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
Searching San Juan
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
Beachside in Isla Verde
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.
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
mofongo presents itself different than before, but no less Puerto Rican.