On the mofongo trail in Puerto Rico
From urban Old San Juan to the beaches of Isla Verde, past the cities of Bayamón and Ponce, through lush rainforest and striking coastlines, mofongo proudly stands as Puerto Rico’s unofficial national dish.
At its most basic, mofongo is made of fried green plantains mashed with garlic and chicharrones (deep-fried pork skin), served with a buttery-garlic or a peppery- capsicum-tomato Creole sauce. Typically the mash is stuffed with a protein, such as chicken, steak, shrimp, lobster or crab – at which point it becomes known as mofongo relleno. Although green plantains are most common, sweet plantains or cassava can also be used, meaning that no two mofongo look the same and there is a little agreement on what constitutes the most traditional.
Searching San Juan
My plane touched down in the early morning near Puerto Rico’s capital San Juan to stormy skies and steamy heat. Exiting the airport alongside anticipatory holidaymakers and tearful reuniting families, the mission that lay ahead was seemingly simple: to traverse the city streets seeking out the most delicious and most authentic mofongo.
Bright pinks, greens, turquoises and yellows colour the houses and shop fronts in Old San Juan, a colonial neighbourhood that dates to the 1500s. Here the hilly streets wind up and down around busy seaports on one side and the 18th-century Spanish fort Castillo de San Cristóbal on the other. Lofty palm trees and emerald tropical plants dot the sidewalks and the charming plazas. History runs deep here, and on the hunt for mofongo, Old San Juan seemed like a logical start.
Ducking in to El Jibarito on Calle Sol, Puerto Rican flags hung proudly from the walls. A television playing a telanova (Spanish soap opera) was perched precariously above the handful of wooden tables, adding to the cacophony of Spanish and English. Like many San Juan restaurants, the lines between a tourist haunt and a local favourite were blurred, but the love for El Jibarito’s mofongo was not – with many claiming it the best in the city.
Here, the green plantain mofongo was served as a side dish, the perfect starchy accompaniment to fried chicken or pork. It was dense and cut nicely by the outrageously garlicky and salty white sauce served alongside. Their cassava mofongo was particularly light, tasting like flash-fried crispy mashed potato. But their “trifongo” – a mash-up of sweet plantains, cassava and green plantain – was the winner. The hint of sugar from the sweet plantain blended perfectly with the fluffier cassava and the savoury, starchier green plantain. Without stewed chicken or shrimp, this naked mofongo put the root vegetables at centre stage to resoundingly positive reviews.
Down the street in Old San Juan’s eastern end sits tiny Café Puerto Rico on Plaza de Colón, a pleasant square that dates back to the first Columbus expedition in 1493. Another local-meets-tourist favourite, the mofongo here comes stuffed with meat and fish; choose from fillings as diverse as diced pork to octopus, grouper to chicken. My cassava version carried abundantly flavourful chicken, stewed in a garlicky creamy white sauce made with lashings of butter and white wine and speckled with herbs. If you did not look too closely, this mofongo relleno could have passed as a chicken potpie, with the cassava masquerading as pastry crust.
But pinning mofongo to a specific place in Puerto Rico is challenging, if not outright impossible. The country is a small island and the dish is found throughout, plucking ingredients and techniques from all over.
A multi-cultural history
Flanked by the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, the stunning island of Puerto Rico is steeped in African, Spanish, Taíno and North American cultures. Mofongo epitomises this cross-cultural narrative, though its story admittedly began as an oppressive one.
When the Spanish conquistadors landed in Puerto Rico in the early 1500s, harsh colonisation of the Taínos, the island’s indigenous people, ensued. After exhausting and depleting the local population, colonialists looked across to West Africa and began importing slaves, who brought with them fufu, mofongo’s culinary ancestor.