Outside of the Classroom: Searching for the New Mofongo

Gastronomy students are always busy, both inside the classroom and out. On the rare occasion that school is not in session, students take advantage of the chance to get away and explore life outside of the program. In this mini series, students will recount their 2014 Spring Break to provide insight into gastronomy life outside of school.

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By Andrea Lubrano

As a Gastronomy enthusiast, learning the nuts and bolts of the field is an all time job for an MLA candidate in the program. In an effort to broaden my journalistic skills while complying with homework duties, I chose to focus my spring break, in Puerto Rico with my husband, on the culinary narrative of the island, specifically on the unofficial national plantain dish of Mofongo.

I quickly learned that this well liked meal is made from frying unripe plantains or plátano verde, then pasting them with a mortar and pestle while adding chicken stock, chicharrón (pork crakling), olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper. This mash is then molded with the mortar and given a concave shape to leave space for a stew filling of seafood, beef, or pork that accompanies the dish, along with an edible garnish of lettuce and tomatoes. This traditional way of preparing mofongo varies in size and style according to how many are being fed and in what setting the meal is being served.

Mofongo at Donde Olga Restaurant
Mofongo at Donde Olga Restaurant

In an effort to learn quickly about this local fare we ordered mofongo everywhere we went. It was not easy, especially with all the fresh fruits around, but my homework required I eat the grub until I knew it so well that I spoke of it like a native. We ate our way from colonial Old San Juan to the beaches of Piñones where families gather on Saturdays to bbq on portable grills while their children run up and down the boardwalk in a game only they understand. By the tail end of the trip I had more anecdotes and restaurant recommendations for the main island in my notepad then I had time to try them.

The journey continued onto the small island of Vieques where we promised ourselves a break from our smart phones and, therefore, missed on a thousand and one picture opportunities – imagine wild horses galloping around deserted white sand beaches, caves, sea turtles and the world’s best bioluminescent bay – that’s Vieques. This ex-U.S. army base is an enchanting addition to the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and therefore to the United States of America.

Mofongo at El Quenepo Restaurant
Mofongo at El Quenepo Restaurant

Here we ate more of the same, but quickly realized by chatting with local bartenders and chefs that modern Puerto Rican cuisine is changing. Although this region is Latin in temperament, due to an almost 400 year rule of the Spanish, its cultural exchanges with the U.S. are abundant. This mostly takes place through the education of Latin chefs in haute culinary practices, who return home to open more creative restaurants, as is the case of Chef José Enrique and his restaurants: José Enrique, Capital, Miel and El Blok, which is opening soon in Vieques. The opposite also takes place, Chefs like Scott Cole of Raleigh, NC, ventured south to apply his cooking techniques to Caribbean ingredients.

Throughout Puerto Rico different styles of mofongo are taking on the post of culinary ambassadors. From the unpretentious at Donde Olga Restaurant ($20) in Piñones, to the more exotic cooking of El Quenepo ($35) in Vieques. Mofongo and its mother the plantain are so significant to Puerto Rican identity that even those living their lives in prison have reported making the mash for mofongo out of bagged plantain chips, which is as close as they can get to the real deal.

Andrea is a last semester Gastronomy student interested in the intersection of food as medicine and food as art within cultures and societies. Follow her at: http://essenessenuniverse.tumblr.com/

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