Achiote – Also known as “annatto,” achiote is an ingredient native to Puerto Rico. Often, the dye from the seeds was used as body paint and lipstick amongst the Taínos; therefore, it is often called the “lipstick tree.” Before the use of packaged sazón – which has artificial food coloring, msg, and other unpronounceable ingredients – “aceite de achiote” achiote oil was the common way of adding food coloring and flavor to food, especially rice and stews. It is very likely tied to a centuries-old tradition from West Africa where palm oil is used for food coloring. It could also be related to the practice of Mediterranean cooking, in which saffron is used for coloring.
Guingambo – The word “Guingambo” is Angolan for okra, and it has its origins in Africa. A corruption of the word guingambo is the word “gumbo,” a dish often eaten in the southern Louisiana which has a strong association with okra. Guingambo is eaten less and less by younger folks, and sometimes perceived as a thing of past despite it’s versatility in that it can be fried, baked, stewed and sauteed. Don’t give up on guingambo. The less the demand, the less likely you will see it at your supermarket.
Oregano Brujo – Native to the continent of Africa, oregano brujo grows very well wherever it goes. For those of you who struggle with planting, this is the perfect first house plant. This low maintenance and invasive species thrives easily and you will find yourself giving stems away. The stems can be easily placed in a cup of water where roots will begin to sprout. It is then that the oregano brujo can be transferred from the cup into potted soil. It’s very aromatic and can be used in sofrito or stews. Oregano brujo is said to be used for spiritual cleansings, which may be how it received it’s name.
Hoja de Malanga – Taro root leaf. This may sound unusual, even made up, but it’s very real…In El Cocinero which was published in 1857 – there is a recipe of “malanga humada” which consists of cooking the leaf with the tuber itself. This is similar to what is known in West Africa and parts of the Caribbean as “callaloo.” Also similar to what is known in soulfood as collard greens. Because I was looking for greenery in my diet, I was elated that I found this. In my travels to Trinidad it was commonly present, and yes, I had the opportunity to taste the delicious “dasheen bush” also known as “callaloo.” Upon my return I managed to find taro root leaves at the African/Caribbean Market in Chicago and I’ve been making this dish ever since. This is a dish I believe can be easily brought back. Put some green in your life. Cook and eat “hoja de malanga.”
Papaya Verde – This is an ingredient I often find when digging up old recipes of the Caribbean. To be honest with you, before learning to cook, I had never tried it. But, it is available in Chicago grocery stores like Rico Fresh in West Humboldt Park. If you’ve ever eaten “dulce de lechosa,” then you’ve tasted papaya verde. If you are a fanatic of Thai food, then you have definitely seen it on a menu and have possibly eaten a papaya salad. Contrary to it’s sweet counterpart, the green papaya is more popular in the Caribbean and is often-times called “papaw” or “paw paw.” In some parts of Puerto Rico, and specifically in Loiza, it is consumed as vegetable and often cooked with “bacalao.” This dish is often called “Pirria.”
Funché – Corn was often dried inside the house, then eventually pounded in a pilón and made into funché. It was accessible and provided much-needed carbs and energy in times of immense labor and poverty. It was also a familiar food. Taínos made “guanimes,” and American and Central American natives made tamales (This is all prior to the arrival of Europeans). In regards to Africans, the word may have come from the Kikongo word “ngfungi” which refers to a form of bread which was made of cornmeal. The linking of Black Africans and funché most likely came when sugar plantations in Puerto Rico were most prosperous in the early 19th century. “Funché was identified as a food consumed by people of color, and thus bore all the lustful, erotic, sexual overtones attributed by the elites to the black race.” (Cuadra, Cruz Miguel Ortiz. Eating Puerto Rico: A History of Food, Culture and Identity. North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 2013. Print. p 88). In language in Puerto Rico we see it come up often – “enfuncha’o” which meant to be in a bad mood; “cara de funché” which means an awkward smile. “Eating funché was associated with the vulgar practices of lower-caste persons who lacked manners and had not a spoon, knife or fork to their name. Funché is also eaten in Dominican Republic and Cuba. In Haiti this dish is called “maise moulin; in Trinidad, Grenada and Barbados it is known as “coocoo;” “turned cornmeal” in Jamaica and “fungi” in the Virgin Islands. In fact, a variation we often eat today is shrimp and grits. Don’t allow folks to call it “Puerto Rican polenta.” That strips funché of all it’s history.
Ají Caballero – I know that many of us have the misconception that Puerto Ricans don’t eat spicy food. That’s a damn lie!!! The word itself – “ají” – is a Taíno word and they have always grown well on the island. It was used to flavor food, but was also used for food preservation. It was also used in a similar way by the maroon populations of Puerto Rico and throughout the Caribbean. “Ají caballero” is native to the island. Although this is not the only pepper of the island, it is one of the more common ones. I have learned that the ají would be burned over fires as an agitant to ward off the Spanish invaders. To me, at that moment the “ajís” became a symbol of anti-colonialism and resistance. As a matter of fact, for many, it’s a necessity on the kitchen table as a flavor enhancer – like it was for me as a kid in the form of “pique.” Pique is a vinegary concoction of “ajís” and herbs. As a home cook, I think that food needs balance and should not only be salty or sweet. Add spice to the mix.
Yuca – “Yuca”- also known as cassava – is one of the most versatile foods on earth.Yuca is said to be a Taíno word and may come from the word “Yucatan” which may also be its actual place of origin. It grows in drought-like weather and can grow on some of the toughest terrains around the world. It’s two tough exterior shells and internal vein make it heavy and firm. Yuca was the most cultivated crop of the Taíno diet amongst corn, squash, beans, peppers, “calabaza”, peanuts, pineapples, guavas and sweet potatoes. For the Taínos and still today, many eat what is called “casabe” which is a bread made of yuca. Casabe was a journey cake that traveled far without spoilage. Yuca was a life source for many around the world and continues to be today.
Guanimes – The word “guanime” is a Taíno word. You will also see the word “guanimo,” which my family uses. (Both are widely used throughout the island, but guanime is the more popular name.) Guanimes were a main staple of Borinquen. It is said to be the Puerto Rican rendition of tamales made in the Americas. Ground cornmeal is the main ingredient, which was wrapped in cornhusk. It is understood that today they are wrapped in banana leaf because of the influence of Africans on the island. A variation of the corn based guanimes are white flour guanimes, also known as “guanimes blancos” or “guanimes de harina.” All types of guanimes are often complemented with bacalao.
Horchata de Ajonjolí – When one thinks of horchata, one commonly thinks of refreshing Mexican rice water, and rightfully so. But in Puerto Rico, and many other places, horchata exists as well. In Puerto Rico the most common type of horchata is “horchata de ajonjolí ” (sesame seed horchata). Here is a video link of the recipe by Buen Provecho TV: https://youtu.be/EuxGOSgR3EY