Reimagining the Taino diet

What Puerto Rican doesn’t enjoy a good barbecue among family and friends? Beachside or backyard, there’s nothing better than cooking outdoors while catching up and enjoying an impromptu performance by anyone who can play the guitar. That’s how we gather our tribe.

Interestingly enough that’s also how our Taino ancestors used to gather their people centuries ago, during the Neolithic period. Food. Music. Good company. It was that simple.

Our predecessors depended on tradition and social gatherings to keep the group strong and focused. Word of mouth was the only way to pass on knowledge, local stories, and beliefs. They would mostly talk about their hunting and fishing struggles, their commercial exchange with other islands and about finding ways to please their God Yocahú hoping for better weather and a substantial crop. 

The life of Tainos or “kind people” in Arawak was very simple but harsh. In order to survive the erratic Caribbean weather conditions, it was necessary to adapt to a role-based social structure where everyone was expected to perform diligently according to each discipline. Some Tainos would specialize in crafting tools for agriculture, others took care of the irrigation system, others gathered food.

They lived in small communities or yucayeques comprised of a handful or dozens of bohios made out of straw and wood, built next to the conucos or designated farming areas. An entire family could live in one bohio, while the Cacique boss would enjoy a more comfortable Caney. Only a few soldiers and the shaman or bohique could enjoy similar square footage. This social structure would evolve along with changes in agricultural innovation.

The Taino Diet

Their diet was just as simple and straightforward. Almost completely plant-based. Roots were the most fundamental part of their nutrition and represented close to 90% of their agricultural products. Even during the Spanish Conquest years, their casaba bread was so valued it was considered a method of payment. In the absence of circulating currency, these “cargas de pan” (bread loads) were used to cover payments related to salaries, agricultural tools, and taxes on the Quinto Real imposed by the Spanish Crown.

Colonist Juan Ponce de Leon was one of many who decided to adopt many elements of the Taino lifestyle in order to secure the survival of its people. In Agricultura y Sociedad de Puerto Rico, Francisco Moscoso talks about Ponce de León’s pact with Cacique Agueynaba upon his arrival. The colonist requested assistance in the preparation of his personal conuco to supply the area of Guaynía with yucca, sweet potato, and other Taino ingredients.

Ponce de Leon quickly realized that in order to grow a proper Spanish settlement on the island, there needed to be a strong agricultural base similar to the Tainos system.

The Taino diet was very dependent on yucca, yautia (taro), boniato (sweet potato), a variety of beans, peanuts, and island pumpkin. There were also minor corn crops, but it didn’t spread like it did in Latin America due to frequent storms that would destroy the crops. In terms of fruits, Tainos enjoyed plenty of pineapple, anon (custard apples), guanabana (soursop), guavas, mamey, and quenepas.

Many of their dishes would be grilled or stewed. They would mash a lot of their root vegetables or prepare a type of flatbread. To season their food, they would use ajicito peppers, ají caballero and recao (cilantro). Achiote was used to add color, as well as a mosquito repellent or to paint their faces during a war.

Both their condiments and ingredients continue to play an important role in today’s Puerto Rican cuisine. Those stewed beans just wouldn’t be the same without that gorgeous orange color in achiote. Or what about that delicious yucca al mojo or the refreshing bili made from quenepas?

Each and everyone of these natural ingredients also has amazing benefits for our health. And there are just about a thousand different ways we can play with them in the kitchen. We did a little culinary brainstorming ourselves and came up with a couple of very delicious recipes. We hope you enjoy them. Buen provecho.

Honey glazed mahi-mahi, roasted sweet potat and corn salad

  • 1 Large sweet potato
  • 2 Corn Ears
  • 2 Mahi mahi fillets
  • 1 Teaspoon of honey
  • 1 teaspoons of lemon juice
  • 4-5 Caribbean sweet pepper (pimientos dulces) or substitute with sweet roasted peppers
  • ½ Cup of yellow onion, diced
  • 4 Garlic cloves, mashed (2 for the fish, 2 for the salad)
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Olive oil to taste
  • Aluminum foil

Honey glazed mahi-mahi

1. Sauté the garlic in olive oil. Add the honey and lemon juice and cook for a minute.
2. Season the fillets with salt and pepper and cook with the sauce. Cook for 3 minutes on each side.

Sweet potato and corn salad

1. Scrub the sweet potatoes under running water. Season with salt and olive oil and cover with aluminum foil. 
2. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes or until tender.
3. For the salad, remove the corn off the cob.
4. Sauté the onions, peppers and garlic with a drizzle of olive oil until translucent. Add the corn, season with salt and pepper and cook for about 4-5 minutes.

For the Spanish version of this post, please click here.

1 comment:

  1. Love this article and recipe. There is a typo I wanted to point out. You state recao is cilantro, when I think you meant culantro. Since culantro would be native to Americas and cilantro brought here by Spainards in the 1600s.