Puerto Ricans proudly refer to their cooking as comida criolla. This literally means Creole food, but it really refers to the island’s rich history and mix of cultures—native, Spanish, and African—that make up the traditional cooking on the island. With abundant tropical fruit, like guava and mango, starchy tubers like cassava (yuca) and yams, legumes, squash and corn, and both shellfish and white fish, Puerto Rican cooks create food with vibrant colors, layers of flavor, and incredible seasoning—but not spiciness. Here are 5 classic dishes to dig into.
Stewed Pink Beans and Rice
Sofrito—a fragrant paste of peppers, onions, garlic, herbs, and spices—is a building block of Puerto Rican flavor. It is added to most savory dishes before the main ingredients are added. Most home cooks make a big batch of sofrito, and add it by the spoonful to their recipes, refrigerating or freezing the rest. We add a basic, homemade sofrito to our Stewed Pink Beans recipe (Habichuelas Guisadas) and pair it with white rice.
In most homes, rice and beans are eaten every day. Plump, thin-skinned pink beans with soft, meaty flesh are preferred here accompanied by chewy, tender, medium-grain white rice. I learned from my previous boss, who was from Puerto Rico, the correct way to cook rice—it’s a recipe I now know by heart, and share with you here. His way of cooking rice almost guarantees a Puerto Rican delicacy: pegao, or a crunchy, thin layer of rice that forms on the bottom of the pot.
Roasted Pork Shoulder and Puerto Rican-Style Yuca with Onion and Garlic Sauce
Adobo is another essential part of true Puerto Rican flavor. This dry mix of spices—garlic, onion and oregano powders, turmeric, salt, and black pepper—is used to season marinades, meats, and vegetables. We use it liberally to give flavor to our Puerto Rican-Style Roast Pork (Pernil). Made with pork shoulder, this recipe is a real treat. It’s cooked slowly until the dark meat is fall-off-the-bone tender and the skin crisps to cracklings.
This is a celebration dish, especially shared during Christmas. It’s commonly served with Yuca al Mojo—mild, snow-white yuca that becomes meltingly tender as it boils and is topped with a sauce of vinegary-stewed onions.
Spinach and Cheese Turnovers
When it comes to party food on the island, you can’t miss the craveable fried appetizers called cuchifritos. There are lots of varieties, like salted cod fritters (bacalaitos), meat-stuffed yuca dough (alcapurrias), croquettes, and my favorite, empanadillas, or fried turnovers. The filling of these turnovers varies from seasoned ground beef, shredded chicken, tuna, pizza (why not?), or as in our recipe, a gooey mix of spinach and cheese. Cuchifritos are also commonly found at beach-side kiosks, where they pair perfectly with a frosty Puerto Rican beer.
Puerto Rican Coconut Pudding
Puerto Rico is famous for its delicious chilled desserts and drinks made from local coconuts (piña colada, anyone?). One of my favorites is the smooth coconut pudding called Tembleque, made by mixing coconut milk with sugar and cornstarch until thick, then pouring into a mold and chilling until set. Once it’s turned out, dusted with cinnamon, and sliced, its gelatin-like jiggle shows how it got its name—which literally means “trembling.”
Gather your friends and family, take out your favorite rice pot, and celebrate Puerto Rico’s comida criolla along with us!