Puerto Rican Vegan Cuisine
By Julia Feliz, Guest Contributor
Yesterday, I discovered a little bit of vegan paradise in what many describe as an actual tropical paradise, the island of Puerto Rico. I was playing tourist as I often do when I am back home and was treated to a magical meal by family.
Like most others, I was raised in a very meat-centered society. After going vegan I thought that I would never be able to eat one of my favorite dishes, a typical Puerto Rican dish, called “mofongo” (mashed plantains made into a ball, sometimes stuffed with “meat”) or any typical meal unless I learned to recreate it myself. Now, years on as a vegan, I have developed some sort of cooking ability, which involves closely following recipes and making quick meals from scratch. However, I have yet to get to the point where I can feel that I can recreate the cultural dishes that I grew up with. This is why I was thrilled when I learned about a veg-friendly restaurant, Cafe Berlin, right in Old San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico. To tell the truth, I was expecting one or maybe two vegetarian options, which I would then have to “veganize”. However, when I got my hands on the menu, I soon found a whole section of vegan-friendly main dishes, a full section of vegan-friendly sandwiches, sides, and even a vegan carrot cake in the desserts section! The word “vegan” was actually printed on the menu.
One of the main dishes was a “criollo” style veganized version of a local favorite. The best part of my meal was being able to get that Puerto Rican taste with whatever side I wanted because they were all vegan-friendly. I could choose from 2 different types of rice and beans, tostones (unripe fried plantains), maduros (ripe sweet plantains), or my favorite mofongo. You could also choose from more Americanized sides. The meal was fantastic and plentiful compared to my family’s non-vegan versions. My uncle even commented how nice my dish looked and that it actually looked better than his plate.
The question that I have mostly been asked by non-vegans that I happen to come across in P.R. has been, “you must find it really difficult to eat out, don’t you?” The truth is that I don’t.
I have not had any issues in any countries I have visited so far. I can also assure you that whether you get here by cruise ship or plane and whether you stay overnight or a whole month, as a vegan, you will find lots of food to choose from. There are several well-stocked natural health food stores in all major cities or towns, including Old San Juan. Most large grocery stores carry tofu and actually have vegan-friendly items stocked in the freezer section. Being in the tropics, there isn’t a shortage of local fruit and vegetables. There is also a plethora of Chinese restaurants, sushi restaurants, buffet style restaurants, American restaurants (inc. Denny’s, Taco Bell, etc. if in a pinch), and many more. When eating out in a more typical P.R. restaurant, you will more than likely be able to eat (at the least) rice, beans, tostones, and maduros. When it comes to the beans though, make sure to ask whether they added chicken/beef stock or stewed pieces of pork (traditional recipes would call for this) in the same pot with the beans. I have found the latter have become less common in tourist frequented areas. As for mofongos, I have been able to eat them without any issues. However, traditionally, they do make them with pork rinds, so it is always safer to ask whether they do contain these and if they do, if they can make them without them. Regardless, as a local, I have been trekking non-tourist places also and have found it quite easy to eat out when I have had to.
New veg-friendly restaurants and shops have started to gain momentum in P.R., so make sure to consult www.happycow.net for vegan-friendly locations and options. Above all else, don’t be afraid to ask, ask, ask and don’t be shy about identifying yourself as a vegan. I always do and explain what it means just to be sure. You may get a curious look (or not), but Puerto Rican people are a very social and friendly people and will be happy to find out for you if they don’t already know the answer.
If you ever make it to Puerto Rico, I hope you enjoy your stay!