MERIDEN — National Mofongo Day coming up on Sept. 24, right in the middle of Hispanic Heritage Month.
Mofongo, a cultural dish with plantains as its main ingredient, is not only a favorite dish among Puerto Rican households, it’s an integral part of the island’s history.A brief history of mofongo
Mofongo is a concoction of global flavors with roots in African, Spanish, North American and Taíno, Puerto Rico’s Indigenous people. When Spanish conquistadors conquered the Taínos and were forced to work on plantations and gold mines in the 1500s, the group underwent starvation.
The Spanish also brought enslaved people from West African. The West Africans brought the traditional dish fufu to the island. Fufu is made of plantains, cassava or yams mashed into a dough-like consistency. Later, the flavoring from Taíno and the Spanish turned fufu into what is known today as mofongo.
“Mofongo is one of those dishes that best describes what Puerto Rican culture is,” said Raul Rivera, a Puerto Rican chef based in Meriden. “It’s something that has been evolving with us through time … it also represents a little bit of African and Spanish culture and represents so much because the Africans brought it and were using what was available to them on the island … it’s one of the dishes that best represents what that melting pot is.” What is mofongo?
The plantains used in mofongo are picked green, cut, and fried, boiled or roasted. Then, using a wooden pilón, the plantains are mashed with spices, salt, broth, garlic and olive oil. The mashed plantains are then made into a ball of pork, vegetables, chicken, shrimp, octopus or beef. The dish can be served with various foods, from chicken broth soup, vegetables, fish to fried meat. The ingredients and side dishes vary between households.
“It’s like a blast of different types of spices,” Daisy Olivo of Meriden said. “It just explodes in your mouth if someone makes it the right way. You could taste the garlic and cilantro. You could taste the sofrito, the onions, the peppers, and then, depending on what kind of mofongo you have, you will taste all those ingredients exploding in your mouth at once. It’s like the ultimate best thing in the world, in my opinion.”
Rivera said the centuries-old dish is unlike any traditional food in the United States.
“It’s not like you could say it’s like mashed potatoes, but it’s definitely a mash,” he said. “I would say it’s a mash. But it’s gonna have a soft consistency, right? And obviously, the garlic and butter flavor has to be very predominant in it, I would say. I wouldn’t be able to compare it to an American dish.”
Rivera was born in the Bronx, New York, but was raised on the west side of Puerto Rico after his parents moved back to the island. He said the way that mofongo is served on the island is very different than in the United States. In Puerto Rico, mofongo is traditionally served with a side of chicken or vegetable stock, or sometimes fish stock, if it’s a seafood restaurant.
“They always serve it with a little side,” Rivera said. “Which is definitely a staple of the west side of the island versus most restaurants here, from my experience and as a chef. They kind of try to give you the American version of it. It kind of turns into, like I would say an Italian version of a dish because they put so much sauce in it, and they try to cover it with that sauce because ultimately it’s a little bit dry, even if they put a lot of butter and stuff in it.”
He said eating mofongo with broth makes the experience “fantastic” because it turns the dish into a “soft puree consistency.” He said there’s not many places locally that serve mofongo, from his experience, and he believes mofongo is best made in your own kitchen.Mofongo brings families together
Olivo, who was also raised in the Bronx, New York, said her family made her mofongo around once or twice a week growing up. She described her household as an “old-fashioned Puerto Rican household.” She learned to make mofongo and pasteles at around nine years old.
“I was already in the assembly line making pasteles, making mofongo, making all these other dishes with the elders in the kitchen because that’s just the culture,” Olivo said. “The ladies are in the kitchen and the guys are watching TV, and that’s how I experienced mofongo, as young as eight or nine years old.”
Olivo, who has lived in Meriden for 30 years, makes mofongo, among other traditional Puerto Rican dishes, for her husband, who is also Puerto Rican, and children, bringing what she learned at a young age into motherhood.
“(My husband’s) mom taught me how to do a lot of the old-fashioned dishes and things like that, although I did it as a child,” Olivo said. “As I got older, I wasn’t much in the kitchen because I was busy working. But I have three kids, one of my first marriage or two with the second, so I was more at home and I was able to reconnect again with the kitchen.”
Rivera rarely had mofongo from home growing up because it was costly on the island and time-consuming, so he was limited to a traditional menu at home consisting of rice, beans, and chicken. When he did have mofongo, it was usually at a restaurant, during a celebration or when his father had some extra funds.
However, Madeline Garcia of Meriden said mofongo was always a staple in her household, making the traditional dish monthly. She also occasionally enjoys the mofongo at the Old San Juan Restaurant, 200 Lewis Ave.
“Mofongo is always, not just special occasions, mofongo is always in the Puerto Rican culture, always mofongo,” Garcia said. “I think it is very special. Because our grandparents made the recipe, you know, many people travel to Puerto Rico to try the mofongo because it’s so good. When you make it with fried pork, it’s so delicious and tastes good.” Chef Rivera’s mofongo
According to Rivera, the following is his favorite way to prepare mofongo.
■Pilón to mash your plantains ■Two very green plantains, not to be mistaken for green bananas ■Oil for frying your plantains ■A mixture of butter and seasonings
First step to peel the plantain: cut a little piece on both ends so you can expose the actual plátano, then slide your knife gently through the plantain skin in at least three different areas so you can slide your finger between the skin and plantain to remove the skin. Next, cut your plantain into little 1/2-inch rounds. It’s easier to fry, and it will cook uniformly.
After a couple of minutes in the oil, it will start turning a little golden yellowish color, don’t cook them brown. Next, remove them from the oil; you can put them on top of a dry paper towel to rinse a little or put them inside the pilón. Next, while it is hot, you will start putting dollops into your butter mixture, consisting of softened butter, chopped garlic ( if it is in a better paste), oregano, and a couple of dashes of adobo. Start putting the mixture and smashing the plantains until you get a soft consistency.
Now, things that make a different experience in a mofongo are adding little pieces of chicharrón or pork skins, the really crunchy one inside as you mix it. Some people use crispy bacon to give a little texture and extra flavor. Once all this mixture is done inside the pilón, you can run a spatula around the mofongo and flip it on a bowl; you can serve it in the pilón for a more authentic feel, too.
“Now, since I’m from the west side of the island in PR, it’s traditional to serve a little bit of broth like a chicken or vegetable broth to serve with the mofongo just to keep it soft and moisten,” Rivera said. “This dish is super easy to make, not really expensive, and it’s a crowd pleaser, especially served with pernil, chicharrón de pollo, or a seafood stew.”