How Cooking Tostones with My Daughter Helps Me Share Our Puerto Rican Heritage
Pictured recipe: Tostones with Mayo-Ketchup Dipping Sauce
Whenever I think of Puerto Rican food, I think of the crunch. The crunch you hear when biting into a crispy empanadilla, bacalaito or tostón. Plantains were always part of my house growing up, and one of our favorite treats was tostones. Whether they were served as a snack or as a side with arroz con habichuelas (rice and beans), they were an ever-present staple at our home. Biting into these thin, crunchy treats always brings me back to my childhood in my hometown of Guayama, Puerto Rico.
Plantains are more than an ingredient—they are part of our history. Plantains come from our enslaved African ancestors and are woven into the culinary history of the Caribbean and beyond. Plantains are symbolic of Puerto Rican cuisine, abundant in homes and restaurants. As you drive along the winding countryside roads, you can see the racimos (bunches) of bright green plantains dangling from trees. It's common to see pickup trucks loaded with plantains for sale parked in the many neighborhoods across the island.
I moved with my family from Puerto Rico to western New York state as a teenager. We kept the Boricua traditions alive in many ways. My father held onto our culture through music, and my mother through food. When I left for college, I started to cook Puerto Rican food to keep that link to my parents and my culture alive. After college, I became a Marine Corps officer, and my job took me to places like Japan, South Korea and Germany. I was fortunate to have access to plantains (sometimes not the best quality, but I had to make do) at the commissary (the base supermarket) while stationed overseas. Indulging in a hot tostón was the perfect cure for homesickness.
Fast forward to 2020. I am now a mom to a daughter to whom I want to pass our culinary traditions. She's half Dutch (my husband is from Rotterdam, Netherlands) and half Puerto Rican, being raised in Washington, D.C. For me, it's imperative she learns about her Puerto Rican heritage, and one of the best ways to do that is through food. Tostones are one of those dishes that's not only easy to make, but also has all the components for a fun cultural food lesson.
Making tostones is fun and straightforward. It's a great way to get kids involved in the cooking process as well. A fun way to get them started is by teaching them the difference between bananas and plantains. I love going to the supermarket with my daughter, teaching her about the different ingredients we use in our kitchen. Tostones are twice-fried, and one of the fun parts is smashing the tostón after it's fried for the first time. Many people have tostoneras (a wooden press for tostones), but I like to be old-school and use a small heavy saucepan.
The crunchy texture makes it a hit among kids and a fun alternative to fries. I grew up dipping my tostones in "mayo-ketchup," a mix of ketchup, mayonnaise and garlic. You can buy it premade, but nothing beats the real thing! Seeing my daughter dip a tostón into mayo-ketchup takes me back to being a little girl in Puerto Rico. Teaching my daughter about tostones is a way to keep her Puerto Rican roots close, just as my mom taught us to make tostones when I was her age. Hopefully, if she finds herself miles away from home as I did, the scent of fried plantains will take her back to a familiar place.