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!

Eating History in New Orleans

I started this post almost a month ago, in an airplane, on my way to New Orleans. The trip was one last vacation before the start of the spring semester. However, as a food scholar, a trip to a city like New Orleans will inevitably become work related.

New Orleans is famous for its restaurants. Restaurants and chefs play an important role in the city’s cultural production and reproduction.  As noted by Anthropologist (and New Orleans resident), David Berris, the place of restaurants in the city’s foodscape is different from other cities. The city has

a long standing food culture, a cuisine, built from local products, that is regularly produced in homes and restaurants and frequently discussed around local tables and in the local media. (Berris 2007: 153).

New Orleans cuisine is often described as Creole and Cajun. Just like my cocina criolla, Creole cuisine results from the blending of different influences, including  those of early Native inhabitants, the colonizers (Spanish and French) and the people that came after, including the African slaves. Cajun, on the other hand,  is one from the French speaking Acadian people, who arrived in Louisiana after being deported by the British from Canada. Like Creole cuisine, it results from the use of local ingredients and simple food preparations. For more on these distinctions, see this Chicago Tribune article.

A long weekend in New Orleans is not enough to digest the foodscape of the city, but I tried. As a tourist, taking a first bite at the city, I stayed at the French Quarter. Mostly skipping Bourbon St. at night, the Quarter offered walking access to historic culinary sites, such as Napoleon House. The landmark has been open for almost two centuries, named after the legend that the building was built as the home of Napoleon Bonaparte after his exile. History was consumed through their signature (Italian) muffuletta, a round sandwich built with ham, Genoa salami, pastrami, Swiss cheese, provolone and an olive salad. This view of the kitchen shows the muffuletta in progress,

nola_napoleon

The Kitchen at Napoleon House

I also tried the boudin sausage, which turned out to be a be a bloodless morcilla, the blood sausage consumed in Spain and many of its old colonies, like Puerto Rico.  Continuing to make culinary comparisons, I also tried the  “New Orleans Favorites”, red beans and rice and the Jambalaya, reminding me of the closeness between my cocina criolla and New Orleans Creole cuisine.

nola-pimmsThese foods were downed with a Pimm’s Cup, a drink that

made its mark at the Napoleon House bar in the late 1940s amongst the bon viveur set. Unique to its maker, it is a gin based aperitif mixed with fresh lemonade, 7 up, and a sliver of cucumber that would be a refreshing cocktail that cools you off during heated summer days in New Orleans. –  Napoleon House.

While eating is a big part of a New Orleans visit, so is drinking. The city is home to many classic cocktails, like the sazerac, first concocted by a local apothecary in 1838 and is said to be the first cocktail in the United States. Another New Orleans creation is the Vieux Carré, a drink named after the earlier name of the French Quarter, the “old square”. This drink was first mixed in the 1930s at the Hotel Monteleone, where I enjoyed by first, at the Carousel Bar,

nola_carrousel

And yes, I also had other classics in the New Orleans tourist menu: Beignets and several gumbos,

nola-beig-and-gumbo

Gumbo and Beignets from Cafe Beignet

as well as the local Gulf fish, my favorite of all I ate, pictured below:

capture

Louisiana Gulf Fish Amandine (This photo of Meauxbar Bistro is courtesy of TripAdvisor)

As a caribeña, my cultural upbringing and food is the result of creolization, just like that in New Orleans. Because of this historical link, the city felt familar, a welcomed home-like respite from New York City. A weekend was certainly not enough to eat many of the city classics, including the po’boys and alligator meat. At the same time, this short experience allowed me to see a different way to experience, celebrate and sell the result of mixing different cultures in a pot, providing a new, comparative lens to approach my ongoing work with cocinas criollas in the Caribbean.

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Acknowledgement: This culinary adventure was shared with some amazing travel companions. A special thanks to fellow traveler, B. Betancourt, for helping us navigate and taste the Old Quarter.

Reference and further reading: Berris, D. and D. Sutton (2007). “Authentic Creole: Tourism, Style and Calamity in New Orleans Restaurants”. The Restaurants Book: Ethnographies of where we eat. D. Berris and D. Sutton. New York, Berg: 151-166.

 

Selling Cuisines: Cuban and Puerto Rican Tables

Cuban and Puerto Rican cuisines are born out of movement, merging Spanish, African and Taino influences. Part of my recent fieldwork has looked into how these communities distinguish each other’s foods. When asked directly, New York City Cuban and Puerto Rican interviewees often have a hard time differentiating. Mostly, they talk about the beans –  in name and color. Simply, while Cubans eat frijoles negros (black beans), Puerto Ricans eat habichuelas rojas (red beans). Since first established in the Caribbean, Cuban and Puerto Rican cuisines have continued to move. These movements have created differences, despite these similarities, in how these cuisines have been perceived and consumed in new homes.

A Yelp search for Cuban and Puerto Rican restaurants in New York City yielded a total of 64 restaurants: forty-eight Cuban and only sixteen Puerto Rican. This disparity contrasts to the proportion of Cubans and Puerto Ricans living in the city, as shown below:

Restaurant and population comparison

These differences are nothing new. In the 1940s, the Federal Writers Project New York Panorama of 1939 described the Cuban and Puerto Rican communities as follows,

On Saturday nights, the Puerto Rican section of Harlem is alive with music and merry-making. There are only about 8,000 Cubans in New York, but it is Cuban music that accompanies the dancing everywhere among the Spanish-speaking people- and indeed has invaded New York’s nightlife in general. A number of cafés and cabarets with Cuban atmosphere have appeared during the last few years.

Cubans are mentioned for their cultural influence. Their music  (and not Puerto Rican music) is listened to in the Puerto Rican section of Harlem (today’s Barrio). In contrast, the Puerto Rican community (and its food) was described in a less flattering manner,

…except for the addition of a few vegetables, [the diet] remains much the same as in their native land: a roll and black coffee for breakfast; for the other meals canned tomatoes, white rice, dried fish, and meat about twice a month.

The excerpts from the 1940s guide shows differences in status perceptions between these communities. These differences can be linked to the contrasting situations of these communities back in the Caribbean. While the 1940s found Puerto Rico as one of the poorest islands in the region, Cuba was striving and marketed as an exotic travel destination.

cuba travel

More than half a century later, the situation is not the same. Puerto Rico’s economic situation improved, while Cuba’s deteriorated. Puerto Rican cuisine strove in the island, while Cuba’s continues to be affected by food supply instabilities. Yet, Cuba’s mysticism and allure remains. Cuban restaurants offer much more than rice, beans and meat. They offer a ticket to the “Cuban experience”: the Copacabana, Hemingway’s mojitos, as well as the excitement of Che’s and Fidel’s revolution. In short, the difference in cuisine popularity go beyond just the food – it can serve as a lens to view the different relationships these islands have with the United States as well as each other, and the resulting contrasting symbolic values attached to these cuisines.

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Based on the conference presentation, “Food in Movement: Cuban and Puerto Rican migrations through cuisine representation” part of the panel “Piruetas Transnacionales: Preserving Identity through Eating, Learning and Music Making” at the Latin American Studies Association 2016 Annual Meeting. 

 

Local chefs and Puerto Rican Cuisine

Arroz con gandules, pernil, pasteles, cuchifritos… These foods come to mind when describing Puerto Rican cuisine. Home cooked, simple dishes. Nothing fancy. These are foods that fill our stomachs and our souls. For many Puerto Ricans, these are to be eaten at home, lovingly made and served by mami or, even better, abuela. Therefore, Puerto Rican food is not to enjoy at a restaurant, and even less pay too much money for it– or is it?

Our cuisine is evolving. Rice, plantains, gandules, pork, and other classic food staples and ingredients are being recombined in creative ways, reinventing or reinterpreting traditional dishes that persist in our culinary memory…

Take for example these dishes from La Jaquita Baya (Miramar, PR). The traditional gandules and habichuelas colora’s are served alongside bite-size arepas. And the pastel? A smaller version, topped with salmorejo de jueyes and fresh greens.

Go south, to the center of the island, and you find Orujo Taller de Gastronomia in Caguas, PR. With this meal, my first time eating cuajitos, where the fattiness of the fried pig ears was balanced by pickled, fresh vegetables.  Also on the menu, slow, smoked pernil on top of the traditional fufu (mashed, sweet plantains).

And the list could go on…

These meals are just a sample of the new, emerging restaurants in Puerto Rico. The “heavy” elements of our cuisine (root crops, fried foods, pork) become “light(er)”, by being served in smaller, more flavorful portions. There are also greens, beyond the usual iceberg lettuce and pale tomatoes. These meals value quality over quantity. The chefs behind these dishes are driven by a desire to elevate our cuisine. With these, they also demonstrate the many possibilities of traditional ingredients, while also seeking to revive almost forgotten ones from a not so distant past.

This ongoing “evolution” or “reinvention” comes hand in hand with an emerging movement back to the island agricultural roots, and a re-valuation of traditional island cuisine. Granted, this is by no means mainstream, and at times, it can be arrogant and pretentious, served with a side of bad service, as in the unfortunate case of this salad:

Green salad, unnamed restaurant (San Juan, PR)

Yet, these new restaurants challenge the ever expanding and conveniently located franchises, offering homogeneous, pre-packaged flavor, for a perceived (but not always) lower price. This role is key in the case of Puerto Rico, where palates are increasingly accustomed to artificial flavors and economic woes are part of everyday conversations. These new restaurants represent the growing entrepreneurship spirit on the island, inspired by a love of food, culture and el buen comer.

Buen provecho and support your local chef!