To Puerto Ricans, the plantain is more than a food

[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.] Israel Meléndez Ayala for Whetstone Magazine:

Abuela cooked tostones every time I went to my grandparents’ house in the campito, a colloquial word for “rural,” in Vega Baja, Puerto Rico. They were one of my favorite snacks: golden, crunchy, with that subtly sweet plantain flavor and a touch of salt that abuela sprinkled on them after pulling them from the hot oil, rubbing the crystals off between her fingers. I was so happy with just my tostones and sometimes crispy pegao rice to go with them. My cousins would question why I didn’t add habichuelas, but to me, I had it all with just tostones and rice.

Even today, when I cook tostones for my wife, I make them as my mother taught me, which is how she learned from abuela—the same way she learned from generation to generation, and they remind me of her every time I cook them. They are a simple dish and easy to cook, but they are special to me because they are linked to my family and my roots. This is true for many across the Puerto Rican archipelago and in the diaspora.

Tostones and other plantain dishes have prevailed over centuries in many kitchens in the Caribbean and beyond. Puerto Ricans have mofongo; Dominicans have mangú. From the Latinx communities in New York to Cubans and Venezuelans in Miami, they will be cooking their customary dishes. Plantains are not only a fruit or a dish, they are a family custom, a marker of identity and a piece of one’s country that connects those who are missed. The plantain conjures ancestors through the preservation of their traditions; sharing them with others keeps them alive. But how did the plantain even arrive in Puerto Rico to become such a significant part of our culture and cuisine?

The plantain (Musa paradisiaca) is an herb from the Musa family.  The immense diversity of the family has prompted many efforts to describe its geographical origins. The family and its various species are of Indo-Malay origin, encompassing geographic regions ranging from northeast India through Burma, Cambodia, parts of southern China, and the islands of Sumatra, Java, Borneo, the Philippines and Taiwan. But there are some discrepancies as to which species moved first, whether the Musa paradisiaca (the one we use for tostones) or the Musa sapientum or banana (the one we call in Puerto Rico guineo and which we use for guineítos en escabeche).

Dr. Cruz Miguel Ortiz Cuadra, author of Eating Puerto Rico: A History of Food, Culture, and Identity, mentions another discrepancy regarding the prehistoric and historical chronology, the fruits’ trajectories and displacements toward regions of Southwest Asia, Europe and Africa but even which type of Musa arrived first in the Caribbean. 

What is certain is that a text from the beginning of the 16th century confirms the arrival of the plantain in the Caribbean, in 1516, as a species of the Musas. In his Historia General y Natural de las Indias (1535), the chronicler Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo records that it first arrived in Hispaniola, brought from the Canary Islands by the friar Tomás de Berlanga. It would have arrived in the Canary Islands in the 15th century, brought from Equatorial Guinea by Portuguese navigators. The agricultural production at the beginning of the colonization consisted of the indigenous fruits that were cultivated for generations before the arrival of the colonists; the main crops were yuca, corn and batata (sweet potato), mentioned by Berta Cabanillas in her study, Orígenes de los Hábitos Alimenticios del Pueblo de Puerto Rico. [. . .

By the end of the 16th century, wheat cultivation was a failure due to the hot weather, so the settlers adopted the Taíno bread known as casabe, made from yuca. On the other hand, rice was acclimatized from the beginning, as well as plantains, which were easy to harvest and spread in abundance, and so they became a food for the Taínos, ordered by the king in their diets: “The encomenderos will be obliged to have a sufficient supply of casabí bread…, meat [which the Taínos did not consume before]…, it will be given every day to those who work in the mines.”  

As time passed, forced labor and diseases brought by colonists eradicated the Taínos. Enslaved Africans were brought over to replace their labor and, in turn, brought their own food customs and fruits. They were planted and some are still consumed, like the ñame (yam). 

Still, the plantain continued to be part of the obligatory diet for the enslaved due to its easy production, cooking and feeding, as mentioned by Hanna Garth in Food and Identity in the Caribbean. But already in the 17th century, as the crow abandoned Puerto Rico for other colonies, there is evidence that the plantain was also part of the remaining colonists’ diets. Around 1644, Fray López de Haro mentioned in his chronicles, “…a fruit called ‘platanos,’ of which there is great abundance and difference in the fields, and it is the ordinary sustenance of the blacks and even of many poor whites, because the ripe ones serve them as bread and fruit (the bananas or ‘guineos’) and from the green ones (plantains) they roast sweet potatoes or carrots like there, the farmers cook them like chestnuts and make many stews of them,…it is a healthy meal…”

By the 18th and 19th centuries, Puerto Rico went from an abandoned colony to one of military interest for the defense of the Spanish colonies in the Americas.With that came greater free trade and laws such as the Royal Certificate of Grace (Real Cédula de Gracia) of 1815, which allowed the free entry of any Catholic European plus any people they enslaved; these colonists were exempt from taxes on the enslaved for 10years and income taxes for five years. Locals, without the capital or grace of the crown to buy land, were displaced as the population increased rapidly: In 1800, the population was approximately 155,426, and in 1898, it was almost 1 million, stretching the available food resources.

Throughout history, the plantain’s ease of growing, harvesting and cooking meant its simple reproduction in the houses or bohíos of the poor, and from there it also became a staple of the working class and the elite: roasted, boiled, fried and even black and nearly rotten. Unlike tubers, you don’t have to wait for it to ripen to eat it. No wonder it turned out to be an icon, despite its origins as a food of the enslaved.

For the jíbaros (Puerto Rican name for people who farm the land), the plantain meant something else: It was food, the centerpiece of dishes, a savior from famine because they didn’t possess the capital to buy meat or to have an animal; only the privileged ones consumed plantain for its abundance and flavor but not out of necessity, like the peasant. 

For this reason, according to the agronomist López Tuero in his book Plátano y Palma de Coco in (1892), the adjective “hartón” (fed full) was used for the plantain, because “fed up with a man or because it is the variety that produces the most fruit.” The same is true of the mata-hambre (hunger killer) compiled by the botanists Cook and Collins in 1903. Demonstrating the satisfying character of the plantain in the “jíbaro” diet, because they learned to plant and eat it through generations. [. . .]

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