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4 Popular Puerto Rican Dishes with Fascinating Origins 

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at USFSP chapter.

Food is often a window into a culture’s soul, from the spices and flavors, to the presentation. A nation’s cuisine frequently also reveals its people’s embedded history and there is no better example than Puerto Rico in this regard. 

Puerto Rico’s history is one of hybridization, where cultures from many different places merged to form a symphony of music, art, and, most importantly, flavor! Many of the dishes that are synonymous with the spirit of Puerto Rico often share their ancestral history with the original inhabitants of the island, the Taíno. Along with the original inhabitants, those brought to the island against their will, in the slave trade, made the best of the materials they were given and included much of their cooking practices to form a new, unique flavor style consistent throughout the Caribbean. The style of cooking adopted from Africa, coupled with the crops naturally cultivated by the Indigenous peoples, gave way to these dishes:  

Tostones and Mofongo 

These two dishes are a staple of Puerto Rican cuisine, mainly due to their ability to fill one up after a grueling day. Both possess savory elements, including spices and herbs, particularly garlic, along with fried plantains as the base of the dishes. However, mofongo elevates this further by introducing an umami-infused soup known as consumè. Consumè is used to flavor the mofongo further and bind it together to form a uniform, dense, and delicious deluge of flavor. On top of this consumè, mofongo can be paired with several different proteins, most often being beef, pork, or shrimp. These protein options usually represent the traditionally available sources of meat on the island, which have been present since Spanish colonization and, in the case of seafood, far before it.  

Mofongo finds its roots in the traditional African dish known as “fufu.” This style of mashing cassava was brought to the Americas due to enslavement. However, it was adapted into a range of styles, like mofongo, possessing not only the original ingredient of cassava but also implementing the easily harvested and prepared plantain fruit present in many provisional gardens sowed by enslaved individuals. Mofongo was often used as a comfort food to provide sustenance and resilience to the trials and tribulations of long plantation days.  

This sentiment is carried into the modern era and was also present in my life. I distinctly remember a time in school when I struggled with assignments that forced me to work well into the night. Although those assignments were challenging, my mom saved me a plate of delectable mofongo, and in every bite, a bit of stress was expelled.  

To many Puerto Ricans, mofongo represents the resilience and strength of our ancestors in combating the adversity impressed upon them. Thus, it also represents the strength and resilience we derive from overcoming the obstacles we face in the modern era, whether it be discrimination, assimilation, or the growing climate crisis that threatens the island we call home. 


Pasteles are often considered a staple dish of Puerto Rico, especially during the holidays. They are often composed of green bananas or yuca; however, numerous varieties include different roots that grow naturally in Puerto Rico. Pasteles are often considered comparable to tamales in that they are masa-based. However, pasteles possess a particularly distinct flavor. The best description I could give of this special dish is earthy, sharp, savory, and sometimes herbal. Much of this earthiness is derived from the roots used to make the masa and the banana leaf used to cook the pasteles.  

Many of the roots that comprise pasteles were initially cultivated by the Taíno tribes from the wildly available roots on the island. Before Spanish colonization, elements such as squash, cassava, yautía, and taro root were cultivated. Even being seen within a flatbread created using cassava. Yet, pasteles remained relatively uncommon until after the introduction of plantains and bananas from Portuguese and African traders, in contrast to the widely discussed tamales within Mesoamerica.  

My personal experience with pasteles often centers around the community. As a kid, I remember helping my mom grind and smash the roots into a paste, to be mixed into a masa. Every member of the house would assist my mom with a different root, and with my three brothers, one would have thought the process would have been more straightforward. This would have been the case if making pasteles had been solely focused on feeding my family alone; however, making pasteles has always been accompanied by feeding someone else in my life, including neighbors, extended family, and those lacking homes during the holidays.  

This concept of community, being highlighted through cuisine, represents the soul of the connective nature of food and the general connection that has been formed among Puerto Ricans. Food unites us all under an everyday enjoyment: flavor. With this, we share our love with those who may not be familiar with our culture. Pasteles, due to their complex flavor, allow for conversations to be made around why they taste the way they do and the history behind why their flavors connect us to our homeland and our ancestors, allowing those to taste even a hint of the soil itself.  

Viandas con Bacalao 

This collection of roots has various flavor profiles, ranging from sharp sour notes to buttery sweet. Viandas con Bacalao, or Codfish with Roots, is a staple seafood dish in Puerto Rico, especially during sweltering summer days. Recipes often include the principal codfish, yautía, potatoes, cassava, yams, and green bananas. Many of these roots originate within the indigenous cultivated roots on the island; however, just like mofongo and pasteles, incorporate the wildly available banana and plantain plants into the recipe for added starch.  

The sea often holds quite a bit of meaning for Puerto Ricans, a source of sustenance and trade spanning back to the time of indigenous peoples, but also destruction through natural disasters and disease brought by colonization. The Taíno people are credited as being responsible for the name attributed to one of the most potent phenomena on Earth originating from the sea, the hurricane. Thus, the danger from the sea and its bountiful resources exalts the connection between that which brought our people power and success, but also external threats, and thus fish were equally important due to their connection to not only diet but the greater symbolism behind the ocean on the island.  

In my experience, fish was not a common protein consumed due to its price in the mainland United States. From my observation, this reality plagued my mother, who had been fond of seafood since childhood on the island. A simple fish served as a connection to this place that seemed so far away. Along with the connection to the island, the roots also represented a healing quality held in Puerto Ricans’ minds. While eating the roots once cultivated by our ancestors, there is a sense of generational healing. This sense of healing is one that assists often in feeling complete and safe, as there are many fond memories associated with the food that has persisted throughout our people for generations. 

The dichotomy between the joy brought by the sea surrounding Puerto Rico, shown by the beautiful beaches and delicious fish, and the isolation it also brings, dominates the minds of my family and me. Ia CV An example of such would be the occasions where the power would shut off at my Abuela’s house during almost every hurricane. Without the rusty generator jerry-rigged to the house’s electronics, these events would undoubtedly have severed communication between the woman who made Puerto Rico home and my family. 


Alcapurrias are a staple creole food found locally in many different places across Puerto Rico. They, too, are made of taro or cassava along with green plantains, similar to pasteles and mofongo. Some of the most delicious hand-held foods on the island are often different everywhere you go in the best ways possible. However, it was always conveyed to me that the best Creole cooks lived in Loiza, a historically Afro-Latino community within Puerto Rico.  

Alcapurrias originate potentially from Arabic and Levantine influences from immigrants who moved to the island during European colonization. However, the ability of ethnically separate groups to have a passion for preparing these traditionally, outwardly inspired dishes captured the soul of the Puerto Rican spirit, adapting and developing cuisine, culture, and practices to envelop better what the island truly represents: collaboration and durability.  

Why Does it Matter? 

Food is often a window to the soul of a nation. As shown through the many varieties of food highlighted, the origin of cuisine often shows the deep roots of what makes a nation unique culturally, particularly when discussing the many components of what makes up one’s identity. The qualities of cuisine, from flavors to presentation to where food is consumed, exemplifies the personality of the culture it occupies. In my opinion, the idea of food fueling fascination with different ways of life is what motivates me to try as many cuisines as possible. After all, I learned most about my own culture through the delicious meals my family graciously shared with me, and that hopefully everyone can enjoy one day.  

Student at University of South Florida St. Petersburg!