In at least one way the Puerto Rican resembles a Frenchman. While either is eating lunch he is planning and talking about dinner. Early in my stay on the island I was struck with the sensuous delight most Puerto Ricans dig in. The influence of the United States is every where in the kitchen, but most cooks are proud of their cocina criolla ( = native cooking).

Puerto Rican food has distinctive flavors created with some combination of garlic, cinnamon, cloves, lime, fresh ginger and a special kind of orange called naranja ágria ( = bitter orange). Wedded to these is a preference for the flavor of culantro ( = coriander leaves) and oregano. Any time you buy culantro, the store will invariably add a handful of ajies dulces, which look like tiny pumpkins or cherries but taste a bit like pepper.

The most distinctive flavor, however, is created with the judicious use of a sofrito, which, as far as I know, is an untranslatable word that refers to this mixture of seasonings. Many households have their own secret recipes for it.

Before sane nutrition hit the island, achiote sauteed in lard, ran a close second to sofrito as the predominate flavoring. Of course, the seeds are discarded and the lard used to color and flavor other dishes. Today other shortenings are used and the mixture can be purchased in stores as achiotina. The flavor is quite distinctive and undescribable.

The productos troplicales ( = tropical produce) give enormous variety to the menu. The most versatile are the many kinds of banana. The favorite is the plátano ( = plantain) which can be fried, baked, boiled or roasted. The fairly ripe ones are sliced down the middle and stuffed with ground and seasoned meat. The green ones can be sliced thin and deep fried to make something resembling a potato chip. If you fry green ones, smash them and refry, you'll have tostones. You can also mash them and drizzle them into deep fat to make arañitas ( = little spiders). They can be layered with ground meat to make a piñon or sliced and wrapped around ground meat in piononos

There are many root vegetables, whose names I know only in Spanish. They have a slight resemblence to the potato, but vary widely in flavor and texture. Probably the little yautía ( = dasheen), which come in at least two colors, is the favorite. Some people won't eat malanga because it is considered "slave food." Yuca ( = cassava ) is frequently dressed with olive oil and lots of garlic. I love ñame primarily because it's one of the few words I know in Spanish that begin with ñ. And don't forget the batata ( = white sweet potato), which defies description. It's so sweet that it can be used in making desserts. Technically panapén ( = breadfruit) isn't a root vegetable, but it, like the others, is a starchy vegetable (well, fruit, actually). The breadfruit has been saddled with the same prejudice as malanga. It is considered "slave food" and beneath notice in some kitchens.

With all these sources of starch, you'd think there'd be no need for another one, but rice is the starch of choice (which is also served with a root vegetable). Ordinarily the rice is "wedded" to some kind of bean. The classic with rice is the kidney beans, but at Christmas rice is always served with gandules ( = pigeon peas). Rice is added to a stew to make asopao ( = souped up?) and rice with chicken is a classic. A day without rice is like a day without E2.

To cook the most festive dish of Puerto Rico, you will first need a shovel! Dig a pit and roast a pig! The secret is the basting with the juice of the bitter orange and some achiote coloring. Other basting ingredients frequently include a combination of garlic, vinegar, lime juice, olive oil and the ajies dulces, mentioned above.

We are always eating -- at home and in the streets. For street wear I'd suggest Bacalaítos fritos ( = codfish fritters) or the popular pastelillos ( = deep-fried cheese and meat turn-overs) They are flaky and are guaranteed to get crumbs down the front. You don't find alcapurrias so much any more because they are so labor intensive. They are made with ground plátano and yautía and stuffed with ground beef or pork. Some gringos complain that one alcapurria will put your stomach into distress for hours. It's a bum rap!

In a climate such as Puerto Rico you are always thirsty and there are 100s of refrescos ( = refreshing beverages) which are used to quench the thirst: pineapple, mango, coconut, papaya and tamarindo = (a lemon-like juice made by soaking the seeds of a tree pod) are well worth trying. There are unusual beverages as well, like the slightly fermented mabí which is made from the bark of a tree. Once you get past the smell, reminiscent of garbage, it's quite refreshing. Or the drink made from ground sesame seeds that has the feel of grit in the mouth.

Finally the dessert -- all sweet and smooth puddings. Almost everyone has tried a flan or custard, but the natilla is even a smoother version. If you like the flavor of coconut there is a tembleque pudding for you. Another coconut flavored pudding is Arróz con dulce, which is made of cooked rice and coconut cream, sugar and cinnamon. For a country pudding majarete is just the thing. In Puerto Rico it is made with rice flour, but the Dominican Republic does a down-to-earth version with fine corn meal. You also can get various fruits cooked in heavy sugar syrup and served with a white, somewhat salty, cheese.

The Puerto Rican coffee is world famous. It is double roasted and brewed until a spoon will stand up in it. You can order a pocillo (black in demi-tasse) or the more popular café-con-leche, served with hot milk. I was instantly addicted after my first cup some 30 years ago.

As they say on the island buen provecho. They figure you have a good appeite so they wish that all you eat will be nourishing.

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