The flavors of Spain, Africa and indigenous Caribbean Indian cultures--the Taino and Arawaks--combine to create the cuisine of Puerto Rico. Cooking styles from these diverse influences have resulted in unique "cocina criolla" based on a thick sauce called "sofrito," a sauteed combination of vegetables, spices, herbs and tomato sauce.
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Puerto Rico is an island in the northeastern Caribbean, west of the Virgin Islands and east of the Dominican Republic. The first inhabitants of Puerto Rico were the Taino Indians, a group of people related to the Mayans and the Arawak. The indigenous population of Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands lived on a diet that included tropical roots and tubers, as well as native spices. These included cachucha peppers, which are milder than habanero peppers, and are called aji dulce. Other spices used by the native peoples that influence contemporary Puerto Rican cuisine include: achiote (annatto), oregano brujo, caballero pepper (the hottest pepper native to the island), culantro (similar to cilantro) and lerenes (arrowroot).
Christopher Columbus landed in Puerto Rico in 1493, introducing European influences to the native cuisine. The Spanish colonized the island in the 1500s, bringing olive oil, olives, parsley, onions, garlic, cilantro, oregano, basil and many varieties of citrus. The European tradition of cooking stew and rice was combined with the native spices, and liberal additional of peppers and root vegetables.
The Caribbean islands were major stops for slave traders on the route from Africa to North America. These ships brought with them coconuts, coffee and sesame seeds. Puerto Rican cooking evolved again, incorporating these new spices and flavorings into the aromatic dishes of the island. The African method of deep frying also influenced food preparation, a process that enhanced the indigenous flavors and gave variety to meals consisting of stews and rice dishes.
Puerto Rican Flavor
Contemporary Puerto Rican cuisine is a product of its diverse historical influences. One of the herbs that is particularly unique to the island is oregano brujo, which is used both dry and fresh. Oregano brujo grows wild on the island and has a distinctive pungent aroma. Oregano brujo, used dried as a meat rub or seasoning, is a key ingredient in the spice combination called adobo seco. The other ingredients in adobo seco are salt, pepper, garlic powder and onion powder. Adobo mojado is a "wet" version often used as a marinade, made with fresh garlic, onions and citrus juice. Other uniquely Puerto Rican flavors are Ajilimojili sauce, which is a hot garlic salsa, Alcaparrado, a mix of native peppers, green olives and capers, and Annatto Oil, olive oil infused with annatto and hot peppers. The hot peppers that grow on the island are used to create a variety of hot sauces, often used for dipping fried root vegetables or plantains, called pique verde boricua, pique criollo and picadillo a la puertorriquena.
The unique flavors of Puerto Rico can be added to rice dishes, beans and meats with a number of commercially blended seasonings. Supermarkets in many major cities sell Goya brands, which markets an adobo seco. International food markets, with online stores, offer dried herbs native to the island of Puerto Rico.