most popular are desserts such as Arroz con Dulce (sweet rice pudding), Budín de Pan (bread pudding) – Capirotada in Mexico, Bienmesabe (little yellow cakes soaked in coconut cream), Brazo Gitano – Puerto Rican style sponge cake with cream and / or fruit filling), Bunuelos de viento – Puerto Rican wind puffs soaked in a vanilla, lemon and sugar syrup), Barriguitas de Vieja (deep-fried sweet pumpkin fritters), Natilla – Atole in Mexico (corn starch cream), Tembleque (coconut pudding), Flan (egg custard), Bizcocho de Ron (rum cake), Mantecaditos (Puerto Rican shortbread cookies), Polvorones (a crunchy cookie with a dusty sweet cinnamon exterior), Turrón de Ajónjolí (a toasted sesame seed bar bound together by caramelized brown sugar), Mampostiales (a very thick, gooey candy bar of caramelized brown sugar and coconut chips, challenging to chew and with a strong, almost molasses-like flavor), Dulce de Leche (milk and key lime peelings’ caramel pudding), Pastelillos de Guayaba (guava pastries), Besitos de Coco (coconut kisses), Tarta de Guayaba (guava tarts), and Tortitas de Calabaza (pumpkin tarts).