By Lindsey Gibson
Food culture in Puerto Rico is a multifaceted conglomerate, made almost entirely of culture influence from outsiders. Due to Spanish, African, and American presence on the island, Puerto Rico has seen several additions to and many subtractions from the food and agriculture of the indigenous Taino people. Staple dishes commonly associated with authentic Puerto Rican cuisine, such as fried plantains, rice and beans (arroz con habichuelas), and piña coladas, actually aren’t authentic at all, as none of the ingredients are native to the island. Bananas and plantains were brought to Puerto Rico by way of Africa and the slave trade and now are mostly an import commodity. Consumption and cultivation of rice and beans was a government initiative to feed the growing population during a time of famine, as the two products were cheap, shelf stable, and readily available. Even pineapples, now seen as a tropical Caribbean fruit, were brought over from Asia during the Spanish colonization and are often imported from South America. Currently, Puerto Rico imports between 80 and 90% of their food from international sources, even though the island’s climate would support the growing of these products.
With increasing globalization and a heavy reliance on imports, some Puerto Ricans are trying to make the switch to local sustainable agriculture and native ingredients in an attempt to shift the food culture to proudly align with true Puerto Rican heritage. Verde Mesa, a new restaurant overlooking the ocean in Old San Juan, seeks to bring back the more traditional, native Puerto Rican diet and redefine the often-confusing cultural identity surrounding food culture. The owner of the restaurant, Loyda Rosa, talked our group through her definition of what native Puerto Rican cuisine should be and her own experiences with forming her own relationship with Puerto Rican food.
Loyda started taking a critical look at the foods she was consuming and became a vegetarian about 10 years ago, occasionally consuming fish. Her menu reflects this consciousness and her willingness to return Puerto Rican cuisine back to locally based production. Loyda explained that the native Taino/Puerto Rican diet was made up of meats and produce that were native to the island, such as fish, yucca, peanuts, and other root vegetables. In addition to the native aspect to the menu, Verde Mesa focuses heavily on the local and sustainable nature of their cuisine. Loyda currently works with 16 to 18 local farms and organizations such as El Departamento De La Comida to supply the restaurant. Even the cocktail menu focuses on using local herbs and spices to season drinks. Our tasting menu featured which farms grew produce for each course.
Our first dish, created by head chef Gabriel Hernandez, featured fresh, local greens, squash, and radishes native to the island and featured a vinaigrette dressing that used guava and whey from local cheese production. Apart from just being local, the ingredients tasted fresh as if they were harvested that day. The second course was a curried pumpkin soup, utilizing the local pumpkin production with the surprising twist of spiced curry. The third course was a bean stew made with local blue crab. Chef Gabriel made a point to say he personally inspected all fish and shellfish used in the restaurant and if it wasn’t up to his standards of sustainability and ethics, he wouldn’t purchase it. Our last course was a panna cotta made with rose apple and honey, which was certainly a crowd pleaser. Chef Gabriel and Loyda are certainly doing something special at their restaurant and their continual efforts to improve Puerto Rican cuisine show. The push to use local and organic ingredients is something often seen in “hip” restaurants in New York and Los Angeles but it only makes sense that this type of culinary movement is taking hold in San Juan, where cultural identity is so closely related to food culture. With the spirit of an independent and self-reliant Puerto Rico, Verde Mesa is attempting to shift the focus of cuisine and culture back to what it means to truly be a Puerto Rican native.