Burt Wolf's Table: San Juan - #207

BURT WOLF:  San Juan, Puerto Rico, one of the most beautiful cities in the Caribbean, and home to some of the best cooking.  It's the place to see how the influence of the native tribes, the Spanish, and the Africans combined to produce some great dishes.  We'll get an overview of the famous walled city, discover Puerto Rico's healthiest snack foods, and sample the best local specialties.  So join me in San Juan, Puerto Rico at Burt Wolf's Table.

Sometime during the first century A.D., a tribal group from South America known as the Tainos settled down on the island of Puerto Rico. They appear to have been a rather peaceful group with a well-developed culture.  The biggest problems came from the aggressive Caribe tribes that moved through the area attacking the native islanders.

The Caribes considered the Tainos a local delicacy and tried to get them into their diet whenever possible.  As a matter of fact, the word "cannibal" came into European languages to describe the way the Caribe Indians ate. 

On November 19th, 1493 Columbus bumped into the island of Puerto Rico and claimed it for the King of Spain.  This was his second voyage, and he was really getting the knack of this “claiming thing.”

Like most people who visit the island, he was particularly interested in the local handcrafts, specifically the native jewelry.  It was made of gold.  In 1508, one of Columbus's shipmates, Juan Ponce de Leon, made a deal for the gold rights on Puerto Rico and moved in.  There really wasn't enough gold on the island to make anyone very rich, but Ponce did well selling supplies to the prospectors.  That, by the way, is a story that is continually repeated.  I can't think of anybody that made a great fortune in the California Gold Rush and kept that fortune after the rush was over, but the guy who sold the gold miners their pants? Levi, as in Levi jeans.

Anyway, when the little bit of gold that was in Puerto Rico ran out, the settlers turned to farming.

The children who were the product of the intermarriages between the Spanish and the natives, or the black slaves that had been supplied by the Portuguese traders, were unable to get land by grant.  So they settled up in the hills and farmed on small plots.  Thousands of their descendents are still there.  Those colonists who were considered by the Spanish authorities to be “the right stuff” were given plantations.  The cash crop of choice was sugar, which was worth big bucks back in Europe.  Sugar was also processed into molasses, and the molasses into run.  Settlers also built up a trade in coffee and spices.   

For the next 300 years or so the Spanish crown more or less abused the island's economy.  Then in 1898, with the conclusion of the Spanish-American War, Puerto Rico became a protectorate of the United States, and today it is a Commonwealth.

Of all the cities built by Europeans in the Western Hemisphere, Puerto Rico's San Juan is the oldest, and it is also the most picturesque.   There's a seven square block area designated as Old San Juan, and it is a showcase of Puerto Rican culture and architecture, museums, galleries, shops, all placed within structures that give you  the feeling of old Spain. 

The Plaza Colon, a shaded square with a statue of Christopher Columbus in the center; it's an excellent starting point for a tour of the old quarter.  The Paseo de la Princesa.  During the 1800's, it was an esplanade where the who's who of Spanish colonial gentry strolled along to see and be seen. 

As part of the area's reconstruction, a statue has been installed that represents the Indian, Spanish and African origins of the Puerto Rican population.  Behind the statue is a former prison that has been turned into the office of Puerto Rico's tourist commission, a reflection of the fact that pirating is out, and tourism is in.

Plaza de Jostas, the domino heaven of the western world.   The City Hall, built in 1602 as a precise replica of the City Hall in Madrid.  And the Capia del Cristo.  Built during the 1700's, it comes with an interesting legend.  The story tells of two men having a horse race as part of a competition to win the hand of a young maiden.  As one came to the end of the street, he missed the turn and flipped off the cliff.  His miraculous survival is attributed to the intercession of Christ, and the chapel behind me was built as a commemoration to that event.  It also was perfectly placed to prevent a replay of the accident.

The San Juan Cathedral.  It was the site of the first consecration of a bishop in the New World.  The Cathedral also contains the remains of Ponce de Leon, the first governor of Puerto Rico.

It's interesting to note that outside of Puerto Rico, Ponce de Leon is remembered primarily for his travels in search of the Fountain Of Youth, which, in fact, he never found, and was actually killed by Florida Indians during that very search.  Off the record, my own recommendation for a fountain of youth is a low-fat diet and a regular aerobic exercise program.  Now, I don't think that's going to extend my life one day, but I do think it will help postpone my final illnesses until maybe the last twenty minutes, and after all, one of my objectives is to die in perfect health.

And speaking of perfect health, here's a recipe for shrimp asopao that is perfectly healthy.

Asopao is a gumbo-like soup made with rice and seafood or chicken, and it's as traditional a Puerto Rican specialty as you can find.  Here's how it's prepared by Chef John Carey at San Juan's El San Juan Hotel. 

A little vegetable oil goes into a hot saucepan, and a half cup of chopped onion is added and cooked for a few minutes.  In go two chopped tomatoes.  A few more minutes of cooking.  Then add ten large shrimp that have been shelled and cleaned.  The next ingredient is called recaito.  It's a seasoning mixture.  In Puerto Rico most cooks buy it ready-made in a jar, but you can make a fairly close duplication by mixing together equal amounts of chopped onion, chopped jalapeno pepper, and chopped cilantro with a little bit of olive oil.  Three tablespoons of the sauce go in.   Then three cups of warm chicken stock are added and brought to a boil.  Two cups of cooked rice, a little cilantro, a few stuffed olives.  Some cooked asparagus tips, and some cooked peas.  As soon as everything is heated through, the asopao is ready to serve.

One of the world's finest collections of tropical and semi-tropical plants is to be found in the Botanical Gardens of San Juan...  over 200 acres  of vegetation that illustrates the richness of this island's agriculture.  Within the landscape is an area filled with exotic fruits that were once a major part of the Puerto Rican diet. 

That's a Caimito tree.  It has a star-shaped fruit with a pulp that tastes like a sweet jelly.  It's eaten raw for a snack or a dessert. 

That's a tamarind tree which can live for over two hundred years.  The fruit is inside this powder-packed shell.  It's a bit sticky and has a flavor that will probably remind you of Worcestershire sauce ... which makes sense because tamarind is used to make Worcestershire.

This is a Spanish lime, or a key lime ...  much smaller, much more tart in flavor and much more difficult to find in the supermarket than a standard lime.  It's what the bakers really had in mind when they made the original key lime pies.  And if you ever get to taste a real key lime pie ... you'll see that it has a much more intense citrus flavor than the key lime pies we make with our standard limes.

That fifty-foot tree is a Quenepa tree.  The fruits are small ovals that look like lichee nuts and you eat them the same way.  Peel off the hard skin and watch out for the large pit. 

During the summer these fruits are sold along the roadsides as a snack ... and a healthful one too. 

Dr. Henri Liogier was born in France, but by the time he was in his early 20's, he knew that his major professional interest was going to be the study of tropical plants.  Since 1934 he's been in the Caribbean investigating everything that grows.

DR. HENRI LIOGIER:   Here we have a nispero tree, which is a native tree, much in use  here.  You can find the fruit in the market really all year long, and you can see the fruits on the tree....

BURT WOLF:   What do they use it for?

DR. LIOGIER:   Just for eating.  It's... it's a... it's a nice fruit.

BURT WOLF:   Are those ripe?

DR. LIOGIER:   No, not yet.

Not yet. They are not ripe.

BURT WOLF:   So I go to the market for a taste.

DR. LIOGIER:   Yes.  

BURT WOLF:   This tree is offering its fruits to us, eh? 

DR. LIOGIER:    Yes.

BURT WOLF:   What is this?

DR. LIOGIER:   This is what we call a jobo, or cijuelo and this is also a native tree in... in the... all the West Indies.

BURT WOLF:   Hmmm.

DR. LIOGIER:    It... it has a... a tasty pulp, though the Puerto Ricans practically don't use it.

BURT WOLF:   I got the feeling that the people in Puerto Rico have to a certain extent lost touch....


BURT WOLF:   ... with the earlier fruits. 

DR. LIOGIER:   (OVER) That....

BURT WOLF:   (OVER) Is that because of the Spanish influence?

DR. LIOGIER:   Probably the Spanish influence, and also the American influence.  We had the... the apples and the pears, and the... all the fruits from the United States. Of course it's much easier to pick up the fruits at the supermarket than go to a tree and... try to down them.

BURT WOLF:   So the ease of access to North American fruits in the supermarkets....

DR. LIOGIER:    Yes.

BURT WOLF:   ... have helped them to lose contact.

DR. LIOGIER:   Yes. I think so.

BURT WOLF:   Ah, true, but sad.  (LAUGHS)



BURT WOLF:     Many of the chefs working in San Juan have come to Puerto Rico from other parts of the world.  But instead of trying to reproduce the cooking of their homeland, they quickly fall in love with the traditional dishes and ingredients of the island.  Example, Peter Ivanovick.  He came from California, and he's cooking fish with Puerto Rican limes at the Sands Hotel.

A little vegetable oil goes into a non-stick pan.  While that's heating up, a boneless, skinless filet of sole or flounder, or other firm-fleshed white fish, is given a light dusting of flour, and a coating of beaten egg.  You can use a whole egg or just egg whites.  In a recipe like this you can skip the yolks and the dish will still turn out fine.

Next the fish cooks for three minutes on one side, a gentle flip, and three minutes on the other. Then off to a serving plate.  The sauce is made in the same pan by adding in two cloves of garlic that have been chopped, the juice of half a lime, a little white wine, some chopped cilantro, a few capers, and a few slices of onion, carrot and green pepper.  That cooks for a minute and goes onto the fish.

The recipes and kitchen techniques that make up today's Puerto Rican cooking are really the result of three distinct culinary trends that have all been blended together . The first and the oldest was the cooking of the Taino Indians, who have been doing their cooking here since 300 A.D.   Superimposed on the work of the Indians is that of the Spanish, who came in during the 1500's.  And finally there are the dishes of the Africans.  The Africans have been cooking here for at least 400 years. 

The chili peppers, the root vegetables, corn, local fruits and fish were here with the Tainos.  The Spanish brought in beef cattle, goats, sheep, pigs, olive oil, and some new fruits and vegetables, including coconuts, bananas, plantains and citrus fruits.  They also brought in sugar and coffee.  The West Africans brought in an entire cooking style based on the slow cooking of one-pot dishes.  Many of the great soups and stews of Puerto Rico have their origins in the pots of West Africa.

The Africans brought okra to Puerto Rico, a vegetable that has become a basic part of many southern soups and stews.  The African word for okra is “gumbo,” so every time you're looking at a dish described as a gumbo, you're looking at a recipe that had its origins in West Africa, and was originally made with okra.

The faces of the people of San Juan tell the story of the major migrations to this island.  The Taino tribes of South America.  The Spanish.  The Africans.  They can be seen on the streets of the city, and the culinary traditions that each group brought can be seen in the town's pots and pans. 

Chef Ramon Rosario is the executive chef at the Sands Hotel.  He's preparing a Puerto Rican gumbo with a recipe that started in West Africa with okra, and finished off with the Spanish who gave Puerto Rico chickens, olive oil and carrots.

A little vegetable oil goes into a stockpot to heat up.  As soon as the oil is hot, Ramon adds in a half cup of chopped celery, a half cup of chopped green pepper, and a half cup of chopped carrots.  That cooks for a few minutes  Then in goes a boneless, skinless chicken breast, cut into bite-size pieces. That cooks for a few minutes.  Then in goes a half cup of sliced okra, a quarter cup of sliced green onion, six cups of chicken stock, and finally two medium-size potatoes cut into small cubes.  All that simmers together for about 30 minutes, and then it's ready to serve.

Of all the elements in Puerto Rican cooking, none is more Puerto Rican than sofrito.  Sofrito is a seasoning sauce that's mixed into soups, stews, rice dishes and just about anything else that the chef feels is appropriate.  It's mild and delicate and it really deserves the big-deal reputation that it has here in Puerto Rico.  Traditionally it is made with pork fat, but I adapted the recipe and made it with vegetable oil, which is low in saturated fat. 

It's very important to remember that the less saturated fat that you have in your diet, the better off you are.  So here is a healthful version of the classic sofrito.

Some vegetable oil goes into a pan, and a little anado seed oil.  Anado are the seeds of a tropical plant which are used to flavor and color cooking oils.  If you can get anado seed oil in your market, fabulous.  If you can't, just add in a couple of tablespoons of paprika.

Next some chopped onion, garlic, green bell peppers, tomatoes, oregano, coriander,  30 minutes of cooking, salt and pepper, and the sofrito seasoning is ready to go.

The history of the native tribes, the Spanish and the African cooking will give you a good picture of the foods you'll find in San Juan.  But for a real overview of the island, it's helpful to spend some time with Bill Duncan of Hill Helicopters.

BILL DUNCAN:   The...first thing you'll notice as we take off from the airport is that on your left is the old city of San Juan.  As we approach El Morro, as you see on the high ground off to your right, you'll also begin to be able to see the walls of the old city.  Originally the city was completely surrounded by 50-foot walls that in many places are in excess of 20 feet thick.  Puerto Rico itself, or “rich port,” was a holding point for the riches that were brought from the New World that were being transported to Spain.  They would amass a tremendous amount of wealth here, and then put it on the treasure ships to take it back to Spain.  The problem is, once you get a bunch of wealth in an area, you also get a bunch of bad guys.  And so the pirates came along, and ... the pirates couldn't even keep their troops on board the ships, because it's such a beautiful place, the pirates would jump ship.  And as you see, the small little village of La Perla, formed in the late 1500's, and has been there every since.  The Spaniards didn't want these people living within the walls of the city, so they allowed them to develop the little barrio that still exists today outside of the city of Old San Juan.

As we round the corner, you'll see the Governor's mansion.  That's Fort Talesa, that's the white building with the green turrets.  It was the first building built officially in the city of San Juan after the completion of the fort itself.   It is the... was the original residence of the first Governor of San Juan and is currently the residence of the Governor of Puerto Rico today.

As we continue on, you'll be able to see the area of Candado, which is the nightlife portion.  The... high-rise hotels, casinos and the convention center, that are very famous in San Juan.

On your right-hand side, you'll see the Bacardi rum factory, one of the largest rum manufacturing plants in the world.  The land areas around the facilities at Bacardi are very beautiful.  The... open areas that you see on your right with the tents are available for weddings and open-air concerts, and anything that... that you wish to do in that area.

The beaches of Luquillo are probably the most beautiful beaches on the north side of the island.  As we approach it you'll see the water is quite shallow, the active live reefs off the beaches provide excellent skin-diving and scuba diving, for those that are interested in it.  Sailing, wind-surfing.  This is the site of the wind-surfing championships of Puerto Rico each year.

In the distance, as you look up to the south, and to your right, you can see El Junque, the rainforest, and the highest point on the eastern end of the island.  As you can see today, it's enshrouded in clouds.  It rains there almost every day of the year.  And...in... in my time here in the islands, I've only seen it clear twice, and that didn't last but just a few hours.      

As we approach back to the airport, we now have a ... a beautiful vista view of the... of the harbor, and the Bay of San Juan, a very beautiful picturesque view.

BURT WOLF:   And in keeping with the scenic beauty of Puerto Rico, there is the El San Juan Hotel.  

The El San Juan Hotel was originally built in 1959 on some of the most beautiful beachfront in Puerto Rico.  Since then it has been through a number of renovations and architectural updates.  Today it is clearly the resort and casino property in San Juan, and the only hotel in the Caribbean to be included in the listings of both the Preferred Hotels and the Leading Hotels of the World.

The man primarily responsible for this unique standing is Andreas Meinhold, the managing director.  He grew up traveling through the great hotels of Europe, and decided that he wanted to keep on living that way.  You definitely get the feeling that Andreas is personally watching out for you, and has told everyone on staff to attend to your needs.  It's quite a place.


The Hotel El San Juan has the casino and disco and great restaurants and sports facilities and shopping gallery that you would expect from a first-class property.  But it also has a number of special things that you would not take for granted.  Example:  in 1989, Hurricane Hugo came through Puerto Rico and pretty much devastated the area, including the hotel's 125-year-old prized flowering fig tree. 

The hotel spent 75 thousand dollars nourishing the tree back to health.  They even built a special sprinkler system that waters each root separately.  The garden area around the tree now contains over 440 different plant species with little signs that tell you what you're looking at.  When the flowers are cut, they become decorations in the hotel.  The grounds make a marvelous place for relaxing, and the same attention to detail that is put into nourishing the gardens goes into nourishing the guests.

John Carey is the executive chef at the El San Juan Hotel.  When he first arrived in Puerto Rico he realized there was an extraordinary local cuisine, and he's been collecting the recipes and adapting them to our latest information on good health.  His chicken with mint sauce is a perfect example.

Start by blending together a seasoning paste.  John uses an old-fashioned mortar and pestle to crush together two tablespoons of peppercorns, a little salt, four cloves of garlic, a little dried oregano, a few tablespoons of chopped fresh mint, a little olive oil, and the juice of half a lime.  That paste is spread onto a boneless, skinless chicken breast.  Both sides.  A few tablespoons of vegetable oil go into a hot saute pan.  And as soon as the oil is hot, in goes the chicken breast.  Shake the pan a little to keep the chicken from sticking to the surface.  After three minutes of cooking, open the chicken breast, keeping the seasoning paste up.  Add the juice of the other half of the lime, a few more minutes of cooking until the chicken is done, then onto a plate with the pan juices on top. 

Some of the best places to get a look at what traditional Puerto Rican cooking is really like are the local fandas.  They're modest small restaurants that cater to the tastes of their neighborhood.  A perfect example of this type of place is La Casita Blanca, near the resort area of Isla Verde Beach in San Juan. 

Jesus Peres takes care of the front of the house, and his mother's doing the cooking in the kitchen.  The foods on the table are the most customary and familiar in Puerto Rico.  Tostones, plantains deep-fried, then flattened out and fried again.  Easily as addictive as the ultimate potato chip. 

Bacalaitos.  Fried salt codfish fritters.  Pastalon, which is like a lasagna, but the pasta is actually replaced with ripe plantains. 

Arroz con Pollo -- Chicken with rice.  Virtually the national dish of Puerto Rico.

And to drink, a mabi.  A mabi is made from the fermented root of the mabi tree.  Water, sugar, a little cinnamon and some cloves.  It's very similar to an alcoholic beverage made by the Taino Indians, who arrived here in the year 300.  Well, if this was their favorite drink, and their primary mode of transportation was the canoe, I certainly hope they had a program for a designated paddler.

Clearly the strongest influences on the cooking of Puerto Rico are to be found in the traditions of the Taino tribes, the Spanish and the Africans.  But let's not forget that Columbus, who came to Puerto Rico in 1493, was Italian.  And the culinary heritage of his place of birth is not without representation on this island.  Most clearly it is to be found in the work of Chef Giuseppe Acosta, who directs three restaurants, including one at the Sands Hotel.

A little vegetable oil is heated in a saute pan, and in goes a few cloves of garlic that have been sliced, a little oregano, some chopped onion, and chopped anchovy.  Pinch of crushed red pepper.  Some slices of pitted black olives and stuffed green olives.  A half cup of white wine.  A cup of tomato sauce.  It cooks together for a few minutes.  And in goes a half pound of precooked linguini.  Everything is mixed together and heated through.  Finally a little grated parmesan cheese.  The pasta heats up, it's ready to go onto the serving plate.  I'm ready to eat.

So what have we seen here in San Juan?  Clearly the gastronomic base is a 2000-year-old culture that's been eating lots of fish, fresh fruits and vegetables.  Colonization by the Spanish introduced rice, pork, beef and olives.  West Africans brought in their one-pot cooking skills.  These days the native, Spanish and African influences have been blended together in the areas in the middle of culinary renaissance. 

There are excellent local recipes that take a little bit of meat, fish or poultry and make it go a long way by adding in lots of complex carbohydrates from rice and beans.

As I walk through the city of old San Juan, and see the statue of Ponce de Leon, I am reminded that it was Ponce who set sail from these shores looking for the Fountain Of Youth.  He never found it, and he actually died during the search.  Quite frankly, though, his best shot at the Fountain Of Youth would have been to stay home, eat a diet that was low in fat, and keep up a regular program of  aerobic exercise.

My first visit to San Juan took place in 1965, and it's amazing to see what's happened since then.  San Juan has become a sophisticated city, but it's been able to preserve and refurbish its most important historical neighborhoods.  It's also been able to hold onto its traditional foods, and in many cases, introduce new and healthier cooking techniques for those recipes.  As a result, San Juan is a great place for food lovers.

Please join us next time as we travel around the world looking for foods that taste good and are good for you.  I'm Burt Wolf.