When in Puerto Rico, it’s required to enjoy its sun splashed, palm dotted, Caribbean beaches and walk down Old San Juan’s blue bricked streets lined with pastel-hued colonial architecture to visit its centuries-old fortresses, and cathedrals, not to mention taking the short trek to and through the lush El Yunque tropical rain forest.
Being here also means savoring the island’s comida criolla, an earthy and flavorful cuisine that reflects Puerto Rico’s soul. Your must do obligation here is to try mofongo, a wondrous mashed plantain dish served as a side or stuffed with anything including skirt steak, chicken, lobster, or shrimp, usually in a sweet tomato criolla sauce, that makes a fulfilling and delicious main course.
You should also try arroz con gandules, lechon, pasteles, and the list goes on. But mofongo is the “must try.” The fact that you never heard of it also makes it more appealing.
The dish perfectly embodies the fusion of cultures in the island’s cooking, which stem from Spain, Africa, and Puerto Rico’s own indigenous people, the Tainos.
The main ingredient, plantains, was brought to the Caribbean by enslaved Africans bound for the sugar plantations of the Spanish colonials; the pilon, or mortar and pestle, used in the process harks to Tainos in Pre-Columbian times; and the fragrant sofrito spicing the foods that typically complement this dish is part of the Iberian tradition of cooking.
“I think that mofongo is a dish that distinguishes us and one that is going to delight you once you try it,” says Felix Lopez, sous chef at Alexandra Restaurant at Copamarina Beach Resort & Spa in Guanica, on Puerto Rico’s southwestern coast. At 26, he has a long relationship with this dish, one of many he learned when, as a lad of 10; his mother initiated him into the art of cooking.
A member of the banana family, plantains is starchy and has less sugar than their dessert counterpart. Unsuitable to eat raw, they are typically fried or baked.
Basically, mofongo is a mash-up of fried plantains, garlic, and pork cracklings. That’s about it. The greatest virtue of this dish is its versatility, making for endless variations and possibilities of invention in partnership with other foods. In its simplest form, it can be served alone with a tasty sauce or a savory broth. Or it can be a side to vegetables, meat, chicken or seafood. It can also be the star of a meal, stuffed with any number of tantalizing fillings in which case this dish takes the name of Mofongo Relleno.
“I think it is one of the most important dishes in Puerto Rico and my years of experience have allowed me to take it to another level. I find interesting the diversity of dishes that one can prepare with mofongo,” said Lopez, whose professional experience includes stints at Fern and Molasses, two restaurants at the Hotel St. Regis Bahia Beach in Rio Grande. In his first three years at Copamarina he trained with well-known Chef Alfredo Ayala.
Mofongo is rooted in a favorite staple from West and Central Africa named fufu. This dish is traditionally prepared by mixing yucca (cassava), yams, and plantains with water, to give it a milder taste, or milk, for a richer taste. It can be served dry, on cocoyam leaves, in a stew or soup, or as an accompaniment to meat or fish.
Fufu is also found in the Dominican Republic, where it is known as mangu, and in Cuba where it retained its original name although Wikipedia notes that Cuba’s mofongo is called machuquillo and, as in the Dominican Republic, the plantains are boiled, not fried.
The main difference between Caribbean and African fufu, according to Literature Vodoo, is that it has a “thicker, firmer and almost doughy texture.”
How to prepare mofongo?
If you think that such an intriguing food involves a long, complicated preparation, you’re mistaken.
“Mofongo is a very traditional and very simple dish,” said Maria Germania Diaz, executive chef at the Condado Plaza Hilton. “The key to this dish is simply to use the freshest plantains, cook them at medium heat and to make sure the rest of the ingredients used including the oil are of good quality.”
Plantains should be mashed just long enough that they have a stiff consistency (you don’t want to puree them) and having done so you should quickly move on to the next step in the preparation or the plantains will get too hard to work with.
Copamarina’s Lopez seemed to be on the same page on the topic of freshness. He said that when he has to prepare mofongo the first thing he does is go to the farm of one of his employees and pick “the best plantains.”
Before you begin to make mofongo you will need some lively music to get you into a tropical vibe. A perfect accompaniment is salsa queen Celia Cruz’s saucy Pun Pun Catalu, which appropriately enough references mofongo, mangu and fufu in its opening lyrics. This spirited tropical song is about the similarities between Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico. Or opt to listen to Bomba, a type of music that originated among the slaves working in Puerto Rico’s cane fields and is rich with the fiery rumbling sound of drums rhythmically interacting with each other. Pun Pun Catalu and Bomba videos are easily found on Youtube.
Now to the task at hand: Peal the plantains and let them rest in water so they don’t develop spots or turn black. One large plantain is enough for one person.
Next, cut the plantains into half inch or one inch rounds and fry them at a temperature of 325 degrees for three minutes until the plantains are a nice golden color. It may take longer, depending on how you cook them, just be careful that they don’t brown.
For the next step you will need to use the pilon. Lopez says the ideal mortar should be made out of wood, preferably guayacan, the best in his opinion because it is solid and doesn’t have pores that can trap food and lead to nasty bacteria.
Place the plantains in the pilon, with butter, garlic, pork cracklings or crumpled bacon. Lopez likes to add fresh cilantro and salt and there are cooks who add chicken stock for greater taste, or a sofrito base instead of the plain garlic.
Mash all the ingredients until everything is incorporated and then divide the resulting paste into several portions. You can use a small bowl to shape the mash into attractive domes. Turn each dome over on a plate and garnish with cracklings or bacon or any other creative topping. Now, it’s ready to eat.
At Alexandra, mofongo is served in multiple ways, according to Lopez. Stuffed with shrimps freshly caught from Guanica waters or as a side with fresh fish like hogfish, red snapper, cartucho (a fish of the snapper family), and baked or grilled lobster. He said he likes to fry the shrimps lightly in a criollo sauce or perhaps with some garlic or lemon, and then stuff them inside the mofongo. The restaurant also serves mofongo in a seafood salad of squid, lobster or carrucho (conch).
Condado Plaza’s Diaz says she likes to add pieces of pork cracklings for flavor to her plantain mofongo but the key to making it taste good is adding lots of love.
It’s not uncommon for a country’s beloved uber dish to experience some major transformation at some point in time which is exactly what happened to mofongo when some clever cook devised a way of taking this dish to the next level of perfection.
Enter trifongo, a trifecta of green plantain, yucca and banana.
According to a connoisseur of the local food scene, trifongo turned up around a decade ago. “I heard of it around the same time as pavochon and tripletas, three meat sandwiches (pork, ham, and beef), part of the super-size more is more craze that Puerto Rico is not immune from.
“Trifongo is creamier and with more dimension, brought on by the sweet plantains and yucca, but mofongo has its place too, as a bold plantain profile,” Nieves said.
Trifongo basically used to be a blend of yucca, green plantain, and sweet plantain but nowadays the combinations are up to a person’s taste and preference as for example, panapen (breadfruit), green bananas, malanga, yautia, and batata (root vegetables), among others.
The multi-layered taste experience in trifongo is what makes it so different from mofongo, according to Victor Woods, Sous Chef at Cafe Tropical, at the Courtyard by Marriott in Isla Verde. “There are no words for trifongo,” said the 30-year-old chef who started out his cooking career at the famous Ajili Mojili restaurant in Condado.
Café Tropical’s trifongo is made with plantains, yucca, and malanga and served with a creamy salmorejo de pollo, shredded chicken cooked slowly in a rich tomato sauce with spices, cilantro, peppers, capers, and “a touch of beer,” Woods explained. The restaurant also serves mofongo and many other dishes inspired by the richness of Puerto Rican cuisine.
Some dishes of Puerto Rican gastronomy, like say pasteles, are reserved for special times of the year like the Christmas holidays. Mofongo, on the other hand, can be eaten any time of the year, no holiday needed as an excuse.
“All you need is to have the urge to eat it,” said Carlos Rosado, of La Ana de Cofresi restaurant at Villa Cofresi hotel in Rincon. Named after a feared Puerto Rican pirate who terrorized the Caribbean in the early 19th century, both the hotel and restaurant are veritable institutions in the town of Rincon, a well-known surf spot on the island’s west coast. The restaurant has among the best oceanfront views and among the best local flavors on Puerto Rico’s bountiful west coast.
That urge comes from most who have tried this delicious dish, perhaps the quintessential Caribbean comfort food, reflecting tropical warmth that goes with everything, accentuating the flavors of its surroundings.
For Rosado, mofongo is something is already well established as delicious for most people, either a go to side dish or the center of the evening’s pièce de résistance. “It is what it is,” he said. “People are always going to ask for it.”
A dish with a long history, mofongo is one of those foods that maintain its popularity thanks to its versatility and potential for creative reinvention. Think you will have trouble remembering the word? Try this mnemonic trick: Mo’ Fun Go. Get it?
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