Mofongo and the Fight for Food in Puerto Rico
Two of my favorite things in this world are food and travel. If you ever run into me doing both of these things in a truly exploratory experience, you'll have found me, as they say, "in my element."
Growing up in south Florida, I worked my way through various kitchens at a very early age and this is where I began my lifelong relationship with food. South Florida is a melting pot of so many different culinary cultures. As a main arrival point for basically anyone traveling from south of the United States, the Miami area is rife with food history. When you have a vibrant blend of people and culture in an individual area you end up with the unique tapestry of the individual's personal food favorites all woven together but still existing independently. 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. How do you embrace the past but also steward in the future? Does the food define a people or region, or do the people who cook the food truly hold that defining power? All intriguing questions, and there are no wrong answers.
It occurred to me while I was taking in the conversation, gleefully spectating mostly, instead of forcing the conversation in my direction, that these passionate chefs, some of the most notable and brightest food minds on the island, were going to be showing off their talents all week, and I was going to be in for a real treat. 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.
El Jibarito, Old San Juan. My first stop on this adventure was to a locals' restaurant in Old San Juan. While parts of the town square area of Old San Juan can have a more corporate feel, El Jibarito is definitely on the authentic local side of the spectrum. Immediately upon walking inside the establishment, you see a big Puerto Rican flag hanging off the second floor balcony. The flag is seen all over the island and serves as a visual reminder of the iconic Puerto Rican pride that exists in all Puerto Ricans. As a comparison, the service and decor are similar to any "greasy spoon" diner. And similarly, the quality of food there can be quite good. Nothing too exploratory, just tasty people food. That's what El Jibarito offers, tasty food and the hustle and bustle of a diner experience at lunchtime. Many people rave about their blend of mofongo. I wasn't impressed. Instead, I would recommend trying their tostones (fried plantains) and the pastales, which are similar to tamales with pork. What I loved most about El Jibarito wasn't the food, which was very good. But rather, I loved the familiarity of the restaurant. The universal language of food and restaurants.
For the past year I have been writing a book about some of the best "mom and pop" restaurants in the southeast. It's called Southern Routes and it's about my trip across 10 states to find my favorite foods, but mostly it's about the stories behind the food. The heritage of southern cuisine. El Jibarito was exactly like so many restaurants of this type. Swap out the menu, which was written in Spanish, and change that Puerto Rican flag to an SEC team banner, and I could have been just as easily in Alabama or Georgia. The same care and attention of a family-owned restaurant could be found at El Jibarito. They open at the break of dawn, close when the last check has been paid, cook all the food, and they've been doing it like that for years.
Zest Restaurant, San Juan Water Beach Hotel. On Friday night, I had the pleasure of dinner cooked and served by Puerto Rican chef Raul Correa of Zest Restaurant located at the San Juan Water Beach Hotel. Chef Correa has won numerous awards recently and is considered to be one of the best new chefs on the island. If lunch at El Jibarito was a story about traditional Puerto Rican food, dinner with chef Correa was a glimpse into its future. Just a few bites into the service, I could tell that this evening was going to be something special. The starting dish was a spicy swordfish with a pomegranate salsa verde. As Correa described the first dish and his love for locally accessible ingredients, I could tell that his attention to the individual merits of each ingredient in each dish would be a delight to taste. His inventive take on his food is both playful and serious, and definitely creative.
The second dish was blend of sea meets land, with a pair of garlic clams next to a pork belly, wading in a sweet clam broth. This dish was a beautiful mixture of taste and texture that had everything from sweet to spicy, from rich to savory all working together beautifully in unison. The chef rounded out the service with a coffee-rubbed lamb over a malanga and mango chutney. Puerto Ricans love their coffee. I love their coffee. The entree was a perfect cap to a fabulously prepared and well thought-out menu. I have no doubt that chef Correa will be ushering in the future of Puerto Rican cuisine. His approach was serious, but the furthest thing from self-important. Some of the best chefs on the planet are people you may have never heard of. They keep their head down, and they focus on food and the dining experience. He's modern, without being frivolous. His food demands attention, without resorting to parlor tricks to achieve it.