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The Toronto Star

There's No Fear Of Frying In Puerto Rico

Susan Sampson

16 February 2005
Copyright © 2005 The Toronto Star. All rights reserved.

LUQUILLO, Puerto Rico -- At the public beach in Luquillo, snack hunters are lured westward by the smell of hot fat and spices. Their noses lead them from the sandy crescent marked with coconut palms to a concrete strip lined with food kiosks.

Here, vendors work their magic with pots of sizzling grease. And their customers satisfy hunger pangs with twice-fried plantains, fried yuca rounds, fried cheese sticks. The tacos are flour tortillas, rolled, stuffed and fried. The pizzas are turnovers stuffed with cheese and tomato, and fried. Sweet fried plantains are wrapped around spiced ground beef or cheese and fried in batter. Grated green bananas and taro are wrapped around crabmeat or pork or beef picadillo, and deep-fried.

The rickety kiosks are numbered, more than 70 in a row, from souvenir booths to sit-down eateries. The beach is a beloved spot for Puerto Ricans, and their appetite for fried food is strong. The locals know their favourites, and recommend them by number.

I am part of a small group of visitors, trudging in the energy-sapping humidity and sampling the wares. We find our way to an eatery near the end of the strip. Like restaurants and bars in San Juan, the capital, they are energy hogs, throwing open doors and windows while the air conditioning buzzes and fans whir. The cool air is soothing. We cut the grease in our stomachs with iced margaritas and feed fried mashed plantains to stray pups that have been playing underfoot.

There is no fear of frying in Puerto Rico. Many favourites - like Tostones (green plantain rounds) - are fried not once, but twice, then drizzled with garlicky oil for a triple whammy. For visitors weaned on the North American horror of fatty food, it is culinary culture shock.

In Puerto Rico, fritters are downhome, everyday food. You might find Tostones alongside fried pork chops or fried steak and onions. Meanwhile, Mofongo (the Caribbean island's signature dish) is made by mashing Tostones with chicken or pork cracklings (Chicharonnes), garlic and olive oil.

("Serve with fried pork meat and fried onions ... yummy!" advises Carmen Santos de Curran, known as The Rican Chef at .)

Some eateries devote separate menus to this signature dish in all its glory, as a side and, when stuffed, a main course. El Focon De Abula restaurant in Camuy, for example, advertises 12 types of Mofongo, including one with octopus.

This is a country where the plantain is king. The green ones are called platanos verdes, the ripe, sweeter ones, amarillos. Cooks generate a steady stream of fried ideas for them. Platanutres (plantain crisps) or Arañitas (plantain sticks fried and spiced with garlic) are finger-licking good alternatives to potato chips. Mofongo Bolitas (balls) are added to stews and soups. Piononos (fried amarillo strips rolled around stuffing and battered) may trace their name back to Pope Pius IX, known as Pio Nono for his love of jelly rolls. There's even an all-plantain restaurant in Jaguey called Platano Loco. It sells sandwiches, soups, tacos, burgers and even a dessert flan "de platano."

Plantains aside, Puerto Ricans never met a vegetable they didn't like to fry. Yuca and sweet potatoes frequently get the hot oil treatment. And for dessert, you can try sweet fried dumplings made with calabaza, or West Indian pumpkin. These are called Barriguitas de Viejas, or old mamas' bellies - which is what you'll get if you eat too many.

Other popular fritters: Empanadas or Pastelillos (meat or seafood turnovers), Almojabanas (rice flour with cheese), Alcapurrias (taro root and green bananas, stuffed with tangy beef picadillo or canned corned beef perhaps), Sorullitos (cornsticks with cheese).

Versatile salt cod is transformed into remarkably tasty spiced fritters called Bacalaitos. Fish fillets are fried and smothered in tangy tomato sauce.

Oil stained orange with annatto seeds, or achiote, is a pantry staple that gives a golden glow to fritters and rice.

Soups, stews and rice dishes have as their base a saute of fried vegetables such as onions, garlic, pepper and perhaps tomatoes, and herbs like culantro, or recao, a stronger-tasting version of cilantro. Not surprisingly, sofrito is Spanish for frying. Salt pork, or fatback, a traditional ingredient in sofrito, is falling out of favour.

Another concession to evolving tastes: Lard is being replaced by corn oil for cooking. At the modern Pueblo supermarket in Isla Verde, San Juan's upscale hotel and condo neighbourhood, shelves groan with jugs of corn oil. Olive oil, meanwhile, is used to drizzle and flavour.

"Even older ladies have switched to oil," Josue Merced-Reyes tells me at the conference of the Association of Food Journalists. He is the host of a radio show celebrating Caribbean food.

According to Yvonne Ortiz, writing in her cookbook A Taste of Puerto Rico: Traditional and New Dishes from the Puerto Rican Comminity (Dutton, 1994, $22), health issues slowly began to make in impression in the 1980s.

But the switch has not been without a struggle.

Viviana Carballo, a Cuban who lives in Florida and writes about Caribbean food, says it's tough to kick the lard habit. The use of lard lingers, she says, because it makes Mofongo taste good. Cooks still tend to add a blob of lard to rice dishes for flavouring, she says.

In Puerto Rican Cookery (Pelican Publishing Co., 2003), writer Carmen Aboy Valldejuli usually calls for lard first over oil. A typical instruction: "In a large frying pan, heat abundant fat."

The young and hip acknowledge their fried food past but seem to live in denial of its continuing hold on the nation's cuisine and eating habits.

Slim and chic in a little black dress, Brenda Angueira insists her generation eats fried food "just a little" and "every once in a while." Angueira, public relations manager at the posh Ritz-Carlton Hotel in San Juan, shrugs off the topic like shooing away a fly.

We are at a banquet for the visiting food journalists. Ritz chef Alain Gruber has turned the event into a showcase for his Nuevo Boricua cuisine. (The name is derived from Boriquen, which is what the indigenous Taino Indians called their island before they were exterminated by the Spaniards.) Gruber fuses classic Puerto Rican cuisine - fritters and all - with contemporary global flavours. Thus, you might encounter Cantonese-spiced duck Piononos with tamarind and lemongrass demi-glace. Or red curry Bacalaitos with a dipping relish of chayote, cucumber and fruit.

Restaurants are experimenting all over San Juan. At Chayote, a chic in-spot with clean lines and earthy decor, I pick at a salad of spinach greens with chicken cracklings, farmer cheese and grated fried plantain. Is that the sizzle of hot oil in the kitchen that I detect over the tasteful, muted music?

It is a slow night and the young, slim waiter chats us up. It only takes one question about fried food to get him going about a diabetic father who won't lay off the grease and a government that doesn't do enough to spread a healthy eating message. He says he tries to stay away from fried food, but it's hard to avoid.

San Juan is a curious blend of modern America and tropical decay. Pastel apartment blocks and crumbling stone contrast with public art that reveals a fondness for contemporary geometric sculptures. Tired storefronts compete with the huge Plaza Las Americas mall, which pushes all the shiny consumer buttons. The cuisine, too, is old and new, upscale and downscale.

Barrachina in Old San Juan advertises: "Puerto Rican delights assorted fried delicacies."

The Longhorn Steakhouse chain sells breaded, fried cheesecake with strawberries, drizzled with raspberry and caramel swirl, then topped with whipped cream.

At Ajili-Mojili, often recommended as the city's top destination for traditional but refined food, I munch on fritters of taro and cheese. Oddly, the table is covered with (could it be?) butcher paper. It clashes with the ambience, but easily soaks up stray spots of grease.

The heat and the grease may weigh heavy on visitors who have not the stamina or the stomachs of the local populace. After my fried day in Luquillo, I spy a salad bar anchored by a tub of sad-looking lettuce, and fall upon it like a thirsty traveller at an oasis. I am in the Ponderosa chain, so I order a grilled skirt steak, known as churrasco. Somehow, in San Juan, eating grilled red meat can make you feel virtuous.

Ah, barbacao! That's what the Taino Indians called grilling, and it's one of their legacies. It was the African slaves who introduced the use of plantains, as well as their favourite method of cooking: frying. The Spanish, Dutch, French, Italian and Chinese also added their flavours to the Puerto Rican mix now known as Criolla cuisine.

It's obvious Puerto Ricans love to eat and they take their food seriously. Case in point: Even the souvenir postcards are printed with recipes.

Have frypan, will travel.

280898-194623.jpg | The Ritz-Carlton Hotel in San Juan fuses classic Puerto Rican dishes with contemporary global flavours in a cuisine dubbed Nuevo Boricua. Examples include, above, Cantonese-spiced duck Piononos with tamarind and lemongrass demi-glace and, right, red curry Bacalaitos with a dipping relish of chayote, cucumber and fruit. These Bacalaitos are not puffy like the ones in our recipe below.

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