A Brief History of Puerto Rico’s Beloved Mofongo

mofongo
Puerto Rico’s unofficial national dish usually consists of fried green plantains mashed with garlic, chicharrón (deep-fried pork skin) and cilantro. Flickr user Garrett Ziegler

Raúl Correa is no stranger to mofongo. A Puerto Rico native, he developed his passion for food while watching his uncle cook. Growing up, on Friday afternoons, he and his family would sometimes go to the island’s East Coast to enjoy fish, octopus salad and, of course, mofongo.

His fondest memory of the mashed plantain dish, however, is one he shares with his co-chef and colleague Xavier Pacheco at BACOA Finca + Fogón, a restaurant in Juncos, Puerto Rico, that the BBC has speculated might just be America’s best.

“Xavier used to make a mofongo, and on top he would put a pork belly with some guarapo [sugarcane juice],” Correa says. “It was sweet, salty and savory. It was all in that dish, all the good stuff.”

Mofongo is not on BACOA’s menu because the dish is so labor intensive that it would require one or two employees to focus all of their time on it. “If we have to make it, it has to be perfect,” he says. “And we’re afraid it won’t be.”

Raul Correa
Chef Raúl Correa is the co-owner of BACOA Finca + Fogón, a restaurant focused on sustainable cuisine in Juncos, Puerto Rico. Rafael N. Ruiz Mederos

To Correa, Puerto Rico’s unofficial national dish is “celebratory,” something you might crave when “you feel like having a cold beer or piña colada” or that might appear at a Sunday brunch. It usually consists of fried green plantains mashed with garlic, chicharrón (deep-fried pork skin) and cilantro. Mofongo is not a very fancy dish—unless you make it so. Nowadays, it is sometimes served as a main course. It can be presented different ways and include various ingredients, such as meat or butter. Traditionally (and ideally, according to Correa) it is eaten alongside a bowl of chicken broth.

“It’s a heavy meal, so you don’t eat it on a day-to-day basis—like rice and beans,” says Correa. “It would surprise you, but not a lot of restaurants in San Juan offer mofongo. Many people know how to do it, but not everyone wants to. It’s very time consuming, and it’s as if you were martillando comida [hammering food].”

To make the dish, Correa first peels the green plantains and puts them in water to preserve their color. After soaking them, he deep fries the plantains until they are crunchy on the outside. Then, usually in a pilón (mortar and pestle), he smashes the plantains while they are still hot. “The steam will come out and start cooking everything else,” he says. Finally, he adds some garlic, chicharrón and other ingredients to taste. “You need to make sure that it’s not mashed all the way through, so that when you bite it you still have all that flavor and crispy texture,” he adds.

Juan José Cuevas, the executive chef at1919, a restaurant at the Condado Vanderbilt Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico, also has a soft spot for mofongo. Growing up on the island, his grandmother would make the dish on special occasions. “When I was a kid, my abuela used to give me a bowl of mofongo and a bowl of chicken or beef broth. We would just cut a piece of mofongo and dip it in the broth,” he says. Although mofongo itself is heavy, Cuevas says that the combination of the mofongo with the broth is not.

Juan Jose Cuevas
Juan José Cuevas is the executive chef at 1919, a restaurant at the Condado Vanderbilt Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Condado Vanderbilt

Cuevas began his culinary career at the Michelin three-star restaurant Akelarre in San Sebastián, Spain. He then worked in several restaurants, including the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco and New York City’s Blue Hill. Given his international experience, Cuevas recognizes how various Puerto Rican dishes, including mofongo, have been inspired by—and born out of—global flavors.

Mofongo has a cross-cultural ancestry, with roots inTaíno, African, Spanish and North American traditions. In the early 1500s, Spanish conquistadors arrived in Puerto Rico andsubjugated the Taíno, Puerto Rico’s Indigenous people, forcing many to work on their plantations and in gold mines. As the Taíno population suffered from starvation, European diseases and other ill effects of colonization, the Spanish turned to enslaved laborers from West Africa. According to Cuevas, when West Africans came to the island, they brought with them fufu, a doughy food made from plantains, cassava or yams that are boiled and then pounded with a mortar and pestle. Over time, Taíno and Spanish flavors were stirred into fufu and out came mofongo.

mofongo grinding bowls
To make mofongo, the ingredients are mashed in a pilón (mortar and pestle). James Marshall/Getty Images

In his bookEating Puerto Rico: A History of Food, Culture, and Identity, food historian and retired University of Puerto Rico professor Cruz Miguel Ortíz Cuadra explains that the word mofongo stems from mfwenge-mfwenge, an Angolan Kikongo term that means “a great amount of anything at all.” Mofongo, he adds, was inspired, in part, by the Angolan technique of mashing starchy foods and adding liquid and fat to soften their texture. And in part by the Taíno—archaeological evidence supports the fact that the Indigenous people had long mashed ingredients together in pilones.

The Spanish influence comes in the form of sofrito, a mixture of sautéed onions, herbs, garlic and peppers that originated in the Iberian peninsula and is often added to mofongo.

But the basic ingredients of the dish are undeniably Puerto Rican. Green plantains are abundant on the island, and used for other dishes including tostones, or fried plantain slices, mentions Cuevas, whereas chicharrones are a common staple for street vendors.

“Mofongo is a dish that represents many things from Puerto Rico,” Correa says. “It represents who we are and where we came from. Probably not where we’re going, because dietary restrictions have changed. But mofongo will always be an important part of our culture.”

Cuevas agrees. “For many people in different countries, when they see mofongo, they think about Puerto Rico right away,” he says.

“If you come to the island, you need to have mofongo,” Correa says. “At least once.”


Chef Raúl Correa’s Mofongo Recipe

Serves 3-4

● 3 green plantains peeled and cut 1” thick

● 3 garlic cloves

● 1 cup pork crackling (chicharrón)

● 1 cup hot chicken stock

● 1/2 tsp kosher salt

● 1/2 tbsp olive or vegetable oil for deep frying

● 1 wooden mortar and pestle (pilón)

● 1 deep fryer or cast iron skillet

In a deep cast iron skillet or deep fryer, heat the vegetable oil at 350° F. Fry the plantains until golden brown for about 4 to 6 minutes. Put the plantains and the garlic in the pilón and mash them until fully mixed. Add the olive oil, salt and 1/4 of the hot chicken stock. Continue mashing until everything is well combined. Then, add the pork crackling to the mixture. Fill a cup-sized mold with the mofongo mixture and serve hot with a plate of hot chicken stock. If desired, add meat or seafood, and garnish with more pork crackling, pickled red onions and cilantro leaves.