The Mo­fongo Mys­tique

MSC Buon Gusto - - Contents - Stephen Grasso

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.

De­li­cious Vari­a­tions

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.

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