“What is one dish that people who visit Puerto Rico must try?” I got the chance to ask this question of several chefs who were participating at the Saborea food festival, held annually in the spring in San Juan.
Four chefs were from Puerto Rico: Giovanna Huyke, the “Julia Child of Puerto Rico” who now runs the kitchen at Latin American restaurant Mio in Washington D.C.; Elvin Rosado, the coach of Puerto Rico’s national culinary team and executive chef at Texas de Brazil in the Sheraton Puerto Rico Hotel & Casino; Edwin Robles, sous chef at Range in Washington D.C.; and Christian Quiñones, executive sous chef of Trattoria Italiana and Crudo Bar at Intercontinental Hotel Isla Verde.
Their answer was the same: “mofongo.” The reasons? Variations on a theme:
“It’s a staple in Puerto Rico.”
“It goes with everything.”
“It’s the traditional flavor of Puerto Rico.”
“The history of it… the way we make it…”
“Nobody does it like we do.”
Mofongo has its roots in fufu, a dish from Africa. Fufu is made from boiled starches mashed into dough. African slaves in the Spanish New World colonies introduced this type of cooking in the Caribbean as early as the 16th century.
Mofongo differs from fufu in that it is typically made with fried plantains, which are a staple in Puerto Rico. The fried green plantains are mashed, along with broth, pork cracklings or bacon, and seasoning, in a pilón (similar to a wood mortar and pestle), and then spread evenly around the sides. What results is a dough that forms a dense crust for the dish’s fillings, which can include an array of meat, fish, vegetables, and a sauce or broth.
Mofongo is traditionally paired with stews—especially goat stew—and lechon (roast pig).
Even these top Puerto Rican chefs agreed say that the best places to get mofongo are often small, mom-and-pop restaurants that prepare the dish simply and traditionally. However, Quiñones offered several suggestions for variations on mofongo, including trifongo, made with cassava root and ripe and green plantains; and mofongo de pana, mofongo made with breadfruit, a starch that is a staple in the tropics.
Casa Lola Criollo Kitchen, a fine-dishing establishment run by Chef Robert Trevino in the trendy Condado neighborhood of San Juan, serves three types mofongo alongside award-winning sangria. We ordered the seafood mofongo at the suggestion of our server: the shell was made from yucca and filled to the brim with scallops, shrimp, and squid. Other versions involved skirt steak, ropa vieja (shredded flank steak in tomato sauce), bacon, and tamarind sauce; and a vegetarian option, made with cassava root and stuffed with beans, mushrooms, onions, peppers, Swiss chard, and cherry tomatoes.
While waiting for our order, my companion and I drank sangria, laughed, chatted up the bartender, and took pictures of each other, just having an all-around boisterous good time. Then the plate came. I placed my fork onto the sturdy shell of the mofongo. I pressed down, and it kind of cracked. It reminded me of breaking the shell of crème brûlée. As with that classic French dessert, cracking the shell of mofongo reveals the deliciousness of the contents inside, but the shell itself is equally wonderful.
I began eating the mofongo. It was incredible: a fusion of savory flavors, textures that woke up my mouth. The seafood, the sauce, and the starchy crust melded in beautiful harmony. The mofongo burst with a pleasurable and satisfying umami, matching its incredible aroma.
It got real quiet. I was focused. I was intent. This was an important experience. Eventually, my friend made a comment. “You haven’t said a word since you started eating.”
She did not exaggerate. Why talk, when you can eat mofongo?
(Note to my friends and family: finally, here’s a way to get me to be quiet: Put a plate of mofongo in front of me.)
I ate every last bit of food. I was tempted to lick the plate clean, but I understand and generally abide by basic social graces. (Although I’ve always thought that would be the highest compliment to give a chef.)
Mofongo is the best of local Puerto Rican food, utilizing all the staples of a region into a creative yet simple, savory and satisfying dish. Upon my return home, a friend’s only question of my visit was: “Did you have lots of mofongo?”
I did not have lots. I wish I’d had the chance to taste more. It is on the short list of reasons I will return to Puerto Rico.