As a Dominican who grew up practically living in the kitchen, I can produce thousands of memories that have a special smell, color and dish to go along with them. A meal, and the ritual of preparing it, that means so much more than a simple fact. I can say without a doubt that I learned the most important lessons a girl can learn right there in the kitchen from the lips of my grandmother.
Therefore, when asked to write about Dominican cuisine I couldn’t help but reminisce over so many great moments while grating yucca to prepare pastelón or arepitas and listening to my grandma talk about her trip to the market or how one of her clients hadn’t paid her for weeks1. But, since Dominican cuisine is not as well known as the gastronomy of other Latin American countries, I think it’s fair that I explain a little about its characteristics.
Dominican Gastronomy, like the people of the country, is a mixture of the customs of the Taínos [island natives], the African slaves and the Spanish. In my opinion, and due in part to the hot climate of the island, the most important and notorious influence comes from our African roots. There are evident examples of that in some of our most popular dishes, like pasteles en hoja, which are made of some sort of puree or grated plantains, bananas and jams with meat and wrapped in the plantains’ tree leaves.
Another interesting element of our cuisine is how the different regions -despite being a small island- have their own touch to common dishes; such that you can tell where the person comes from just by the way they cook. My grandma, for example, is from the south and the use of coconut [a heritage from our aboriginal side] for cooking traditional dishes is characteristic of that area.
I grew up eating white rice or rice and beans cooked with coconut milk and to me it is such a special treat. I remember being so proud I made that for my husband that I announced to him like the grand event, only to learn later that he did not care for it. He grew up in the north and eating salty meals with a coconut taste it’s just not their thing.
The main elements you can find within the Dominican cuisine are the use of many spices, plantains, bananas, jams and sweet potatoes. Also, rice is central in the daily diet of Dominicans, made plain white with beans and meat or chicken on the side (this is such a staple, that the dish is literally called “the Dominican Flag”) or mixed with different types of beans, peas, corn or vegetables. Seafood is, of course, also part of our gastronomy but you can find it more in the coastal towns, mainly due to the high prices in areas far from fishing towns.
If you have more of a sweet tooth, Dominican desserts will definitely be an adventure, this is one of my specialties since my grandma used to make them for business, and so I learned many different ones. I promise to share some recipes later on here for all of you to experiment with. Among the most popular desserts I can count the sour orange peel in syrup, tomatoes in syrup and, of course, grated coconut with pineapple.
Dominican cuisine is certainly not a world staple. However, if you’ve never experienced the flavors of the Caribbean, I am sure you’ll be in for a good surprise with the intensity of the aromas and the different combinations you can find. If you have, I think you can agree with me that exotic and adventurous are two words that come to mind.
1 My grandmother used to sell different Dominican desserts to people within our neighborhood and the surrounding areas.