Saturday, September 30, 2006

No Mo' Mofongo

I was back in Puerto Rico this week for another quick (one-night) trip, but this time I got to stay long enough to try more than the mojitos at the hotel bar. I got in in the late afternoon, early enough to enjoy the breeze and a couple of cold Medallas (a local Puerto Rican beer) at the hotel's ocean-side bar and watch out over the waves as the sun set.

Dinner that night was at the Ceviche House, a Peruvian restaurant (I know, I know, as with the mojitos I'm having a hard time keeping my regional specialities straight--but, it's not like I can get Peruvian food in Charleston, South Carolina . . .), and I was fortunate to be eating with a bilingual colleague who could help me not only navigate the menu but also chat with the waiter about the food and its preparation. The dinner was good--I had a nice dish of steak in a peppery sauce--but the appetizers stole the show.

We had, of course, ceviche, which was fantastic--firm, tasty fish marinated in a tangy blend of citrus, onions, and peppers. But, my favorite was the fried yuca. Yuca is a potato-like tuber, better known in the U.S. as cassava. It was cut into wedges and deep fried, and they served it with two different sauces. The first was a white, creamy sauce with just a hint of spice; the second was a much more pungent green sauce that was very strong with garlic. Both went quite well with the yuca wedges, but the spicier green sauce was my favorite. In Peru, the waiter told us, they would serve just one sauce with the yuca, which would be sort of a combination of the white and green sauces, but in Puerto Rico--where the food isn't as spicy as in other parts of the Caribbean--they had to serve the milder, creamy white sauce or none of the locals would eat the dish. The yuca has a very distinctive taste to it--definitely somewhat like a potato, but firmer and with a subtle aftertaste. We made short work of it.

But, yes, I finally did get a chance to sample the local Puerto Rican cuisine. At lunch the next day we went to Mi Casita, an unassuming place in a strip mall, but my colleague assured me it was great local food. As soon as I saw Mofongo on the menu, I knew what I was going to have.

Mofongo is a Puerto Rico staple--a hearty starch that is the base for many different types of meals. It is made from green plantains which are fried and then mashed with garlic and pork cracklings. In some places the Mofongo is rolled into balls, and often it is filled with meat or seafood. At Mi Casita they mold it into a large tower-like mound and cover it with your topping of choice, which include shrimp, beef in a creole sauce (pictured above), and carne frita (fried pork). We ordered the beef and the carne frita, which I judged my favorite. The pork bits were salty and juicy--fried lightly without a batter--and went well with onions and peppers that came alongside it.

As for the mofongo itself, it was fairly bland (especially considering it was mashed with garlic), but had a great heavy texture. You might think that the plantains (being related to bananas) would be sweet, but they really are not--especially the green ones. By itself I wouldn't think mofongo would be much of a dish, but it goes perfectly with highly-flavored accompanyments like the pork or the beef. And, the menus really ought to carry a big red label saying, "WARNING! THIS MEAL WILL STUFF YOU SILLY!"

I had wolfed down only about a quarter of my carne frita before I started to feel full, but I soldiered on. Five minutes later I had put away a good about half of the mound of plantain mush, but then I had to throw in the towel. I was painfully full. The waiter laughed and said something to my Spanish-speaking colleague when he cleared away our plates, and I picked up just enough to figure out what he was saying. "He was making fun of us, wasn't he?" "Yes," she said. "But I won't tell you what he called you."

It stung my pride a little, but there wasn't much I could do. We had an afternoon flight, so we left Mi Casita and drove to the airport. I must have checked in and went through security and all that, but it's all just a plantain-induced haze in my memory. I was stuffed. I was sleepy. It was all I could do to trod down to the gate and get on the plane.

I managed to stay awake long enough to watch the island fall away beneath us as the plane arced out over the Atlantic and back over the city then headed northwest toward Atlanta. Then I fell into a cozy, satisfied, mofongo-fueled sleep.

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