Thursday, April 11, 2013

Cultural Observations Part I- Food & Drink

I just spent the morning on the phone with the utility companies and we are about ready to move into our new place on 4/20.  Both Tommy and I are beyond excited!  By the time we move in, it will have been close to 3 months without our own pad.  We were very lucky to spend 5 weeks along the East Coast  and then have the opportunity to rent a room and stay with our friend, Rick (Big Thanks, Buddy!) but we are ready to be in a permanent spot and really get this party started.

If you haven't heard, we found a place in Old San Juan.  It's a quirky one bedroom with a small loft space up a spiral staircase.  Tommy calls it, "The Slave Chamber".   Before you go judging him on that,  you have to see the space.  It truly is the best way to describe it.  It will likely be a walk-in closet or a crash pad for non-claustrophobic overnight guests.  I thought it would be cool to make it an office but it might just be too small.  We'll feel it out once we move in.  The location is amazing and every building in Old San Juan is at least a hundred or so years old so it's very unique.  I will include photos once we get in there as I'd like to do a post about the history of the city and it's current state.

As we prepare to step into the next phase of our journey, I thought it appropriate to write my first post about general cultural observations.  I'm going to start with Food & Drink and follow-up with other posts about other elements so that this one doesn't take a week to read.
Let's dive in, shall we?

Puerto Ricans have a discerning palate and demand food quality.  They'd much rather go to a shack of a restaurant that has good food as opposed to somewhere that boasts high-end fixtures, fancy-schmancy decor and serves mediocre fare.
This is hilariously highlighted in the fast food joints.  They have many of the same places we do back on the mainland but (from what I'm told) the quality is way better.  I'm on my health kick path so I haven't had any of the fast food but I've heard from numerous sources that the KFC here and Domino's are about 17 thousand times better than the ones we are used to.  Go figure.  I'll still pass but I think it's interesting nonetheless.

Traditional Dishes
One of the most popular traditional Puerto Rican dishes is something called "Mofongo".  Mofongo is made by combining a starch source (plantains and yucca are common) with garlic, vegetables and beef, chicken or seafood.  It is all mashed together in a pilon (large wooden mortar and pestle) and often served with some kind of soupy stew/gravy.  This dish is really tasting, very filling and found in just about every restaurant on the island.  Every place boasts they have "The Best Mofongo", even the Chinese Restaurants.  It cracks me up.

Un Pilon
Mofongo con Camarrones
Arroz con Pollo (Chicken with Rice) is another popular dish that sounds simple enough but it's the kind of dish that a Puerto Rican probably grew up on and everyone has their own version.  You will be forever imprinted by your mother's Arroz con Pollo if you are a Puerto Rican.
The Creole culture has a big influence here so there is a lot of "Comida Criolla"--many variations on rice and beans and a red sauce you can order with most proteins if you want "Salsa Criolla".  The sauce is a favorite of mine with fish and is tomato based with plenty of garlic, onions and spices.

You don't have to go far to find someone selling "Pinchos"--the grilled meat kebabs I mentioned in a previous post.  These are awesome to me because they are Paleo and freaking delicious.  Most vendors sell chicken thigh but you can sometimes find pork or fish ones too.   Most are sold for around $2 a kebab, so it's not only healthy but economical.
Lechoneras (Pig Roasters) are common and there is even an entire town devoted to roasting pork called, Cayey.  The small stretch of mountain road that flows through the town is lovingly called, "The Pork Highway" and when we went you could smell it a mile away.  Literally. You order your pig by the pound and section of the pig you desire.  It's also common, at least in Cayey, for there to be an in-house band that plays dance music so you can work off some of that food after you eat! Instead of a normal caterer, we've decided to hire one of these guys to provide food at the reception when we get married.  Still no date set though, so don't worry, your invite didn't get lost in the mail. 

To my surprise, people here are not that big on spicy food.  The food has a lot of flavor but not a lot of heat.  The common condiment is called "Sofrito" which is basically a mixture of a few different types of mild peppers, onions or garlic, perhaps some vinegar and maybe tomato.  It's like a pureed salsa fresca with a little more bitterness as it's pepper based.  Every grocery store sells at least a few variations of it and you can also buy a produce pack with the ingredients.  Sofrito is a true staple in island cuisine.  

Native Fruit
Much to my Sugar Detox torment, the island bears most of my favorite fruits-guavas, papayas, mangoes, pineapple, bananas/plantains and a new favorite, Soursop (aka "guayabana").  Also called a "custard apple", this fruit has a unique taste that's hard to describe.  It is sweet with a slightly grainy (like a pear) texture that also has a creamy, custard like quality.  Some don't like it for this reason, but I really enjoy it.  The flavor is kind of a hybrid of strawberry, pineapple, coconut and banana flavors.  It's also known to have many health benefits!  What's not to love?  
Mangoes are about to come in season and I see trees branches everywhere heavily weighted with fruit.  In about a month, it is so on.

Food Availability
Grocery stores are decent and food prices are about the same as in the states.  Maybe slightly cheaper.  They are certainly not as big as what I am used to but they are definitely "Supermercados" as opposed to "Bodegas". I buy as many of the local ingredients as possible since they are the least expensive---I eat a lot of carrots, mild green peppers, cilantro and more recently Calabaza (pumpkin).  Chicken and pork are easy to come by as well.  Most sell freshly baked bread, if you are into that sort of thing. Here is a photo of our local market.  The slogan means "you are part of our family!"---a very nice thing to say to a Puerto Rican. 

Unfortunately, finding organic anything is near impossible and if you do find it, you'll pay a pretty penny.  A few days ago I found a local health food store.  To my delight, they sold Almond Butter (Yes, this is the kind of stuff that I get excited about!). It wasn't organic, but I was still super stoked...until I got to the register.  They wanted $13 for the small jar.  Ugh, not gonna happen. :(
My saving grace has been Costco where you can get a decent amount of organic meats, tinned seafood, organic veg and (cue choir of angels) almond butter that costs less than a downpayment on a home.  For the most part, I do pride myself on shopping at the smaller establishments but I really can't pass up the quality/affordability of Costco on these items.  

Oddly enough, even though Puerto Rico is known for it's world class fishing, fresh fish is very hard to come by.  Fresh oysters are nearly impossible to find but Tommy chalks that up to the fact that they have to be shipped here and chance of spoilage is high.

Get Your Drank On
I'm not much of a drinker but people here certainly enjoy their booze.  It's a bit of a disturbing phenomenon that many gas stations sell beer by the can or bottle and it's not uncommon to see people come in, buy some gas and chug a beer real quick.  Being caught with an open container in  your car is also not a huge deal--you get a ticket but that's about it.  Kind of crazy.

All negativity aside, Puerto Rico is the birthplace of two of probably the best drinks well, ever.  This is the glorious land that gave us the Pina Colada and the Mojito.  I'm hoping you know what these two drinks are.  If you don't, and you partake of alcohol, you should totally try them asap.  A little on the sweet side but such an awesome combo of flavors.  Nothing conjures  up tropical daydreams like a drink served in a coconut:

Piña colada

If I do drink, I'm a Vodka and soda water with lemon girl (you can take the girl out of la....) but when I want to be all fancy, it doesn't get much better than a refreshing Mojito.
The Bacardi Rum plant is located on the island and offers free tours.  At the end of the tour, they give you two free drinks.  Pretty sweet deal!  Bacardi is kind of like the "Budweiser of Rum" though and Tommy has grown fond of a more high-end rum called "Barrilito". He says it is really smoky.  Not sure what that means but maybe you do.  I don't remember ever seeing it on the mainland but I wasn't really looking either.

Beyond rum drinks, which locals don't seem to drink too much of anyway, most people drink beer.  The local brands are Medalla (basically Puerto Rican Bud Light) and Magna (considered just a slight step up, with a somewhat sweeter taste).  You can get either of these beers for around $2-$3 a can at any bar or around $7 for a 6-pack.

Possibly the best thing that Puerto Rico has to offer, above ALL else, is the ridiculously amazing coffee.  It is so smooth, never too acidic and has an incredible flavor---coffee snobs would describe it as "an island profile".  The rich volcanic soil and climate has made coffee one of Puerto Rico's main crops throughout the years.  For the most part, you can't get it on the mainland, so if you do come for a visit you must try it.   We buy the relatively inexpensive stuff and it's still so much better than anything I used to get in California.  My stomach turns at the thought of drinking a cup from Starbucks.  I try to limit my consumption to one large cup in the morning and must admit that sometimes I go to bed excited that I can wake up and have another.  Most people drink it "Cafe Con Leche" style but I drink it with a little bit of unsweetened coconut milk or if in a cafe, I go "Americano".  How fitting.  I am literally fighting the urge to go get another cup from the kitchen now. 
I did it.  I couldn't resist.  It was worth it.

My Coconut Rant
The only thing that runs neck and neck with my love for PR coffee, is probably my love for all things coconut.  Coconut water, coconut milk, toasted coconut flakes, coconut curry, coconut pudding---I'm like Bubba from Forrest Gump.  I cannot get enough!
Being gluten-free, I've also become fond of Coconut Flour (the only flour substitute that I like).  Moving here I figured I'd be able to get all this stuff for a fraction of the price I paid in California and that it would be everywhere.  Hooray!
Unfortunately, I was met with another reality.  I cannot for the life of me find a coconut milk that doesn't have preservatives.   I started making my own, which was relatively easy and super tasty but the process is kind of time consuming and annoying in other ways.  Time isn't really an issue for me right this second but I kept accidentally grating my fingers with the veggie peeler when trying to get the meat free from the shell rind.  There is one brand that only has one preservative so I've bought that recently and don't seem to be having any digestive issues.  Unsweetened coconut flakes or Coconut Cream concentrate are two things I haven't found either.  Everything has sugar added!  Boo.  Have not found anywhere that sells coconut flour either.  I did find a tutorial online for how to make it myself but then just ordered it off of Amazon for under $10.  
A pretty common roadside site is this:
so coconut water is probably the easiest thing to find on my list of wants.  Everyone advertises "Coco Bien Frio" or "Very Cold Coconuts!" but it seems the more they promise, the more room temperature the coconut water.  I'm just happy when I have it, but it really is so much better well chilled.  If you try to buy it at the store and want something without added sugars,  you are going to pay a lot.  A carton I could get at Trader Joe's back in CA for $1.99 goes for about $6 here.  I don't get it.  
Is this some kind of Cocospiracy?! ARGGGGGGHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!
Okay, maybe that second cup of coffee was a bad idea....

Puerto Rican cuisine is rich in flavor and delivers stick-to-your-ribs sustenance with a Caribbean flair.  Mind you, I didn't even get to the desserts as I didn't want to put myself through the torture---still on the Sugar Detox!  If you aren't detoxing---click on this link to check out "Tembleque" or this youtube video for "Coconut Pineapple Bread Pudding with Rum Sauce a.k.a. Budin".  Ay Dios Mio!  I hope you will have the chance to try some of the delights I've highlighted here or any of the other unique dishes the island has to offer.   Before moving here, I'd really never eaten much Puerto Rican food but I know now I'll be a forever fan.
Buen Provecho!
xo, Juni

1 comment:

  1. 1. I CANNOT wait to visit you guys.
    2. Cocospiracy! haha!
    3. NYDIA!