The food in Puerto Rico is a lot like its people—bold, enticing and varied. Moderation does not exist where rice, beans and pork are involved. Guests will be hard-pressed to leave a Puerto Rican event without at least two meals crammed between paper plates and enveloped by aluminum foil. After all, food that good is worth having again at midnight and for lunch the next day.
Puerto Rican cuisine is a blend of native and foreign influences. Some ingredients predate Spanish settlement, such as yucca and plantains. Others, like olives and salted cod, were introduced by Columbus. Soon thereafter, when Puerto Rico was designated as a port along the slave trade route, African influences and cooking methods infused the island.
Today, Puerto Rican food has evolved into a blend of flavors and spices that reflects the diversity of its roots. Those visiting the island for the first time may be unsure of what they’re eating or nervous that all the dishes will be spicy. To help, this guide will identify 23 delicious Puerto Rican foods that the world can know and love.
Eating a shrimp mofongo in Old San Juan is, as Enrique Iglesias would put it, “un experiencia religiosa.” Plantains are fried and mashed in a mortar and pestle before being mixed with a little bit of bacon fat and your choice of protein, piled high on a plate and surrounded by chicken broth.
2. Tres leches
Puerto Ricans take traditional yellow sponge cake to the next level by drenching it in 3 milks: condensed, evaporated, and dairy. The dessert soaks overnight and is topped with handmade whipped cream, and cherries.
No major celebration is complete without a lechón, or whole roast pig, as the treasured centerpiece of the table. 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
On the island, children typically wake up to the smell of harina de maíz, cornmeal that is mixed with sugar, milk and vanilla to form the Puerto Rican version of 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 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 are shish kebabs, usually 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. Puerto Ricans aren’t big on veggies—a typical side salad consists of just iceberg lettuce, tomatoes and salt.
Flan is a custard that’s similar to creme brûlée, cooked in a hot water bath and made from all-natural ingredients.
Tembleque means wobbly, and that’s the perfect way to describe this dessert. It looks gelatinous like flan but has a creamy texture. The main ingredients are coconut and cinnamon and if you want to try your hand at making this dish you can buy the prepackaged Goya mix at most major supermarkets.
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 and give McDonald’s a run for its money.
When green plantains aren’t getting mashed to make mofongo, they’re sliced and double fried to make tostones. This is the most popular side dish 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 plantains and are not to be confused with tostones. Maduros are caramelized with a slightly slimier texture and distinctly sweet flavor. This is one of the few sweet accompaniments that you’ll find on the menu as Puerto Ricans generally tend to lean more towards savory flavors in their meals.
You don’t get cold weather blues in Puerto Rico, but it is still nice to indulge in a rich soup like asopao. Chicken broth-based and served with a side of rice to drop in your bowl, this piping hot dish is a staple on Puerto Rican menus and the best cure for what ails you.
Alcapurrias are the preferred fast-food dish on the island. The batter is made from taro root and green plantains then stuffed with seasoned ground beef. In Puerto Rico, you will not find raisins in any ground beef dish–just bell peppers, onions, and olives.
You know the holidays have arrived when everyone is drinking coquito at a close family gathering, consisting of at least 50 people. There is always someone in every family with a killer secret recipe. The coconut eggnog is mixed and chilled overnight before being doused with a generous portion of Puerto Rican rum.
15. Guineos en escabeche
Pickling is not the most common food preparation method used on the island, but guineos en escabecheare the exception. These pickled green bananas are flavored with onions, bay leaves and white vinegar. You haven’t experienced a Puerto Rican Thanksgiving until you’re forced fed a spoonful of these by a doting Puerto Rican grandmother.
Pernil is one of the most palatable dishes for those not accustomed to Hispanic cuisine. Pork shoulder is slow roasted and pulled apart into thick pieces. A common lunch or dinner consists of pernil with mojo sauce, rice and beans.
Pasteles are typically reserved for special occasion, with most Puerto Rican families preparing them by the dozen. They are made of plantains, potatoes and pumpkins, 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 island pastry, stuffed with beef, chicken, shrimp or cheese. They are a cheap and easy way to repurpose leftovers and are ideal for feeding bigger households. Learning to fold and seal an empanada is a rite of passage and a treasured memory for most Puerto Rican children.
19. Arroz con gandules
Every Caribbean island serves rice in abundance, but the distinguishing factor in Puerto Rican rice is the presence of green pigeon peas known as gandules. This is the dish around which many meals are centered. Without arroz con gandules, there is no dinner.
Bistec is beef steak, served either encebollado (with onions) or 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 passion fruit, one of the most consumed fruits on the island. Subway restaurants, which can have a line out the door in the mornings for their custom omelets, sell jugo de parcha more than they sell orange juice. 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 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 but must be constantly tended in order to avoid a smoky flavor. The dessert is reminiscent of childhood on the island.
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. Unlike their guyaba counterparts, quesitos have no strong or off-putting flavors so they appeal to anyone who likes pastries. They can be purchased throughout the island, even at the airport upon landing.