Men gathered around an open fire, beer in hand, roasting a suckling pig that was slaughtered that morning. Women talking and singing in the kitchen, their heads neatly covered in bandanas, while they make fresh sausage to be enjoyed later that day. Every time Christmas rolls around, my heart longs to recreate these scenes from my youth. I spent my teenage years living in Orocovis, a small town tucked in the mountains of Puerto Rico. Known for its turquoise waters and tropical climate, the Caribbean island was conquered by the Spanish in 1493 and remained under their rule until 1898. The island is now a Commonwealth of the United States and its culture, language and food reflects more than five hundred years of European, African, American and native Taíno influences.
Christmas in Puerto Rico is an amalgam of traditions that honor our multicultural legacy. You’ll find traditional cooking techniques like barbacoa (barbecue), a favorite of the Taínos who inhabited the island before the Spanish arrived. Our rice dishes are directly influenced by the Spanish and their love of saffron. Then there are special recipes made with plantains (which were brought to the island to feed African slaves).
So how do all these elements blend together during the holidays? For starters, Christmas wouldn’t be complete without coquito, a coconut based eggnog often laced with white rum. It is customarily given as a Christmas present and enjoyed throughout the entire Christmas season which, according to islanders, begins right after Thanksgiving. Coquito is a great way to wash down the crispy-skinned roasted suckling pig (known as lechón asado) served with arroz con gandules, a paella-like dish of yellow rice cooked with black pigeon peas, green olives and roasted red peppers.
On the same plate of yellow rice and roasted pork you’ll find pasteles, which some people say look like tamales. But that’s were the similarities end. Pasteles are wrapped in banana leaves instead of corn husks and, unlike tamales, the dough is made from plantain and root vegetables such as cassava. Inside you’ll find a savory filling of stewed pork, garbanzos and olives. The pasteles are tied with twine and boiled until the dough is perfectly cooked.
Remember the fresh sausages made by the ladies in the family? Those are boiled, cut into one inch pieces and sautéed before being enjoyed as appetizers served with toothpicks. There are two sausages we adore: morcilla, a peppery blood sausage made with rice, and longaniza, which is red like chorizo thanks to the addition of annatto seeds.
Perhaps the best part of Christmas in Puerto Rico are the sweets. There’s one in particular my mom would make that filled our home with the aroma of coconut, cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger. It’s a rice pudding known as arroz con dulce. It’s darker than traditional rice pudding and has a much more intense flavor. A great trick is to soak the raisins in rum before adding them to the pudding.
After feasting on all these delicacies you’d think we’d be sluggish and sleepy. No sir! A Christmas in Puerto Rico is never complete without singing holiday songs known as aguinaldos. Aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters and cousins grab their guitars, maracas and percussion instruments and sing until the wee hours of the night.
Usually, the singing gets people fired up and next thing you know we are planning a parranda (a type of serenade that involves dozens of people showing up at your house in the middle of the night). There’s people everywhere and no room left to sit but the singing continues while the coquito keeps flowing...
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