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A unique and flavorsome fusion of indigenous dishes and European and African influences, Puerto Rican food is one of the most underrated culinary delights.
Packed with a dazzling array of native ingredients, with cachucha peppers and plantains being just two of many, adventurous foodie travelers, in particular, will be spoiled for choice at eateries and food markets across the island.
Guided by the expertise of a local writer, let us explore this truly eye-opening cuisine, through 16 of the island’s most traditional and popular foods.
Puerto Rican Foods To Try
Appetizers & Sides
1 – Alcapurria (Stuffed Fritter)
If you ever find yourself at a kiosk at one of Puerto Rico’s many beautiful beaches, you simply need to try alcapurrias. These beachside appetizers are made from a combination of the masa of green plantains, and yautía, a taro root. The dish is commonly filled with stewed crab meat and ground beef.
The masa (dough) of an alcapurria is made by grating the green plantains and yautía and mixing the ingredients into a smooth paste, then seasoning the mixture with salt and annatto.
Once the masa is ready, it is spooned onto a banana leaf or piece of aluminum foil, which is coated in oil and annatto. Be it tender crab meat, juicy ground beef, or a wide range of other fillings, once the alcapurria is assembled, it is then folded until the filling is covered and fried until golden brown. It is the perfect grab-and-go food to accompany you on strolls along the beach.
2 – Bacalaíto (Codfish Fritters)
Puerto Rican codfish fritters are popular appetizers, eaten from beach kiosks alongside alcapurrias. The fritters are also a traditional food item at cultural festivals like Las Fiestas de la Calle de San Sebastián (San Sebastián Street Festival).
Bacalaítos are made from salted codfish, all-purpose flour, baking powder, garlic, dried oregano, and ají dulce (sweet peppers). Before preparing, the cod is shredded and left to soak in water for one hour.
Once the salt has been removed from the cod, it is mixed with the other ingredients, and water is added. Dollops of the resulting codfish batter are then dropped into hot oil and fried. Once the bacalaítos are golden crispy, they are ready to eat.
3 – Tostones (Fried Green Plantains)
If you like savory foods, you will love tostones. Not only is this dish delicious, it is the fastest of all the plantain-based dishes to make.
This Puerto Rican appetizer is made by peeling and cutting the green plantains into small rounds. Some households will even leave slices in a bath of saltwater for a few minutes to soften the rounds before preparing.
The plantain slices are placed in a skillet with hot oil and fried until golden yellow. The slices are then removed, and squashed using a tostonera (a tool for pressing the plantains) before being fried in the pan one last time to crisp up the slices.
Tostones are served seasoned, with a little garlic. If you want to feel like a true Puerto Rican, dip them in a mayo-ketchup sauce. You won’t regret it!
4 – Amarillos (Fried Sweet Plantains)
If you are a lover of fried foods with a sweet flavor, then this is a must-try Puerto Rico appetizer for you. Amarillos, or maduros, are the sweeter siblings of the just-mentioned savory tostones.
The main difference is that amarillos are made from ripe plantains. Ripe plantains are yellow in color with black spots, rather than green.
For this dish, the only ingredients needed are ripe plantain and oil in a skillet. The plantains traditionally are cut into diagonal slices. Then, once the oil is hot, they are fried in the skillet until golden brown. The hot oil caramelizes the sugars in the ripe plantain, creating a crispy and sweet outer coating.
5 – Arroz Blanco con Habichuelas (White Rice and Beans)
White rice and beans are a staple in any Puerto Rican household. It is easy to prepare and a great side to any meat dish.
The white rice is made separately in a pot with water, salt, and olive oil. The red kidney beans are cooked in a small pot containing tomato sauce, cubed pumpkin, smoked ham, and sofrito.
Sofrito is a staple in a Puerto Rican household. It is used to season food, and it is typically made from a blend of ají dulce, onions, garlic, recao, cilantro, and peppers.
After the rice and beans are cooked, they are served side by side with meat like chicken or a fried pork chop. Wholesome and simple, this is hearty Puerto Ricon home-cooking at its best.
6 – Arroz con Gandules (Rice with Pigeon Peas)
Arroz con gandules is a hearty dish of Puerto Rican rice with pigeon peas. It is one of the island’s beloved national dishes, alongside pernil (roasted pork).
Rice with pigeon peas is mainly eaten for special occasions, such as Christmas. In my household, arroz con gandules is a nostalgic reminder of being at home with my grandmother and the unforgettable aroma of comfort food.
To cook arroz con gandules, traditionally, you need to first leave the pigeon peas ‘remojando en agua’, meaning soaking in water, to soften them up. Once prepared, annatto seeds are heated in an oiled pan before the rice is added, to give the rice its characteristic yellow color.
Finally, sofrito is added and sautéed with smoked ham. For extra flavor, a plantain leaf is added under the lid to cover the rice.
7 – Mofongo (Stuffed Plantain Fritter)
Mofongo is a ‘volcano’ of fried plantain, that can either be eaten alone or accompanied by chicken, fried meat, or shrimp. It is a dish that has roots in both the African and Taíno influences on Puerto Rican cuisine.
A Puerto Rican mofongo is made the same way as the previously mentioned tostones, but the plantains are fried once instead of twice. Once removed from the oil, the fried plantains are mashed in a wooden pilón (a mortar and pestle), and no Puerto Rican home is without a pilón!
To complete the dish garlic is added, and the mashed plantains are molded into a dome and served with the meat of choice. You can find this Puerto Rican delicacy anywhere across the island. It is simple, rich, and so delicious.
8 – Pionono de Carne (Plantain Meat Pie)
Pionono is a dish of ripe plantains, sliced lengthways, cooked in oil until golden. The slices are then tied by the tips, creating a dome shape, and placed on the pan for the second round of frying.
To complete the dish, the dome is filled with juicy meat and shredded cheese, creating a Puerto Rican food packed with flavor and texture. In some versions of pionono de carne, a beaten egg is used to seal the top and lock in the flavor.
9 – Pastelón (Plantain ‘Lasagna’)
Pastelón is a hearty and flavorsome plantain dish, with a composition inspired by traditional Italian lasagna. In many Puerto Ricans’ eyes, they’ve made lasagna even better!
This Puerto Rican favorite is made from sliced ripe plantains, fried on a skillet. Once all the slices have been fried, the dish is assembled with layers of fried plantain and seasoned ground beef, previously cooked, and finished with a generous helping of grated cheese.
Baked in the oven, this is a hearty, filling dish, with the plantain and ground beef adding a welcome dash of sweetness and spice to each and every mouthful. It works in Italy, and it definitely works in Puerto Rico.
10 – Pasteles (Puerto Rican Tamales)
Pasteles are one of the three dishes you simply can’t do without in a Puerto Rican Christmas meal, with the other two being pernil and arroz con gandules.
My fondest Christmas memory is making pasteles at my grandmother’s house, managing the guayo (grater) station, and grating the sliced yautía and green plantains into a big bowl.
Making pasteles is an arduous process, usually involving many family members. It is tradition for everyone to gather at one house to make them, and while time-consuming to make, it is more than worth it.
There are two kinds of pasteles: those made of masa, and those of yuca. Masa pasteles are made from a mixture of yautía, green banana, and green plantains, while yuca pasteles are made with cassava root. The mixture is then spread on a banana leaf, filled with meat, wrapped, and finally boiled in water. Christmas in Puerto Rico simply isn’t Christmas without this dish.
11 – Guanimes con Bacalao (Tamales with Cod)
Guanimes are similar to tamale, a dish of dough or masa wrapped in a banana leaf with fillings, that dates back to the Taíno ancestry in Puerto Rico.
A guanime is made from a simple mixture of corn flour and coconut milk. Both ingredients are mixed in a small pot at medium heat until a soft masa is formed. The mixture is then spread on a banana leaf or aluminum foil, rolled, and boiled in water before eating.
Guanimes are best served with stewed cod. In Puerto Rico, stewed cod is traditionally cooked in a mixture of onions, peppers, garlic, and tomato sauce, in a pan over low heat. Flavorsome and filling, you can also find guanimes de platano across the country, a variation of the dish that uses shredded green plantains.
12 – Asopao de Gandules (Pigeon Pea Soup)
A good asopao, or soup, for many Puerto Ricans is reminiscent of rainy days or the food prepared for you as a child when you’re feeling under the weather. This hearty soup is filled with wonderful nutrients, that will help you sweat out your cold or flu in no time at all!
Puerto Rican soups are known for being dense and filling. A common saying is that they ‘revive muertos’, meaning that they can ‘raise the dead.’
An asopao de gandules is made in a big pot over the stove at medium heat, left for several hours to allow the flavors to simmer together. The main ingredients of this soup are cubed ham, sofrito, chicken broth, and of course, pigeon peas.
A great way to eat this hearty soup is with bolitas de plátanos (balls of green plantain) that are thrown into the soup. This beloved dish takes so many Puerto Ricans back to their childhood.
13 – Coquito (Rum with Coconut)
Puerto Rico is known for having one of the longest Christmas periods in the world. Puerto Rican Christmas starts right after Thanksgiving Day and ends in January on Las Octavitas (eight days after Three Kings Day), and it can not be done without many glasses of coquito to fuel it all.
Many of the Puerto Rican Christmas dishes are prepared on a foundation of wholesome coconut milk. But if you ever find yourself at a Puerto Rican Christmas party, coquito is the first dish you have to try.
This Puerto Rican eggnog has a base of coconut cream, topped with plenty of white rum. At home, this indulgent drink is made in a large pot, in which one stews the coconut milk, coconut cream, sweetened condensed milk, rum, sugar, cloves, cinnamon, star anise, and egg yolk. It is chilled before serving.
Through the years, many varieties of coquito have been developed, including Nutella and pistachio-flavored variations.
14 – Tres Leches (Three-Milks Sponge Cake)
Tres leches is a sponge cake popular in Puerto Rico (and several other world cuisines, including Mexico, Nicaragua, Cuba, Guatemala, and most of Latin America).
It is usually made for celebrating family occasions, such as birthdays, Christmas, and Thanksgiving.
Its name, ‘tres leches,’ means ‘three milks’, and the dish is synonymous with what it is made of. It is renowned for its sweet flavor, sprinkled with powdered cinnamon for an extra kick.
The three types of milk needed to make tres leches are evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk, and full-fat milk. This milk mixture is what is used to soak the sponge cake in. The result is a light and airy cake, which is topped and smeared with heavy whipped cream before serving.
15 – Tembleque (Coconut Milk Pudding)
The name tembleque comes from the words ‘temblequeo’ and ‘temblor’, which means ‘to jitter’ and ‘tremble’ respectively. As a staple Christmas dessert, coconut milk is the star ingredient of this rich, jiggly Puerto Rican pudding.
Tembleque consists of fresh coconut milk, sugar, a pinch of salt, sugar, cornstarch, and powdered cinnamon. It is made by combining the coconut milk, salt, and sugar, and cooking them in a saucepan over low heat. The cornstarch is added to the milk mixture, little by little, until a smooth pudding forms.
The dessert is left to cool for several minutes, then poured into a mold to cool completely. Finally, tembleque is refrigerated until its texture is wobbly but firm. Served with a dusting of cinnamon, it is a hearty dessert with just the right amount of sweetness.
16 – Arroz con Dulce (Rice Pudding)
Popular in so many world cuisines, arroz con dulce, or sweet rice pudding, is another staple at any Puerto Rican celebration or gathering. This wholesome pudding smells of home, Christmas, and festivities. Fragrant and filling, arroz con dulce is made from a simple, humble combination of coconut milk, cinnamon, and spices, sometimes served topped with raisins.
The spices in arroz con dulce vary from recipe to recipe, often containing various combinations of cloves, cinnamon sticks, and ginger. The pudding itself is a mixture of coconut milk, evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk, vanilla extract, brown and white sugar, and star anise.
The infusion of spices is what gives arroz con dulce its sweet and unique flavor. It is a Puerto Rican food that millions across the country love and enjoy at all times of the year, but especially over the Christmas period.
Puerto Rican Foods Summary
A trip to Puerto Rico simply isn’t complete without trying as many of the country’s traditional and popular dishes as you can. Born from humble ingredients and resourceful cooking techniques, food is a huge part of the island’s culture.
Puerto Rican foods fuse ancient indigenous techniques and European influences to make a cuisine that brings unique ingredients and alluring flavors to the table, in both sweet and savory dishes.
Where you can, try these dishes at local eateries and family-run restaurants, for a truly authentic taste of Puerto Rico. You will not regret it!
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Contributor: Arantxa Quiñones is a translator and content writer from San Juan, Puerto Rico. She has written in both English and Spanish for various publications.
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