Mofongo and Puerto Rico as a Culinary Revelation


Ben Vaughn (The Daily Meal) writes that, in his search for the best mofongo, he discovered Puerto Rico as a culinary revelation, for food both traditional and contemporary. He explores restaurants in the wider San Juan area and Cayey—El Jibarito, Old San Juan; Zest Restaurant, San Juan Water Beach Hotel; Mi Casa by José Andrés, Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve; Chicharrón, Placita de Santurce, San Juan; Lechonera Los Pinos, Cayey; Budatai Condado, San Juan; and Budatai in the Condado district of San Juan—learning a great deal about the flavors and textures of the island’s cuisine:

[. . .] In Miami, you have obvious Cuban influences, but also Haitian cuisine, food from Trinidad & Tobago, and all throughout the Caribbean, including Puerto Rico.

During my years living in Miami, I’ve had the opportunity to try them all. Recently, I had the opportunity to travel to Puerto Rico and participate in their annual wine and food festival, Saborea Puerto Rico. The week would provide me the exploratory experience that I crave. Upon arrival, the festival group prepared a press conference which included various members of the media and a handful of invited personalities who would be participating during the weekend event. The panel included a handful of stateside people, like myself, as well as a handful of local notable chefs and restaurateurs.

Right from the start, the conversation moved into a 45-minute conversation about mofongo. Mofongo is a dish commonly found on the island made of fried then mashed plantains which can be mixed with any number of other ingredients from vegetables to various meats. It’s a versatile starchy dish with numerous variations, and dates back centuries to a far earlier time when people cooked and ate food from readily available ingredients that were simple and filling. So, a near hour-long conversation by chefs about this one dish was extremely interesting. To a casual spectator, it would be the equivalent to a group of English professors gathering around to discuss the merits of the letter “K”. Extended conversations between chefs don’t generally revolve around a single, commonly found dish. But you see, this conversation wasn’t really about mofongo. This conversation was about the struggle for a culinary identity in Puerto Rico.

This one dish is known in places off the island, like Spanish Harlem or Miami Beach, as Puerto Rican cuisine. As a southern chef, I know this struggle for identity very well. I see it often. Southern cuisine, to those people who live it, and know it in their hearts, is about fresh locally accessible ingredients, generationally passed down recipes, and special care and attention to the details, or food heritage. Southern cuisine in the general lexicon can at times be boiled down to fried chicken, salted ham, or flat green beans. It was exciting to see these chefs engaging in a passionate discourse about what defines them as chefs, and what defines their culinary heritage. They are young, energetic and unapologetic about what they believe Puerto Rican cuisine to be. [. . .]

So with nearly a week to spend in Puerto Rico, I was going to make it my mission to explore every outlet possible and truly embrace the food scene from every different angle. Saborea translates to “a taste of” in English. This adventure, for me, would be my own saborea in Puerto Rico.

[. . .] What started as a fun trip to a place I’ve never been turned into a near week-long love affair with Puerto Rican cuisine. The area is growing and defining its modern identity. Those changes are seen in the warm and inviting attitudes of the people, all the way down to the interesting crossroads of cuisine where they currently sit. How does tradition mix with progress? Ultimately, that’s the next generation of Puerto Rican chefs challenge to accomplish. But if my experience with their love of fresh ingredients, and their passion for their country, food, and culture is any indicator, the people of Puerto Rico are in for a tasty ride. One that I’m definitely going to be checking in on regularly. And if you are a lover of food and adventure, Puerto Rico is just a puddle jump away!

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