The Mofongo Mystique
Puerto Rico’s national dish is as
Every part of the world has its own version of comfort food, whether it’s shrimp and grits in the deep U.S. south or Britain’s humble beans on toast. Puerto Rico is no exception, yet its supremely comforting national dish — mofongo — doesn’t just taste delicious, but also tells the story of the island’s blend of cultures and the colonial history that shaped it.
The most basic form of mofongo is made by deep-frying green plantains and then mashing them together in a traditional wooden pilón, which is a type of pestle and mortar. Chopped garlic, salt, black pepper and olive oil are then added to the mixture and absorbed into its consistency. In some recipes, pork cracklings known as chicharrón are also added at this stage.
Puerto Rico’s national dish is as
Mofongo is typically served in two ways: either as a side dish to accompany another meal or as a main course known as mofongo relleno and often served directly in the pilón. Here the mofongo is formed into a bowl-like shape and packed with pork, chicken, beef, shrimp or even octopus.
In some recipes, a chicken broth soup, buttery garlic or spicy Creole sauce is then poured over the dish. On the west coast of Puerto Rico, a popular form of mofongo relleno has seafood both in the plantain mixture in
place of chicharrón and in the hollowed-out center to create a sort of mofongo paella. Other variations might substitute sweet plantains or cassava for the more commonly used green plantains, and there is little agreement on which form of mofongo is the most traditional.
Following the Route
A recipe for mofongo rst appeared in El Cocinero Puertorriqueño, Puerto Rico’s rst cookbook, which was published in 1849, but to truly trace the origins of the dish we must go back to West Africa and the staple food fufu.
In the 16th century, the cassava was introduced to Africa from Brazil by Portuguese traders and became the essential ingredient in this dish.
Fufu is commonly made with cassava our or green plantain our, but other more mofongo-like variations exist where starchy foods such as cassava, yams and plantains are boiled and then mashed into a dough-like consistency.
Fufu often has a bready, cake-like consistency and is either served alone in cocoyam leaves or with a bowl of groundnut or palm nut soup accompanied by
sh or smoked beef. Fufu is eaten with the ngers and a small amount of it is pinched o , formed into a ball and then dipped into the soup. Similar regional variations of fufu are widely found throughout the African continent, often known by di erent names and other slight di erences.
The basic form of fufu was brought over to the New
World by enslaved Africans, and further diversified into new forms throughout the Caribbean and the Americas. Soul food favorite shrimp and grits, for example, is descended from iterations of fufu made from cornmeal rather than cassava our or pulverized starchy root vegetables, and is therefore a cousin of mofongo.
Cuba has a form called fufu de platano, which retains much of the consistency of its West African origins, but many of
The pilón add its own character to the culinary creations prepared within it.
the New World recipes have absorbed other influences and are characterized by bolder avors and a rmer texture than their more gelatinous forebear. In Antigua, they make a version from cornmeal served with okra, but they call it fungee.
Barbados has a version called cou cou, which is made from cornmeal or breadfruit; in Haiti it's nown as tum tum and is made from plantain or yams and served with an okra-based soup.
Puerto Rican mofongo is a rmer, crispier version of the dish, where the African form of fufu has merged with the unmistakable influence of Spanish cuisine. Iberian staples such as por , garlic, broth and olive oil all factor prominently in recipes for mofongo, as do the sofrito-style sauces poured over mofongo relleno. The result is a more complex and avorful Afro-Latin dish arising from the blending of the two culinary traditions.
An Island Staple
Mofongo also preserves a cultural influence of the indigenous Taino people who originally inhabited the island of Puerto Rico. Many of the vegetables and herbs used in the dish are native to the Caribbean and formed part of the Taino diet in the pre-colonial period. But the most notable Taino influence on mofongo is the use of the wooden pilón. Early visitors to the island such as Fray Iñigo Abbad and Fernández de Oviedo left accounts of the Taino using huge waist-high pilóns carved from tree trunks to mash corn, spices and medicinal herbs. Excavations of
Taino sites near the city of Ponce, about 75 miles southwest of San Juan, have also produced evidence of the pilón being used on the island long before Columbus ever set sail.
The pilón is traditionally made from the wood of the caoba or guayacán trees, durable hardwoods native to the island that o er a
ne nish and won't crac over time. The hole for the pilón is burned out and then carved using simple tools, and the whole thing is sealed to a lacquer nish and seasoned in oil for at least 24 hours before use. The pilón will absorb the avors of the ingredients crushed in it over time, and add its own character to the culinary creations prepared within it.
No visit to Puerto Rico is complete without sampling mofongo, and there are plenty of opportunities to experience the many di erent recipes and variations found on the island. Mainland Americans visiting Puerto Rico during Thanksgiving may be intrigued at how widely the holiday has been adopted on the island, and how the traditional bread stuffing for the turkey has been replaced with mofongo de batata, which is made from plantain and sweet potato with added seasonings such as garlic, blac pepper, dried oregano, parsley, vinegar and annatto seeds.