On the mofongo trail in Puerto Rico
A staple of West and Central Africa, fufu is similarly made of starchy root vegetables – cassava, yams and plantains – that are boiled then pounded into doughy balls and served with sauce or soup. When brought over to Puerto Rico, fufu merged with the gastronomic traditions of the Taíno and Spanish to create the now revered mofongo.
From the Taíno came the mortar-and-pestle-like wooden pilón that is used to mash the dish’s main ingredients. Recent excavations of Taíno sites near the city of Ponce, 120km southwest of San Juan, found evidence of the pilón’s pre-Columbian use, revealing its deeply rooted history. From the Spaniards, mofongo pulls from the Iberia-influenced sofrito – sautéed onions, peppers, herbs and garlic – which is commonly used in the plantain mash. And mofongo’s basic ingredients, such as green plantains and sweet capsicum, are grown in abundance in Puerto Rico. The addition of chicharrones speaks to the country’s modern-day adoration for fried pork skin, sold most famously on street-side wooden carts in Bayamón, Puerto Rico’s second largest city, 19km southwest of San Juan. Together, these influences have fused to produce an iconic Puerto Rican dish as diverse as the country itself.
Learning to cook mofongo
Though pinpointing mofongo’s exact origins is a challenge, the connection to the Spanish conquistadors who settled in the capital makes San Juan a worthwhile place to learn how to prepare the dish.
Flavors of San Juan is a group of in-the-know locals who host cooking classes and food and cultural tours throughout the city. At their mofongo course, Puerto Rican chef Kathy Libier spoke knowledgably about the importance and irreverence of mofongo on the island, while simultaneously cooking her version. Chopping cilantro, sweet Cubanelle peppers, garlic and onions, a Spanish-influenced sofrito took shape. Green plantains were peeled, chopped, fried and then mashed in a pilón as the sofrito and a rich chicken stock were added. As a paste began to form, a handful of chicharrones were tossed in. The mix was then moulded into a small bowl, inverted on a plate and topped with shredded chicken that had been stewed in a Creole sauce of sweet peppers, tomatoes, spices and onions.
Libier’s version was unlike the mofongos at Café Puerto Rico or El Jibarito, both in taste and texture. Hers sang with loud flavours, bringing depth and sophistication to the dish. And though Libier dismissed the others as inauthentic, there appear to be no hard-and-fast rules when it comes to mofongo.
Beachside in Isla Verde
This hypothesis was reiterated elsewhere. About 10km east of Old San Juan in the Atlantic Ocean sits Isla Verde, Puerto Rico’s answer to Cancun. Hotels line the beach and holidaymakers sip on piña coladas (another San Juan-born favourite), while alternating between the casinos and the ocean.
Ask any local here – and there are many – where to find the best mofongo, and their eyes light up. A unanimous favourite is Platos, a charmless, contemporary restaurant with a mofongo that garners rave reviews and loyalists. Their skirt steak mofongo with Creole sauce offers a nicely balanced flavour that carries depth and richness. The thinly sliced meat is well executed, cooked to just pink in the middle, then hidden beneath a volcano of buttery, garlicky mashed green plantains.
Once again, mofongo presents itself different than before, but no less Puerto Rican.