The fifth episode of National Geographic’s food odyssey series, Uncharted season 3, sees culinary superstar Gordon Ramsay exploring the adventurous Caribbean island of Puerto Rico. This unincorporated territory of the US is known for its stunning, bright blue beaches, mountain landscapes, massive waterfalls and the El Yunque tropical rainforest.
Many come to Puerto Rico to experience the great outdoors, but the colourful food culture is also part of the reason it is called la isla del encanto – “the island of enchantment”.
La Cocina Criolla
Locally called cocina criolla, Puerto Rican cuisine is a mix of the native Taíno, Spanish, African and American cultures that help give historical context to the island. It is popular for its tropical fruit and vegetables with a spicy quality that comes from its varied peppers.
The Spanish – with the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492 – brought wheat, chickpeas, onions, garlic, herbs and olive oil, which is a vital ingredient in Puerto Rican cooking now. From Africa, came tubers such as cassava (locally known as yuca), plantain, rice, coconut, yams and okra. African slaves also brought the tradition of deep frying, which is the root of Puerto Rico’s famous cuchifritos (fried foods).
In addition to the indigenous calabazas (tropical pumpkins), lerenes (Guinea arrowroot) and guanabanas (soursops), the Taínos grow a variety of beans. Maize is not as dominant and this is due to Puerto Rico’s history of frequent hurricanes that have destroyed maize crops, leaving safeguarded crops such as the yuca to dominate.
In his exploration, Ramsay first learns about the persisting impacts of Hurricane Maria four years on, and how food shortages on the island have prompted locals to push for food independence. Before Hurricane Maria struck in September 2017, Puerto Rico imported about 85% of its food. Local farmers are using the devastating effects as motivation to execute ideas to expand their food production.
The great outdoors
Kayaking, snorkeling and spearfishing are popular in Puerto Rico. Spearfishing is considered the most environmentally sound way to eat from the sea. By eating only what you aim at, there’s no cross-species-by-catch and no habitat damage from nets. The romance is in the direct connection with the species.
Immersing himself in spearfishing, Ramsay gets to see how Puerto Rican fishermen and -women subsist on their catch and appreciate the ecosystem that provides their livelihoods. The world-renowned chef also rappels down a waterfall for delicious water prawns.
But before this, he takes a helicopter ride to an organic coffee plantation. An important part of Puerto Rican culture, coffee has been grown and carefully processed in the mountains for many years. Hacienda Muñoz is a working coffee farm that offers guided walking tours where visitors learn everything from growing the coffee beans to the picking, cleaning and roasting processes. Also offering insights on coffee and other fruits of the land from cocoa to plantain is the historical site and protected subtropical forest Hacienda Buena Vista.
Get in on the Puerto Rican action with Gordon Ramsay and chef Jose Enrique in Unchartered season 3 on DStv channel 181 on Wednesdays at 9pm.