Monday, December 13, 2010

Puerto Rican Tacos?

In my travels food has played a central part in experiencing other cultures and I now use many of those foods or adaptations in my novels. For those of you who have never sampled Puerto Rican frituras and other yummy treats, I hope you will want to after reading this. And I hope you become just as hungry reading as I am writing.

Last week's journey ended at the entrance of Luquillo Beach, one of the loveliest beaches in the world, where a group of huts or cabanas offered a variety of frituras, perhaps the Puerto Rican equivalent of Mexican antojitos. I stood in front of a little food stand studying the menu sign, I knew I had a difficult choice to make—should I venture out and try one of the unfamiliar frituras or stay with the tried and true—tacos? Now, I have met tacos in many forms during my travels through México and the United States—from those wonderful tacos made from steamed corn tortillas with the meat sliced from pork or chicken roasting on a México City street and a choice of spicy condiments to the fish tacos by the waterfront in Ensenada or to those crunchy ones found in American establishments.

But, I thought, how different could a Puerto Rican taco be? Then I remembered that jugo de china was jugo de naranja and a guineo was a banana, not to mention a guagua turned out to be a bus and chavos were centavos. Could a Puerto Rican taco really be a taco?

Overcoming my desire to try the unknown frituras I ordered a taco. As the proprietor handed it to me I just stood there, looking at it. This rectangular shaped deep-fried pie of some sort was a taco? Tentatively, I took a bite—ahhh, ¡qué sabroso! How delicious! I didn’t know what kind of meat it contained but it didn’t matter—this was one of the spiciest treats that I had ever eaten—and it was spicy hot. I’m not sure about this but I think eating that taco caused me to have a lifelong hunger for fried and also baked meat pies. Future travels introduced me to Spanish empanadas, Portuguese salgados, and even the Cornish pasties of England—I’ll never be able to get enough of any of them—but Puerto Rican tacos started it all.

As our time in Puerto Rico progressed, bacalaítos, those wonderful codfish fritters, became favorites, at least for me, especially on our Sunday trips to the beach. Another favorite for both my son and me was relleno de papa—potato puffs with a filling of ground beef, raisins, and chopped hardboiled egg. My son wouldn’t touch many of the frituras as he was a picky little eater in those days. And he especially wouldn’t sample alcapurrias, those wonderful cigar-shaped, deep-fried meat pies with a masa made from yautia and green bananas—a flavor I had never encountered before. Then there were sorullos with a cornmeal masa and cheese filling.

Now with tostones, salty fried plantain slices, I have a rather embarrassing confession to make. I never tried to make these on my own until a few years ago when I was watching Martha Stewart Living on assignment in Puerto Rico. Curious as to what she would come up with, I watched as her guest hostess demonstrated how to make tostones and pique, the hot peppery vinegar that can be found in almost all homes and eating establishments in Puerto Rico. I immediately went out and bought a plantain and made my own tostones. However, nowadays I live in Florida and can find tostones in the frozen foods section of supermarkets.

Although pasteles [the Puerto Rican equivalent of Mexican tamales] perhaps don’t belong in this discussion of frituras, they are the one Puerto Rican concoction that I crave the most. I’ll admit that the first time I ate one I wasn’t sure that I liked it. However, each time I was offered one I discovered that I liked them more and more. The masa is made from taro root and green bananas [not plantains]—so very different tasting from the cornmeal masa of tamales. The filling also has an unusual flavor for those of us not accustomed to foods of the Caribbean—achiote [annatto], ham, raisins, garbanzos, green olives, and seasoned with adobo. They are wrapped in banana leaves or plantain leaves and steamed or simmered in water.

Now I have touched on only a few of my favorite Puerto Rican foods—there are many more such as pastelillos and arroz con gandules. We lived with a Cuban lady for a while who made wonderful black beans and rice. There was a Cuban bakery across the street from where I worked that made a dish called Argentine pie. At the time I thought the filling was made from chicken, pork, and pepperoni. Only years later in Spain did I discover what that delicious filling really was. [That will be covered in a future column.] However, I make my own adaptation of this meat pie and call it Palmaltas Pizza and it has appeared in a couple of my novels, The Pig Farm and A Caribbean Summer.

One evening soon after our arrival in Puerto Rico my son and I went to our little neighborhood restaurant to eat. As I was reading the menu I noticed that tortillas were offered. Now, you’re probably thinking that I thought I was going to get a Mexican tortilla. But, you’d be wrong—I knew what a tortilla was. Didn’t I?

To be continued . . .

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