24 May 2012

Puerto Rico, Part One: Street Food and El Yunque

Twelve years ago we went on a pre-wedding "honeymoon" to Isle Royale National Park.  The island is accessible only by boat or plane, so we ventured out on the first Ranger III of the season (so it was the two of us and some fish and wildlife guys, wandering around on a huge boat). We spent nine days backpacking around the island.  It was below freezing every night, and we shared the island with wolves, loons, moose, aggressively hungry squirrels, and a handful of other humans.  We ran out of food while miles away from the only store, seriously risked hypothermia, and slept in three-sided shelters or on the ground.  We also saw a spontaneous emergence of winged insects over a little inland pool, went to sleep every night to the howl of the wolves, interacted with all manner of non-human life, and generally had the most amazing experience. 

It was, as they say, epic.

While we have done a lot of traveling in the years since that trip, most of it has involved conferences, cooking events, or family visits.  We felt that it was time for another epic experience.  With that goal in mind, we decided on Puerto Rico, being drawn in by the rain forest, the food, and the history of the island--one that has been marked by colonialism and occupation.  I took roughly 8.2 billion photos while we were there, so narrowing down the pool was pretty tough.  For this chapter, I wanted to show you all some of the street food we ate while on the island, as well as a small snapshot of the stunningly lush rainforest, El Yunque.

Our morning view from Hotel Milano, in Old San Juan
Mofongo is something of the national dish in Puerto Rico, and there are dozens of variations on the basic theme, which is fried green plantains that are mashed with garlic and (typically) pork fat and/or cracklings.  It was the first thing I ordered when we arrived, and this introductory dish was the best I had during the trip--maybe because it was first?  Possibly.  This one was topped with shrimp and a sauce criolla.

We sampled at least a half dozen different mofongos, including versions made with yuca and cassava, some with sauce, some filled...mofongo is a beautiful, variable thing.  I am pretty sure that the two pounds I gained were due to the excessive consumption of mofongo (and, possibly, rum--more on that in another post).  Puerto Rican street food is not what you would call light fare.  For lunch one day we stopped at a row of roadside "kiosks," each displaying a wide variety of deep fried foods, arepas, whole fried fish, sausages...

Morcilla, a spicy blood sausage
Fresh oyster kiosk--there were water birds patrolling this one, acting like pigeons
We ordered a few things to share, and found them to be greasy but tasty.  The seafood rice had shrimp, a mild spice, and bits of chewy conch:

The pastele was our least favorite, as it was both bland and greasy.  I have had much better versions (but this one was cheap!).  The little rectangle in the back is the pastele, which is made like a tamale with a plantain "masa" filled with savory fillings.  We also sampled a plantain "pie" stuffed with ground beef that had a picadillo sweet-sour flavor, and it was tasty.

To work off some of the street food, we spent the better part of a day hiking around in El Yunque (lots of hills, so it burned off some of those plantains).  There is no real way to do justice in photos, but here are a few to give you a glimpse.  To get a more realistic and visceral experience, view these in a very hot room, while misting yourself constantly with warm water.  It was hot, it was humid, it was as if we were in a rain forest or something. 

It was fascinating to see gingers, bird of paradise, and hibiscus growing in the wild, often in large swaths
I have kind of a thing for snails, and these huge guys were everywhere--huge
These guys were beautiful, in an alien kind of way
Just a gorgeous, tropical waterfall
The consistently-slippery trail
That's about all I can cram into this post, but I will be regaling you with picture of rum drinks and architecture in my next post.  Hey, I didn't take all of those pictures for nothing...

Thanks for reading,


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At May 24, 2012 at 7:20 PM , Anonymous Lisa @ Snappy Gourmet said...

Great photos!! And now I'm hungry!

At May 24, 2012 at 8:50 PM , Blogger Steven Merkel said...

Wow! This IS truly epic! Even without the mention of squirrels, it may have still been a fantastic read.

At May 24, 2012 at 9:34 PM , Blogger Angela said...

Steve, you know I love squirrels! There was one particular squirrel on Isle Royale that literally would park right on top of the backpack, trying to get at the gorp inside. A really industrious squirrel.

At May 25, 2012 at 5:56 AM , Blogger Eric B. said...

Love the pix, and the food looks tasty also!

At May 25, 2012 at 7:12 AM , Anonymous Denise Heikinen said...

Great pics! I love the pastele description as "both bland and greasy." You don't see those adjectives in a food blog often. Very epic! :)

At May 25, 2012 at 10:41 AM , Blogger Karen Harris said...

I've been anticipating this post. Beautiful photos Angela. I've been craving a little street food from somewhere and of course, a little rum. Thanks for satisfying on of those cravings.

At May 25, 2012 at 11:48 AM , Blogger Angela said...

Karen, I am working on a more rum-saturated post :)

At May 25, 2012 at 11:49 AM , Blogger Angela said...

Yeah, it was both! Plus, it wasn't even fried, so it was odd.

At May 25, 2012 at 11:49 AM , Blogger Angela said...

Thanks! More coming up.

At May 26, 2012 at 3:20 AM , Blogger Cathy Wiechert said...

Nice! I'm looking forward to seeing the rest. :)

At May 26, 2012 at 11:26 PM , Blogger SKIP TO MALOU said...

When you mentioned Puerto Rico and street food on the title, I thought I would see food that are similar to ours. I know Puerto Rico and our Filipino food have so many things in common. Maybe on your part 2 haha. Twas really an epic and thank you for taking us with you.

At May 27, 2012 at 10:26 AM , Blogger Angela said...

Cathy, I think I could have bored everyone with about ten posts, but I tried to restrain myself :)

At May 27, 2012 at 10:27 AM , Blogger Angela said...

I don't know enough about Filipino food, so I need to learn! Thanks for stopping by.


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