Puerto Rican cuisine: An introduction

Puerto Rican cuisine is a mix of its Spaniard conquistadors, African slaves, and native Taíno roots, in addition to U.S. influences brought by the Treaty of Paris of 1898.  While quite similar to other Hispanic cuisines, Puerto Rican food still has its unique flavors and blends.

Main ingredients

No Puerto Rican dish is complete without the infamous sofrito. A concoction of fresh ground garlic, onions, cachucha, crushed tomatoes, onions, recao, cilantro, red and cubanelle peppers, sofrito is used as the base of any Puerto Rican dish. Conversely, recaito, a variation of sofrito, is cooked with tomato sauce, which makes it look red instead of green. To use, simply sautee a tablespoon or two on a pan before any ingredients of a dish are added. Once aromatic, vegetables and other spices such as sazón are added to the mix.

In addition to aromatic cooking bases, other essential Puerto Rican staples are beans, garbanzos (chickpeas), African gandules (pigeon peas), South Pacific pana (breadfruit), plantains, and Taíno-diet root vegetables such as yams, yuca (cassava) and yautía (taro). Moreover, American bacon, Arab/Ethiopian coffee, and Peruvian/Brazilian parcha (passion fruit) made it to the island via colonial trade and slaves. These are typically eaten as appetizers, sides and/or happen to be the main ingredients of traditional dishes.

Snacks and side dishes

Alcapurrias - the Puerto Ricans’ answer to empanadas, although they look quite different. The "dough" or mixture may be made out of yautía, cassava, plantains, and/or ground squash, which is rolled and then stuffed with seafood, beef, or chicken. Once the elongated "tuber" is ready, it is deep-fried until lightly browned. The result is a slight crunch on the outside, savory chewy inside.

Arroz con gandules - yellow rice, heavily seasoned with sofrito and sazón con achiote, made with pigeon peas. Some Puerto Ricans like to add mixed vegetables as well.

Bacalaíto - the best way to describe this Puerto Rican fast food is to call it a "savory pancake." The "batter" consists of flour, seasonings, and codfish. It is then cooked over oil until golden.

Cuajitos - sliced hog maw or small pieces of pork belly. They can be mixed with green bananas, onions, vinegar and garlic (al escabeche) or made in hot sauce.

Morcilla - spicy black blood pork sausage, typically stuffed with rice.

Piononos - cups made out of sweet (ripe) plantains, stuffed with picadillo (fine ground beef, seasoned with tomato sauce, recaito, thyme, onions, oregano, cumin). Once it is topped off with cheese, the whole "cuppie" is deep-fried.

Sorullos - deep-fried cornmeal sticks, commonly stuffed with cheese. Don’t forget to dip them in mayoketchup (mayonnaise and ketchup pink sauce).

Tostones - typically made out of seasoned pana, plantains, or yuca, they are flattened, deep-fried slices of the vegetable or fruit. The result? Crispy, salty discs that are the perfect accompaniment to braised pork, chicken and/or rice and beans.

Main courses

Asopao - a very thick, hearty soup that may be described as a marriage between gumbo and stew. It is made with rice or pasta, a type of red, white meat or seafood, and a mix of several root vegetables. The asopao base, of course, includes sofrito, adobo, sazón, and achiote.

Fricasé - thick, spicy stew, derivative of Spanish casseroles. Puerto Rican fricasés are commonly made with a meat (rabbit, chicken, turkey, lamb or even goat), olives, capers, potatoes, peas, and carrots in a beer, white or red wine-based sauce.

Lechón a la Vara - well-seasoned pig roast (aka "pig on a stick").

Mofongo - think of glorified mashed potatoes, made of plantains instead, and you get the idea. Green plantains are lightly fried, mashed until smooth in a wooden mortar, and mixed with olive oil, garlic, broth, pork cracklings and sometimes even bits of American bacon. Once served, it is usually stuffed with seafood, beef, chicken, pork or veggies, then topped off with even more broth. It was brought from Africa during colonial times, so mofongo variations are found in other Caribbean islands as well, such as Cuba and the Dominican Republic.


Article written by:

Maria Alexandra, My Guide Puerto Rico
March 2012


Maria Alexandra Laborde has lived, studied and traveled extensively throughout Puerto Rico, the Middle East & North Africa. She shares her knowledge and love for the Arab world through stories, travel guides, and photo essays on her niche blog Travel The Middle East. Also, Maria is the author of LatinAbroad: Cultural Travel Blog, where she shares cultural encounters and advice after traveling to more than 20 countries across 4 continents. Follow her on Google+Facebook and Pinterest!