Supporting investment in Dominican gastronomy: An invited talk

Last week the Fundación Sabores Dominicanos hosted its third Foro Gastronómico, titled, “Emprende e Innova. The forum hosted APEGA Sociedad Peruana de Gastronomia, along  with local and international experts to discuss the culinary innovation in the country. I am honored to say I was among those experts, participating via video to share the talk titled “Importancia de la cultura alimentaria y políticas públicas relacionadas con la alimentación en la diáspora” [The importance of food culture and public policy in the diaspora].

The talk was a brief summary of the work I have been doing with the Dominican diaspora in New York City, focusing on the restaurant sector. During the spring 2017 semester, I worked with students to interview chefs, cooks, and restaurant owners serving Hispanic Caribbean food in the city. Most of the interviewees came from Dominican restaurants. During debriefing meetings with the students, the first thing they noticed was how these respondents were enthusiastic about their product, describing the food served as “de primera” (first class) or “la mejor” (the best). One of the most highlighted quality of the cuisine was its home made quality – that is, the interviewee’s claims that they were able to replicate the food made at home. My previous interviews and conversations with the Hispanic Caribbean community in NYC reveals that attempting to recreate mom’s or abuela’s cooking is a tall order to fullfill! As explained by one of my Dominican interviewees,

Si yo salgo a comer, nunca es a salir a comer comida dominicana, porque no sabe igual. Sabe como, I don’t know, no es el sabor…Yo prefiero salir a un restaurante puertorriqueño que a uno dominicano […] pero es porque yo no crecí comiendo la comida de sus países. Aunque sí son similares, pero no me sentiría como: “Ah, mi mamá pudo hacer esto mejor”. (Ríe). Para mí me siento más cómoda en un restaurante puertorriqueño o cubano.
[If I go out to eat, never is to eat Dominican cooking, because it does not taste the same. It tastes like, I don’t know, it is not the flavor. I prefer to go to a Puerto Rican restaurant over a Dominican one […] but it is because I did not grew up eating the food from those countries. While they are similar, but I would not feel like, ‘oh, my mom could have done this better (laughs). I feel more comftable in a Puerto Rican or Cuban restaurant]. 

Dominicans were certainly not alone in this feeling. Puerto Ricans and Cubans also disliked most of the restaurants serving their heritage cuisine, with a few exceptions.  

Seeking to keep the cuisine as a recreation of home-made dishes also prevents it from being elevated beyond inexpensive establishments, under the low status label of “ethnic food” (see more on this here). My culinary adventures (also known as “participant observation”) in many restaurants in Dominican Republic reveal the possibilities of this cuisine. Take, for example:

Canelones Tainos from Restaurante El Higuero:

Higuero_canelones de yuca

Cannelloni pasta made from yucca with vegetable, chicken or beef filling (Photo: Higuero Restaurant Facebook Page)

Quipe crudo de zanahoria asada from TIME Vegetarian Kitchen:

Time_Carrott quipe

Roasted carrot quipe (Photo: TIME Vegetarian Restaurant Facebook page)

 

 

Investing in the development and dissemination of the national cuisine can provide economic and cultural benefits beyond motivating culinary tourism. As the Peruvian case demonstrates, gastronomy can be used as a tool for economic and community development. The sector provides an excellent venue for social projects that can lift people out of poverty, and can also contribute to public health. One brief example is the initiative, PescaVentura, sponsored by APEGA Sociedad Peruana de Gastronomia, where kids learn about the benefits of eating fish,

Pescaventura

Photo: APEGA, “PescaVentura”

My gratitude to the Fundación Sabores Dominicanos for the opportunity to be part of the Foro Gastronómico.

To learn more about the amazing work of these culinary associations, visit their web pages at http://saboresdominicanos.org/ and http://www.apega.pe/index.html

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The research presented in this post was made possible with the support of the City University of New York (CUNY) Diversity Projects Funds, which facilitated the interviews with Dominican restaurants in NYC, and the CUNY-Brooklyn College Tow Faculty Research Travel Fellowship, which supported my travel to Santo Domingo in May 2017. The research is part of my book project, Eating in Movement. Stay tuned and subscribe to this blog to learn more about this and other upcoming publications. 

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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.

sabores
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!

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!):

ImageImage

ImageImage

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?