Monday, December 6, 2010

Jugo de China and other Puerto Rican Surprises

As recent arrivals in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, my son and I sat in the little restaurant around the corner from our hotel and studied the menu thoroughly. I was very dismayed to find that there was only one kind of juice offered—jugo de china, as I mentioned last week. I knew that my son would not drink anything like that so I ordered milk for him—un vaso de leche was most definitely on the menu.

Each morning we would go down to the small restaurant for breakfast, now accustomed to the fact that we weren’t going to get any proper jugo. As we became acclimated with our surroundings, we branched out and began to investigate other eating establishments. One morning we passed a small stand that was selling fruits and juices. The inevitable jugo de china was naturally one of the items on the daily menu board. However, I saw several customers sipping what suspiciously looked like orange juice to me and I boldly requested jugo de naranja from the proprietor. He gave me a disdainful look and turned to his assistant and said, “Un jugo de china.”

What? Jugo de china was orange juice? What next? I looked at his menu board again and saw guineos and plátanos boldly printed. Well, I certainly didn’t know what a guineo was—maybe a bird of some kind although this did seem to be a fruit and juice stand—but I knew what a plátano was, didn’t I? Now, I knew my son wouldn’t eat a banana [trust me on this--that’s another story not relevant to this one] but I was in the mood for one. So, I said to the proprietor, “Un plátano, por favor.” And he gave me the biggest banana that I had ever seen. I returned to our table and proceeded to peel the banana except that the peeling was so hard I couldn’t budge the thing.

The proprietor started to laugh then came over to our table with a smaller banana and said, “Debe comer un guineo.” Then he handed me the smaller banana.

Okay, dense as I may be at times, I finally got it. A guineo was a banana and a plátano was a plantain and plantains are best cooked before eating.

I then noticed some small round green fruits that looked somewhat like grapes but even I could tell they weren’t. I asked the proprietor what they were. He replied that they were quenepas. Always searching for new taste treats I bought some and they were—delicious--with a sweet, tart flavor.

And thus began our sojourn into the world of Puerto Rican cuisine, so very different from anything I had tasted in Southwest Texas and in my travels all over México. Of course, one of the joys of traveling and living in other countries is the sampling of local dishes, especially what I call street vendor food. I had fallen in love with Mexican antojitos and now it was time for Puerto Rican frituras and other delicacies.

We began to make friends and were invited on Sunday outings at the various beaches around the island. On our first trip to beautiful Luquillo Beach, our hostess stopped at a group of cabanas selling various frituras. She suggested that we should purchase our beach “picnic” lunches.

Here my taste buds found paradise . . . bacalaítos . . . alcapurrias . . . relleno de papa . . . pastelillos . . . tostones . . . sorullos . . . pasteles . . . my only dilemma—how was I going to choose only two or three? Then suddenly I saw a sign that included all of the above plus . . . tacos . . . ¿en Puerto Rico? Could it be true?

To be continued . . .

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