A First Taste of Santo Domingo

Dominican cuisine is often summed up in a few main iconic dishes, including La Bandera (rice, beans and meat), sancocho, and mangú. As the case of neighboring Puerto Rico and Cuba, the cuisine is influenced by the historic amalgamation of culinary traditions from the indigenous Tainos, the Spanish colonizers, and the African slaves. Additionally, Dominican cuisine  has been and continues to be greatly influenced by incoming migration. For example, the Arab migration of the 19th century is seen in the Dominican version of the quipe (pictured below). Exchanges with neighboring Puerto Ricans has resulted in the incorporation of the mofongo, and the recent influx of Venezuelans is perceptible in new restaurants and menu additions, such as the cachapas.

Quipe de chivo (Source: Instagram)

Last week, I visited Santo Domingo for the very first time. Part of the purpose of the visit was to learn and sample how local restaurants are constructing Dominican cuisine in the island. Granted, eating out is still not widespread in the general population. The restaurants I visited seemed to cater mostly to tourists and to the middle/upper class segments of society. The prices were far from the cost of the platos del día (dishes of the day) found in smaller food establishments, where for a few hundred pesos (about $3) one could get a nice helping of rice, beans and meat.

One of the restaurants at the forefront of the continued development of Dominican Cuisine is Higüero. As described in the restaurant’s website (roughly translated),

Higüero, the restaurant, assumes the responsibility of becoming one of the pioneers in the purpose of making our food a product to be enjoyed by exigent gourmands, local and internationals.

In accord with this mission, the restaurant location is also the site of the Fundación Sabores Dominicanos, a local nonprofit with the mission of motivating the advancement of Dominican gastronomy. The foundation gets this work done through the documentation and dissemination of regional gastronomic trends (which has been a great resource!), as well as the annual gathering of culinary experts as part of the Foro Gastronómico. During my visit, I had the pleasure of meeting the key drivers behind the Fundación and receiving a copy of the proceedings of the First Foro Gastronómico.

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With Bolívar Troncoso Morales, President of the Fundación Sabores Dominicanos (far right) and Juan Febles, the president of A&B Masters, Escuela Dominicana de Alimentos y Bebidas (far left).

Higüero is not the only restaurant with the mission of developing or promoting Dominican cuisine. Take, for example, Jalao, a relatively new restaurant in the Zona Colonial, located right across the Catedral Primada de America, the oldest in the New World. The menu featured interesting dishes such as the LP, or the “long plei” – a wheat-based Johnnycake- and the “Juego de pelota linero” – goat-stuffed croquettes.

Jalao food

Buche Perico, a popular tourist spot a few steps away in the Zona Colonial, had similar traditional (re)inventions, including the mini chimis de longaniza,

chimis

I also encountered the Puerto Rican trifongo – a combination of fried and mashed plantain, yucca and, in this version, breadfruit,

The trifongo can be the topic of its own post. In short, is a new iteration of the mofongo, where the plantain is accompanied by yucca and ripe plantains (or breadfruit). Like the mofongo, the trifongo comes from Puerto Rico.  While remaining close to the Puerto Rican original, the Dominican mofongo (as experienced in the Dominican Republic) may be prepared with boiled – not fried – plantains, and served alongside sancocho broth – a nice touch not found in Puerto Rico. The version below was eaten at the popular chain, Adrian Tropical, which was recommended as serving one of the best mofongos in the island. This one, the mini mofongo combi, was served with meats on the side, instead of inside (as one would encounter in Puerto Rico),

mofongo

El Conuco, the sister restaurant of Buche Perico, is located near the Hotel Jaragua, close to El Malecón. As the last restaurant visited in this trip, we opted to share a Dominican classic: the sancocho, as our last meal before returning back home.

sancocho

This was just a short, descriptive appetizer. At the risk of transforming this blog post into an extended restaurant review, I have obviated details on how these dishes tasted, and interactions with restaurant servers. Some experiences were better than others, but they all provided insight into how contemporary Dominican cuisine is being framed today, back in the Caribbean.

In the next weeks, I will be sorting through field notes and pictures from initial take on the Dominican Republic. The trip was part of a larger effort to expand research networks and explore the current culinary and public health nutrition situation, linked with transnational connections with the Dominican community in the US.

Stay tuned for more!

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Thinking about Breakfast

A big part of what I do often is talk with others about food. Lately, these conversations have been related to my ongoing interest in how we distinguish our national cuisines in the Spanish Caribbean. On the surface, when diets are seen as just a collection of foods eaten throughout the day, Cuban, Puerto Rican and Dominican diets are quite similar. However, when foods are organized by meals, differences start to emerge, especially when talking about breakfast…

Dominicans eat mangú for breakfast!
In Costa Rica, I ate rice and beans for breakfast, lunch and dinner!

 Mangu breakfastRemarks like the ones above were made by fellow Puerto Ricans when talking about differences in national cuisines around Latin America and the Caribbean. A common comment was on mangú. This mashed plantain dish was seen as too heavy, or too much, for breakfast, compared with the common Puerto Rican breakfast of toast and coffee. And yes – this statement comes with the qualifier that breakfast varies by person and by day of the week. The toast in the Puerto Rican breakfast table is often slathered in butter and accompanied by fried eggs and ham – not exactly “light”. Yet, they are what we consider “breakfast foods”. Mangú, plantains, and beans are seen as lunch or dinner foods, not breakfast.

The distinction between “breakfast” and “lunch”/”dinner” foods may be something relatively new in Puerto Rico. Decades ago, viandas may have been a part of the Puerto Rican breakfast table, especially those in the country side, as part of a hearty early meal in preparation for a full day in the field.

This takes me to my second Cuban meal: breakfast at the Old Havana hotel a few weeks ago. The breakfast was served in a big, spacious room, surrounded by a rooftop terraza. Three walls with different buffet stations and an omelet station in the corner. In the center of the room, a table full of breads of all kinds, including decorative pieces. One such bread: a reptile like the one below. No pictures, but imagine this one, green.

cocodrile bread

Source: Pinterest

The offerings included various cold cuts, sausages, a few fruits…and pasta? Macarroni salad? Meatballs? This seemed odd. And I pondered on that every morning, as I cross the “lunch-breakfast” station (and no- I would not call this “brunch”). Was anybody eating this for breakfast? Not from what I saw. Yet – they were there every morning, for the four breakfasts we “enjoyed” there.

The last breakfast: Sweet bread, slice or watermelon, another piece of bread and mortadella.

The last breakfast in Havana: Sweet bread, slice or watermelon, another piece of bread and mortadella.

Breakfast is indeed the most important meal of the day, and perhaps the most interesting as well. How we talk about breakfast, more interestingly, about what “others” eat in the morning, manifests our own social norms surrounding food and eating. What we choose to eat may be affected by what we expect to do the rest of the day, and at the same time, what we eat first thing in the morning can have an effect on the rest of our day.

Interested in seeing breakfast tables around the world? Click below for a quick view:

Source: Huffington Post (Click on picture to watch)

Food, Prestige and the Breadfruit

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Breadfruit, Artocarpus altilis, is a wonderful food. It is a staple in the Pacific and the Breadfruit Institute, part of Hawaii’s National Tropical Garden, highlights its potential in helping fight hunger and ameliorate environmental issues worldwide.

Agriculturally, breadfruit is a high yielding tree, producing 50-150 fruits a year. Its tree can be used for construction, medicine, and even its flower can serve as a mosquito-repellentNutritionally, breadfruit is low in saturated fat, full of fiber, and a good source of calcium, potassium, iron, and vitamin C. Gastronomically – it depends on who you ask.

If you ask me, Breadfruit is a delicacy, a wonderful treat. In Puerto Rico, we call this delicious green ball “pana” – a word we also use to refer to a dear friend. In the town of Humacao, on the east coast of the island, a weekend festival is dedicated to this fruit, El Festival de la Pana. There, a magnificent mountain view of the island’s east coast serves as a backdrop for the culinary and artistic creativity of the festival’s hosts who prepare varied iterations of this food, including flan, wine, sangria, chips, cake…along with music, crafts, and even food art.

Mostly, we eat pana fried (tostones, mofongo) or boiled – pretty much anything you can do with a plantain or a root crop, you can make with a pana. Below, a few images from the preparation of tostones de pana, from a recently picked Puerto Rican breadfruit this week (Gracias, Angel!):

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While our culinary appreciation for breadfruit is shared by some of our West Indian neighbors in the Caribbean, in our sister Spanish-speaking countries, Cuba and Dominican Republic, our pana, our friend, is seen with different eyes. From a desired, traditional food, breadfruit becomes fruta de pan, commonly used as pig or livestock feed. Anecdotal accounts describe how breadfruit was left to rot in Cuba, even during the difficult period of the 1990s known as the Special Period in Times of Peace. Less extreme (but similar) perceptions are found in other Latin American countries, where breadfruit is called pan de pobres (poor people’s bread), among other names, and eaten only in times when there is nothing else left.

Breadfruit is thought to be native of New Guinea. It was brought to the Caribbean to feed slaves, and, on occasions, it was rejected by them. Such past and current rejections, even in times of hunger, underscore the cultural specificity concerning which foods are good enough to eat. It also points to the necessity of understanding the different notions and experiences of food insecurity, scarcity and hunger, even in culturally and historically close contexts. In this case, how has breadfruit transitioned from a slave food to a beloved fruit in Puerto Rico and to a low prestige, non-human food in Cuba, Dominican Republic and other Latin American countries?