An island’s old connection to its Motherland

Years before the iconic Paella was born in Valencia, there was already a strong gastronomic connection between Spain and Puerto Rico.

As the recipe of Paella began to take shape in the 19th century, so was Spain’s national identity. In the meantime, Spanish settlers in Puerto Rico had already began to pass on their unique and very classic culinary vision since the 1500s. This working-class generation who had left Spain in a desperate quest for a better life had brought with them very basic ingredients they couldn’t live without — ingredients that transformed forever the islander’s taste buds and cooking essentials.

They brought figs and olives, garbanzos and saffron, ginger, pepper, wine, lentils, almonds and wheat flour. Even more important, they introduced the island to parsley, olive oil, cumin, garlic, oregano and rice. It was believed that Fray Tomás de Berlaga even brought plantains from Canary islands in 1516, a key ingredient in Puerto Rican cooking.

The complete list of ingredients offered by Francisco Moscoso in Agricultura y Sociedad en Puerto Rico is truly impressive and show this fundamental connection early on.

The fusion between the local and Spanish cuisines didn’t happen overnight of course. Like many immigrants, Spanish settlers arrived with the intent to develop their own society, independent of the world and realities around them. The exposure to their new environment and the limited ability to import Spanish products give them no choice but to come up with new interpretations of the old dishes. 

Their new reality was in fact so harsh that Spanish settlements would make sure to have direct access to the crops grown by the natives. Not only did they want a cut of the harvest, but also to learn the agricultural techniques that worked in this new climate.

Learnings from the Spanish Conquest

The Spanish cooking that influenced the Caribbean during the Conquest was the result of many territorial and power disputes with the Motherland and other European countries. During this period, there was a lot of exposure to new techniques, spices, foreign ingredients, diverse taste buds and traditions. Everyday people on the island and back in the Motherland would apply what they learn in a very organic and simple way, while the King and high class would experiment with more exotic influences.

From societies of Greek origin, like the Phoenician or Carthaginian, the Spanish learned about the versatility of olive oil in the kitchen, as well as practical fermentation techniques for fish and other ingredients. From the Roman society, Spaniards learn to cook with garlic, cabbage, onions, lentils, beans, and nuts.

While Spain was under Muslim rule, they were introduced to rice and sugar, vegetables like spinach and eggplant, as well as lemon and orange. Culinary learnings came from all over the place.

From the cultural exchange, a few stables were born. Aromatic fish and seafood dishes became an essential part of the diet. Legumes became a must in stews and soups, and cereals were key to make the daily bread. Meals needed to be affordable and filling to feed everyone even during harsh times.

Favorites that stand the test of time

So many of the same old staples remain alive in Puerto Rican cuisine. Islanders still enjoy turrón during Christmas time. They prepare escabeches (pickled meats and veggies) for parties. They enjoy simple bocadillo sandwiches, egg tortilla, café con leche or sweet Mallorca bread (ensaimadas) for lunch. It all has become a fundamental part of life and traditions in Puerto Rico — as deeply rooted as our Spanish language.

Generations of “criollos” born after the Conquest were part of the reason for both cuisines to fully integrate. The marriage of Taino and Spanish, and later on, the integration of African influences blended into one of the most flavorful cuisines.

The famous Spanish sofrito became its own thing in Puerto Rico. It incorporated deliciously sweet Taino ají pepper, the same way native pumpkin started to be incorporated in most of the stews. Yuca was also made into escabeche. And the achiote or annatto seeds started infusing its unique color to everything in the kitchen. So much beauty came out of this cultural mix.

To celebrate all those flavors, we wanted a couple of simple recipes that highlight the beauty of this cultural fusion. Let us know about your favorite Spanish dishes or influences in the island. Hope you all enjoy these recipes.

Yellow rice with capers and asparagus
  • ½ Yellow onion
  • Olive oil
  • 2 Garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 lemon, juice
  • 1/3 Cup roasted red pepper, chopped
  • 2 Bay leaves
  • 1 Small tomato, chopped
  • 3 Tablespoons of capers 
  • 2 Teaspoons of Spanish paprika
  • 2 Cups of rice
  • Salt to taste
  • 15-20 Asparagus 

Sauté veggies and spices until translucent. Add lemon juice and cook for a couple of minutes. Add the rice, cover with water and season with salt to taste. Cook on medium heat covered.

Meanwhile, remove fibrous part of the asparagus by following the natural break when you bend each piece. Sauté asparagus with olive oil and salt. Serve with the rice.

Kale and garbanzo soup
  • ½ Yellow onion
  • Olive oil
  • 2 Garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 lemon, juice
  • Salt to taste
  • 2 Small potatoes, diced
  • 3 Cups of kale, chopped
  • 1 Can of organic garbanzos
  • 1 Chicken bouillon 
  • 3 Cups of water

Sauté the onions and garlic with a drizzle of olive oil. Then add the lemon juice and kale and cook for another 5 minutes. Add the rest of the ingredients and cook until potatoes are tender soft. Serve soup with garlic bread.

To read this article in Spanish, click here.

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