Rich Port, Richer Food: Essential Puerto Rican Dishes Everyone Should Know

The cuisine of the Spanish Caribbean region demonstrates how different and seemingly disparate cultures can contribute to a natural form of culinary fusion. Puerto Rican cuisine, in particular, dates back to 1493, when Christopher Columbus’ expedition allowed Spain to colonize the island. La Mallorquina is one of the oldest restaurants in Old San Juan, opening in 1848, and the first cookbook, E l Cocinero Puerto-Riqueño o Formulario, was published in 1859.

Three seemingly unrelated sources influence traditional Puerto Rican dishes. The indigenous Tainos tribe had been growing root vegetables and tropical fruits for thousands of years. Spanish colonizers brought their own livestock and also developed a seafood-based economy. The arrival of African slaves as plantation workers introduced new cooking techniques and unique spice blends. Because Puerto Rico is now a territory of the United States, there has also been a notable American culinary influence.

8 Essential Puerto Rican Dishes Every Foodie Should Know


Empanadillas are small, crescent-shaped turnovers usually filled with a tasty mixture of ground beef and potatoes. Available fried or baked, the empanadilla filling contains two Puerto Rican staples: sofrito and achiote.

Much like Indian curry, sofrito recipes vary from region to region, but Puerto Rican sofrito incorporates onions, cubanelle peppers, garlic, cilantro, ajices dulces peppers, cilantro, culantro, tomatoes and red pepper. These ingredients are ground into a fine paste in a food processor.

Achiote is a nutty, sweet, earthy spice sold in powder and oil forms.

After filling and frying, a Puerto Rican empanadilla has a slightly crispy crust that holds a generous portion of filling. Popular alternatives to ground beef include lobster, conch, and shrimp.

Potato toppings

“The first Puerto Rican dish I tried was papa’s rellenos,” shares Michael Pollick of Media Decision. “I was amazed by the depth of flavor. This wasn’t your typical spicy Hispanic side dish or chunky American comfort food. The sofrito brought a unique flavor combination and the plantains, which I had never had before, were surprisingly good.

Rellenos de papa, often served as an aperitif or on the street, combine a croquette made from mashed potatoes with picadillo, ground beef or pork seasoned with sofrito. Additional ingredients might include onions and cheese. Plantains or breadfruit are sometimes used instead of potatoes. The croquettes are breaded and fried before being served.

Tostones and Maduros

Plantains are considered a staple food in Puerto Rico. To prepare the savory tostones, unripened green plantains are fried twice in oil, then sprinkled with salt and served with garlic sauce. Tostones are the equivalent of fries in American cuisine.

Fully ripe plantains, which look a lot like bananas, are used to create their sweet counterpart called maduros. Maduros can be lightly fried in oil or grilled and served as a side dish to offset salty or spicy dishes.


Pasteles are considered an essential Christmas food in Puerto Rico, but are labor intensive. The preparation is reminiscent of masa-based tamales, with a soft, vegetable-based dough shell wrapped and steamed in banana leaves. The dough is a seasoned mixture of grated green plantains, green bananas, malanga/yutía (a root vegetable similar to yuca), and potato or pumpkin with milk.

The filling may contain pork, as well as tropical vegetables and possibly pumpkin. The filling and masa-type dough are seasoned with achiote and/or sofrito. Meat fillings include pork, tropical vegetables and pumpkin. The filling and dough are often seasoned with achiote and/or sofrito.


Mofongo has become an iconic dish of Puerto Rican cuisine and has also made its way onto American menus. The base of mofongo is a mixture of fried plantains, crispy pork skin and garlic, but there are dozens of regional variations when it comes to the meat and spice toppings. It is usually served as a side dish, but can also be portioned as a complete entrée. American versions of mofongo typically add pieces of grilled chicken or pork to make a substantial main dish. The dish is often garnished with shrimp compote.


Pernil is a slow-roasted pork shoulder that can take almost an entire day to prepare, but the end result is a fork-tender roast that falls apart easily. A whole pork shoulder, butt or leg is seasoned with salt, pepper, sofrito, Adobo, oregano and sometimes a sachet of Sazon spices.

The meat is roasted very slowly for hours and can be marinated or drizzled with oil and citrus. The finished dish is often served with rice or bread and mojito sauce. The crispy skin is also crumbled and used as a garnish for the pork.

Chicken stew

Pollo guisado is a one-pot chicken stew considered a comfort food in Puerto Rico. Dark meat chicken is browned and cooked with adobo, sofrito, achiote, garlic, cilantro, oregano and other seasonings. The broth for the stew is usually made from tomatoes. Pollo guisado vegetables vary greatly from region to region, but hot root vegetables like potatoes and carrots are common. Olives are also popular additions, as are peppers and onions.

Pollo guisado is usually served in a large bowl as a stew, with a garnish of red pepper flakes and parsley.

Rice with beans / Rice with pigeon peas

The Puerto Rican version of beans and rice, arroz con habichuelas or gandules, is a comfort food staple usually served as a side with sliced ​​avocado, fried plantains or picadillo. The beans are heavily seasoned with bacon grease and sofrito, but regional recipes allow for pigeon peas, herb blends, Spanish olives, and local seasonings. This tasty dish can also be used as a base for meat dishes. Sazon and adobo spices are commonly added to many Puerto Rican rice and bean recipes.

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