The food in Puerto Rico is bold, enticing, and varied. Guests and locals alike are hard-pressed to leave a Puerto Rican event without at least two meals crammed between paper plates and enveloped with aluminum foil. After all, food this good is worth having again at midnight and for lunch the next day.
Puerto Rican cuisine is a blend of indigenous and foreign influences. Some ingredients predate Spanish settlement, such as yucca and plantains. Others, like olives and salted cod, were introduced by European colonialists. After Puerto Rico was designated as a port along the slave trade route, African influences and cooking methods were brought to the island.
Today, Puerto Rican food has evolved into a blend of flavors and spices that reflects its diversity. These 23 delicious Puerto Rican foods are just an introduction to the island’s cuisine that people around the world should know and love.
This local favorite is made with mashed and fried plantains mixed with oil, garlic, and spices. Shrimp and chicharrónes are sometimes added as well. Mofongo is one of Puerto Rico’s most important dishes, and it’s a blend of cultures and traditions. The dish can trace its roots back to fufu, a West African dish of mashed root vegetables that was brought to Puerto Rico by slaves. On the island, the mashing was done by a pilón, the mortar and pestle used by the indigenous Taino people, and the mixture fried. Finally, Spanish sofrito sauce (which is made with onions, garlic, and peppers) was added. Today, this combination is served and loved all over the island.
2. Tres leches
Puerto Ricans take traditional yellow sponge cake to the next level by drenching it in three types of milk: condensed, evaporated, and regular. The dessert soaks overnight in the milks, and then it’s topped with whipped cream before serving for a sweet, satisfying dessert. It’s similar to the tres leches made in Central and South America, Europe, and elsewhere around the world.
Like the lechón in the Philippines, few major celebrations in Puerto Rico are complete without a lechón, or whole roast pig, as the treasured centerpiece of the table. The pig is roasted on a spit over a fire for the better part of the day before being taken off and enjoyed. Christmas carols are sung about the unlucky pig at holiday parrandas, and the first meat to go is always the facial cheeks.
4. Harina de maíz
In Puerto Rico, many children wake up to the smell of harina de maíz, which is cornmeal that’s mixed with sugar, milk, and vanilla to form a breakfast similar to oatmeal. This porridge is finer than polenta or grits and has a sweet flavor to appeal to picky eaters.
Salted cod is a beloved side dish around the world on its own, but Puerto Ricans make it more appetizing by turning it into a patty and deep frying it. The cod goes through a desalination process before cooking, so the result is surprisingly neutral, even for those not fond of fish. Bacalaitos go great with a garlic dipping sauce.
Pinchos (Spanish for spikes) are shish kebabs that are usually made with chicken, pork, or shrimp. You’ll find street vendor carts lining the beaches of Puerto Rico selling meat that has been cooked on the spot. Don’t be surprised by the lack of vegetables on your skewer, as this street-food favorite is all about the meat.
Flan is a custard that’s similar to creme brûlée and is popular in much of Latin America. In Puerto Rico, flan is made with evaporated and condensed milk, eggs, vanilla, and caramel that’s cooked in a hot water bath.
Tembleque means wobbly, and that’s the perfect way to describe this dessert. It looks gelatinous like flan (and looks somewhat similar as well), but has a creamy texture based around coconut rather than dairy. The main ingredients are coconut and cinnamon. Tembleque is eaten throughout the year, but it’s especially prevalent during the holiday season when other coconut treats are popular as well, like coquito.
Yucca is a root vegetable much like a potato. It can be served mashed or fried, usually in thick wedges. It’s also commonly seen at restaurants boiled, peeled, and served with a dash of salt and garlic. Yucca fries are a staple at fast food chains throughout the island.
When green plantains aren’t getting mashed to make mofongo, they’re sliced and double fried to make tostones. This is one of the most popular side dishes on the island. You’ll also find them commonly used in place of nachos in a loaded-nacho dish. Be warned: Tostones are much more filling than your average corn chip.
Maduros are made of sweet, slightly over-ripe plantains that are simply fried in oil. The simplicity of the treat means ripeness is key: not too brown, green, or yellow. The plantain is sliced diagonally into thin pieces to be quickly fried, and the result is a sweet and lightly crunchy snack.
You don’t get cold weather blues in Puerto Rico, but it is still nice to indulge in a rich soup like asopao. Asopao is made with chicken, sofrito, olives, and spices, and it’s served with a side of rice to drop in your bowl. This piping hot dish is a staple on Puerto Rican menus and is the best cure for whatever ails you.
Alcapurrias are the preferred fried fast-food dish on the island. The fritter’s batter is made from taro root and green plantains which is then stuffed with seasoned ground beef. Alcapurrias are common in the Caribbean, and in Puerto Rico, bell peppers, onions, and olives are often included in the stuffing.
You know the holidays have arrived when everyone is drinking coquito at a close family gathering. There is always someone in every family with a killer secret recipe. Similar in texture to eggnog, coquitos are made with evaporated and condensed milks, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, and coconut cream. The whole thing is mixed and chilled overnight before being doused with a generous portion of rum.
15. Guineos en escabeche
Pickling is not the most common food preparation method used on the island, but guineos en escabeche are the exception. These pickled green bananas are flavored with onions, bay leaves, and white vinegar. They’re typically served as a side for a hearty meat dish. You haven’t experienced a Puerto Rican Thanksgiving until you’re fed a spoonful of these by a doting Puerto Rican grandmother.
Pernil is pork shoulder that’s seasoned and slow roasted until it falls apart into thick pieces. And by slow roasted, we mean slow roasted — timing ranges from hours to a full day depending on the thickness of the shoulder. A common lunch or dinner consists of pernil with mojo sauce, rice, and beans.
Pasteles are similar to tamales and are typically reserved for special occasion, with most Puerto Rican families preparing them by the dozen. They are made of plantains, potatoes, and pumpkins, and then mixed with meat and secured in a banana leaf with twine before being boiled. They keep well in the freezer, so family members commonly give them to each other by the bagful.
Empanadas are the quintessential savory island pastry, and you’ll find the Puerto Rican version stuffed with beef, chicken, shrimp, or cheese. They are a cheap and easy way to repurpose leftovers and are common in homes and as an on-the-go snack.
19. Arroz con gandules
Many Caribbean islands serve rice in abundance, but the distinguishing factor in Puerto Rican rice is the presence of sofrito and green pigeon peas known as gandules. This is the dish around which many meals are centered. In many cases, without arroz con gandules, there is no complete dinner.
Bistec is beef steak, served either encebollado (with onions), empanizado (breaded), pan fried, or grilled. Bistec is a common lunch-special item, with most restaurants serving your choice of bistec, fish, or chicken a la parilla (on the grill) at a discounted price.
Parcha is passionfruit, one of the most consumed fruits on the island. It’s consumed in all forms, including jugo de parcha (passion fruit juice), ripe right from the stand, or in drinks. You’ll also find roaming ice cream vendors in the streets of San Juan selling parcha ice cream, a welcome treat on a hot day.
22. Arroz con dulce
Arroz con dulce is a sweet rice pudding made with coconut milk, nutmeg, raisins, cloves, and cinnamon. It can be a tough dish to master as it requires sufficient soaking time to soften the rice, and it must be constantly tended in order to avoid a smoky flavor.
It’s customary to save the best for last, and quesitos are no exception. These sweet, cream cheese puff pastries are glazed with sugar and oven-baked. Quesitos have no strong or off-putting flavors and they appeal to anyone who likes pastries. They can be purchased throughout the island, even at the airport upon landing.
A version of this article was previously published on August 22, 2017, by Jen Ruiz and was updated on July, 21, 2020, by food and drink editor Nickolaus Hines.