Only minutes away from the San Juan airport, past the hotels and tourist areas, the Avenida de los Gobernadores skirts the turquoise ocean and sandy beaches and then becomes a winding narrow path through the kioscos of Piñones. The kioscos—small roadside shacks and patios housing haphazard cooktops of cement and iron—produce the most intoxicating aromas and every native treat that exists in Puerto Rico. A chicken struts across the road in front of our car and I joke to my partner, Ramon, “There goes dinner!” In fact a bit farther down there is asopao de pollo, chicken and rice, and pinchos de pollo, skewers of chicken, for sale.
Ramon was born on Puerto Rico but came to Minneapolis to finish his Ph.D. I was raised in Nebraska and now live in Minneapolis, where I am a chef at Wilde Roast Café. I’ve been to Piñones before, but on my return trip I’m giddy with excitement to discover new flavors.
Though the kioscos explode with activity on weekends, these folks are open for business every day. Every beachfront and small village with access to a beach has these wonderful kioscos. Ramon had told me about the most amazing bacalao (fish stew) just down the road. We pull over to a kiosco and find a fragrant pot of stew along with many other treats. This bacalao is served with white potatoes and yellow sweet potatoes, but tubers like yuca, malanga or ñame are more common.
When I talk to folks at home about Puerto Rican food they usually equate it with Mexican cuisine. Although some of the ingredients are the same, the flavors could not be more different. The deeply flavored cuisine is a result of a hodgepodge of cultural influences on the island. Roots like yams, yuca and taro were cultivated by the Tainos, the native population of Amerindians. The Spanish arrived with coconuts, eggplant and seasonings like cilantro, onion and garlic. African slaves brought okra and plantains.”
Up the street and just back from the curb, housed under an orange-and-red-striped awning, lies a lechón asado—a whole roast pig weighing 60 to 100 pounds. Seasoned with oregano and garlic and marinated for days, it’s slowly roasted over open coals. The result is crispy skin surrounding some of the juiciest, most succulent meat I have ever tasted. (see Garlic-Roasted Pork (Pernil).
The vendors are more than willing to share their culinary secrets, and I am an eager student. They demonstrate complicated goodies like alcapurrias, fried fritters of ground native roots, and piononos, fried stuffed plantains. My Spanish is weak but I try to figure out which of these small wonders I can recreate in our Minneapolis kitchen. Ramon watches and smiles. He could intervene as my interpreter but he’s content to let the cooks and me hack it out with gestures and our limited dialogue.
It’s true that Puerto Ricans love to fry things but there’s also plenty of simple, healthy food like habichuelas, the slow-cooked red beans we now serve back in Minneapolis. When I cook them I always measure them against the ones I tasted at the very first kiosco I visited. ”
I bring these cooking lessons home in my head and in my hands, and when we make bacalao either from salted, dried cod or fresh fish, I can see my cute Puerto Rican friend working over her iron pot that sits on smoldering wood coals. If I close my eyes I can almost see the ocean and taste the food of the Isla del Encanto, the Island of Enchantment, even in Minneapolis.
—Scott Rosenbaum is the executive chef at Wilde Roast Café in Minneapolis. He’s interested in food from around the world and is always looking for new flavors and culinary experiences. “Food is a common experience we all share in an uncommon way.