Pasteles Not Tasteless: The Flavor of Afro-Puerto Rico

By Demsey, Mary A. | American Visions, October-November 1997 | Go to article overview

Pasteles Not Tasteless: The Flavor of Afro-Puerto Rico


Demsey, Mary A., American Visions


Puerto Rico has become a culinary intersection for rich food traditions, starting with the Taino Indians, whose root vegetables and spices still add aromatic touches to island cuisine much as they did before the Spanish conquest, and culminating most recently with a growing Asian population that has broadened the base of Chinese, Thai and Japanese food available on this Caribbean island. But as hybrid cuisine blossoms, there is an element of traditional Puerto Rican food that remains unwavering: the African influence.

Christopher Columbus sailed to Puerto Rico in 1493, on his second voyage to the New World, and claimed the island for Spain. The Spanish colonizers who followed faced an indigenous population both unable and unwilling to do the plantation work demanded by the Europeans. The Tainos were killed and, beginning in the early 1600s, replaced with African laborers brought in by slave traders.

Although some island farms were family-run operations that did not use slaves, the largest plantations used forced labor. With time, the Africans increasingly were moved into coastal cities, especially San Juan and Ponce, where some of their strongest influences developed. Even today, in the northern coastal city of Loiza, the raucous annual Carnival celebration is marked by food and rhythms that bear the imprint of another continent. By the early 1800s, the island's population of 400,000 included some 45,000 slaves. Their legacy has been indelibly printed on the fabric of the island's music, dance, cuisine and customs.

Africans, brought to Puerto Rico to work on sugar and coffee plantations, made permanent contributions of bananas, plantains, pigeon peas, okra and yams to the island's flavor-intense menu. Breadfruit was shipped to the island from Tahiti in the 1700s to feed the enslaved Africans and became another fast addition to the food supply. Africans are also credited with devising many of the now-popular dishes prepared with coconut.

"The African slave trade brought important foods and techniques to the island cuisine," says culinary historian Yvonne Ortiz, author of A Taste of Puerto Rico. Those techniques, she maintains, included new cooking methods, such as frying. The Tainos toasted or pan-broiled their food, either placing it on a flat griddle directly on the fire or stewing it in a pot perched upon a three-stone hearth.

But Nydia Rios de Colon, a contributor to the Smithsonian Folklife Cookbook who offers culinary seminars through the Puerto Rican Cultural Institute, disputes that claim. She says that fried foods were a custom brought by the Europeans.

What Rios de Colon does not dispute is the appeal of Puerto Rican cuisine. "The most diverse food in the Caribbean comes from the Dominican Republic," she says, "but Puerto Rico is second in variety--and perhaps is the most sophisticated. This island is small, and it has had the influence of many different cultures. The result is an interesting blend of foods."

Rice and beans, chicken, pork, and, of course, fish, are mainstays of the island diet, which abounds with tropical delights, such as avocados, cashews, passion fruit, pineapples, guavas, mangoes and papayas. And although fast foods are proliferating and international cuisine has saturated the island, local residents hold tight to many of their traditional dishes.

Gourmets and gourmands do not have to look far to find the African touches in the melange of flavors that make up typical Puerto Rican cuisine. Pasteles, small bundles of meat stuffed into a dough made of grated plantain (sometimes combined with pumpkin and potatoes) and wrapped in plantain leaves, were devised by African women on the island and based upon food products that originated in Africa.

The salmorejo, a local land crab creation, resembles Southern cooking in the United States with its spicing. The mofongo, one of the island's best-known dishes, is a savory ball of fried mashed plantain stuffed with pork crackling, crab, lobster, shrimp or a combination of all of them. …

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