They are stories of creativity and tradition, blending colonial ingredients with ancestral cooking techniques. Take pernil, the coveted garlic-and-herb-marinated pork shoulder that is traditionally slow-roasted whole over coals. On the island, there’s an entire stretch of highway through densely forested Guavate — La Ruta del Lechón — dedicated to pork made with precision by families committed to the craft.
These dishes celebrate the contributions of the tens of thousands of Africans taken to the island in bondage, who introduced processes like deep frying, among many other things, and who are credited with cultivating rice, the cornerstone of the Puerto Rican diet to this day. Fritters such as alcapurrias de jueyes — a blend of green banana and yautia, stuffed with delicate crab — hark back to Loíza, a town on the northeastern coast with rich African ancestry.
And then there are completely modern dishes that reference what has always grown on the island. In pastelillos de guayaba, guava — the epitome of tropical flavor — is balanced by crumbly, salty queso en hoja, fresh cheese, which is baked into a beignet and delightfully dusted with powdered sugar. Nothing ancestral here; it’s just extremely delicious, and makes use of the island’s bounty of fruit.
Above all, these dishes exemplify a deeply creative people, who make food that is flavorful and soul-nourishing.
What I want to suggest here is that, instead of holding European foods and cooking techniques as the highest standards, we look to the cuisines of islands, of places that have struggled, to gain inspiration from how they managed to make things taste so good against all odds. This is old, deep knowledge, and we can all learn from it, regardless of background, and find ways to integrate this way of thinking into the way we cook.
And to keep culinary cultures vibrant, we must adapt. For the past 15 years, the Puerto Rican diaspora has outnumbered the population on the island, and many of us have been forced to recreate our favorite dishes using very different ingredients and tools. I might need to use a bell pepper instead of ají dulce, or paprika instead of annatto. But as I say in the introduction to “Coconuts and Collards,” my first book, “It’s Puerto Rican because I made it.” These microadjustments ensure that I can still keep the flavors of my homeland in my mouth.