After my Key West vacation, I spent some days in Puerto Rico with family. This time didn’t feel like a vacation, as I didn’t do many of the things that a vacationer does. I spent time with family, and watched the movie Smallfoot–which I highly recommend, and is a great way to teach children the value of critical thinking and questioning consensus. For the most part, I helped my father to cultivate the land and ate locally available food.
Next to the entrance to my parents’ house, there is a field of yummy green sweet potatoes that grow in the Caribbean. The Taíno indians called them batatas, so that’s what we call them. The root is what’s harvested.
My father has plaintain and banana palm trees in the back of his house. This species is locally known as guineo morado. I didn’t know this is what bananas look like when they flower.
My parents have a breadfruit tree, and they also get breadfruits from my uncle who is a farmer in Utuado. I hadn’t eaten breadfruits in a long time and was eager to try my mother’s homemade boiled breadfruit after a long time away.
Breadfruits are nutritionally dense, being one of the few fruits that provide us with protein, and are versatile. They can be cooked like potatoes (fried, boiled, mashed, in breadfruit salad instead of potato salad, etc). If not consumed before it fully ripens, the breadfruit goes to waste–which is a shame for such a large, rich, and delicious food source. Therefore, what many in poor countries (like Haiti and Jamaica) have learned to do is to harvest it prior to this point, dry it, and turn it into a flour that can be used year-round in baking or cooking. For this reason, the breadfruit is known as a potential solution to world hunger. A single tree can produce dozens of large breadfruits every year.
Breadfruit originates in the Pacific, but has become a staple in many Caribbean islands. In Hawaii, the breadfruit is known as ulu and features in its own foundation myth as the body of the god Ku. In Jamaica, it’s often cooked in coconut milk and is a staple of the local Rastafarian dietary regime known as ital. In Puerto Rico, we keep it simple: we boil it with a bit of salt and serve it with olive oil, typically alongside fish (usually codfish) and other tubers (yams, malanga, chayote, sweet potatoes) and plantains or green bananas. Ripened bananas are eaten widely throughout the world, but green ones are also great boiled, mashed or fried. This way of serving green bananas, tubers, and roots is known as viandas. My mother and uncles say that the jíbaros (Puerto Ricans of 2+ generations ago) used to eat viandas daily for lunch, and rice and beans daily for dinner back in the day.
Above are the assembled tubers and green plantains used to make viandas. Below is what breadfruits look like on the inside. The central part of the fruit is usually not consumed. In the old days, this part was given to the pigs, and the rest of the fruit was cooked.
And this is what the plate of codfish and viandas looks like once served with an avocado. It’s a very refreshing meal with healthy fats from the avocado and olive oil. In India–where people go to great lengths to make vegetarian meals filling and satisfying–our vianda ingredients are often given a curry treatment. There are many other ways to cook breadfruits and the other ingredients here. It’s just that we like to keep things simple, and this unadorned method brings out the flavor in the tubers.
Traveling to Utuado
We went to Utuado (from the Taíno name Otoao, which refers to the mountainous terrain), where my father grew up. Central Puerto Rico is incredibly lush and mountainous. The air is fresh, and the soil fertile. The height, together with the breeze that caresses the mountains, makes the weather much cooler and more comfortable than down below. I really wanted to go to the Taíno Indian ceremonial grounds (“batey“) known as Caguana, but unfortunately we didn’t have time to go.
A highway was built a few decades ago that goes through the town from north to south. It saves the traveler a huge amount of travel time, as this would otherwise be a journey through curves. I used to always get dizzy, and sometimes nauseous, when as a child they drove me through the curves to see my grandmother. In order to build the highway, the engineers had to dynamite entire mountains. Here, you can see the drive through this highway, with the tall mountain rising on both sides.
Above is the river that runs behind my uncle’s (and also used to run behind my grandmother’s) house. Don’t let its meager size fool you! Sometimes, when it rains heavily or when hurricanes hit, it grows suddenly and takes many people and animals with it. During hurricane Maria, this river notoriously wrecked several bridges around town.
Puerto Rico is not a state but it sometimes almost passes for one. This is not a picture from PR. It’s actually one of the last pictures I took in Key West: I spotted the PR plate within a collage of state plates at a seafood restaurant.