As a territory of the United States, you may not expect Puerto Rican food to be a foreign culinary experience. But contrary to the island’s complicated, colonialist socio-political positionality with the United States, the Island of Enchantment has cuisine akin to its fellow Caribbean islands.
What makes Puerto Rican cuisine special is its amalgamation of cultures coming together in the language of food. Puerto Rican food is similar to that of nearby Mexico and Cuba, though it stems from a combination of Spanish, African, Taíno, and American cultures. You’ll savor the rich flavors of bay leaves, garlic, cilantro, basil, and adobo seasoning.
Best of all, for folks like me who are averse to hot food, Puerto Rican meals are spice-ful but not spic-y. From my love of fried plantains to Arroz con Pollo, tropical fruit, and coquito, I couldn’t get enough of Puerto Rican cooking.
I dream about mofongo more than I’d like to admit. So before you head to the incredible island of Puerto Rico, here are some foods you must watch out for.
Show Table of Contents
- Puerto Rican Food Terms
- History of Puerto Rican Cuisine
- Classic Puerto Rican Dishes
- 1. Mofongo
- 2. Rellenos de papa
- 3. Arroz con gandules
- 4. Tostones
- 5. Pernil
- Puerto Rican Breakfast
- 6. Quesitos
- 7. Pan de Mallorca
- 8. Cremas
- 9. Bacalaitos
- 10. Pasteles
- Puerto Rican Rice Dishes
- 11. Arroz con Pollo
- 12. Arroz con dulce
- 13. Arroz con maíz y salchichas
- 14. Arroz junto
- 15. Arroz y habichuelas
- Puerto Rican Soups and Stews
- 16. Asopao de gandules
- 17. Asopao de pollo
- 18. Sopa de Fideo
- 19. Sancocho
- 20. Carne guisada
- Puerto Rican Desserts
- 21. Arepas de coco
- 22. Tres Leches
- 23. Tembleque
- 24. Flan de queso
- 25. Besitos de coco
- Top 5 Best Puerto Rican Cookbooks
- What is Puerto Rico’s most famous food?
- What cuisine does Puerto Rico have?
- What is a typical Puerto Rican lunch?
Puerto Rican Food Terms
While most folks you encounter in major metropolitan areas like San Juan or hospitality settings will probably speak English, only about half of Puerto Ricans speak English fluently. Knowing a few food terms in Spanish beforehand might be helpful, especially if you aren’t fluent.
Don’t be like me in Costa Rica and accidentally say you’re embarazada, which means “pregnant,” when I meant “embarrassed.” I had even more reason to be embarrassed after that…
- Arroz – Rice
- Plátano – Plantain
- Pan – Bread
- Comida – Food
- Fruta – Fruit
- Coco – Coconut (not chocolate)
- Vegetales – Vegetables
- Papa – Potato
- Maíz – Corn
- Frijoles – Beans
- Pollo – Chicken
- Huevo – Egg
- Pescado – Fish
- Leche – Milk
- Café – Coffee
History of Puerto Rican Cuisine
Like the island itself, Puerto Rican cuisine is unique in a way that only an island can be. Given all of the intersecting national and ethnic identities, it only makes sense that all backgrounds are mixed to create the best Puerto Rican dishes. Like the Puerto Ricans, many Puerto Rican dishes revolve around family, tradition, and comfort.
For example, arroz con gandules is the national dish of Puerto Rico that will soothe the weariest soul. This rice dish combines white rice with pork and pigeon peas.
You can find variations of this dish elsewhere in the Caribbean; however, the Puerto Rican version includes sofrito, a puree of peppers, onions, garlic, and cilantro. You’ll find sofrito in a handful of Puerto Rican dishes. If you take a culinary and culture tour, it’s sure to pop up.
Puerto Rican foods generally are very friendly for vegans, vegetarians, or folks with food allergies. If you visit San Juan for a food tour, you’ll be amazed at the adaptable nature of even the most popular Puerto Rican dishes.
This adaptability is one reason why I tell so many of my friends to visit Puerto Rico. If you are going on this trip with dietary restrictions, fear not! You will be right at home. Who knows, you may want to take a cooking class to learn to make some of these dishes yourself.
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Classic Puerto Rican Dishes
Recommended Recipe: Traditional Plantain Mofongo – The SpruceEats
If you try no other Puerto Rican foods during your island trip, you absolutely need to try mofongo. This is one of the most popular Puerto Rican dishes that you will find in most restaurants serving Puerto Rican cuisine.
Boiled, roasted, or fried plantains are the main mashed ingredients. This mashed heap of delicious, usually green plantains combines spices like garlic and salt before forming into a ball.
Mofongo can be made with bacon or chicharrón inside with sides like soup, fried meat, or a wide range of additional sides. What’s excellent about mofongo is that it doesn’t have to have meat in it to be delicious.
I’ve had both vegetarian and meat mofongo, and both taste terrific. You can learn how to make them on this Mofongo & Mojito Demo in San Juan.
2. Rellenos de papa
Recommended Recipe: Rellenos de papa – Food.com
A few Puerto Rican foods you will encounter originated somewhere else or were at the very least inspired by cuisine from other parts of the world. One example is Rellenos de Papa or Papa Rellena, which means “stuffed potato.”
These delicious croquettes come from Peru in the 1870s. This Puerto Rican version involved rolled potato dough stuffed with ground beef hash and fried until golden brown.
You’ll probably eat these tasty potato treats as an appetizer, though I could easily make a meal out of them–especially if you’ve been sampling Puerto Rican rum. Try these with a side of tomato sauce (not ketchup) or sour cream to enhance the flavor.
I always recommend trying food without sauces or condiments first, as the Puerto Rican chef intended. And trust me, the chef intends.
3. Arroz con gandules
Recommended Recipe: Arroz con gandules – Serious Eats
As we noted previously, the national dish of Puerto Rico is arroz con gandules, (or Puerto Rican Rice — subtle!).
Although it’s fairly common on Puerto Rican menus, it’s mostly served on holidays or for special occasions. As with a few other Puerto Rican dishes, arroz con gandules is made with sofrito to season it. You’re likely to encounter it on most lunch or dinner excursions during a trip to Puerto Rico’s top tourist destinations.
Puerto Rican Rice has some Caribbean and Central American equivalents. Many nearby countries have rice-based cuisine too, so if this dish seems familiar, it’s probably because you’ve had some variation of it before. Other similar dishes include gallo pinto from Costa Rica, moro de guandules in the Dominican Republic, or even Hoppin’ John in the southern United States.
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Recommended Recipe: Tostones – The Noshery
If you need addictive, snacky traditional Puerto Rican food, look no further than tostones. These delectable, fried green plantains are served as side dishes or appetizers.
If you take a private food tour, make sure you get your hands on some! Fans of deep-fried treats will adore these crunchy chip-like snacks. You’ll find tostones throughout the Caribbean and Central America, which, for the most part, taste about the same.
These twice-fried green plantains are sooo good you’ll want to learn to make them yourself once you get home. If you’re not feeling that ambitious, remember to order them to your heart’s content in all of the Puerto Rican restaurants you visit.
Recommended Recipe: Daddy Eddie’s Roast Pork (Pernil) – AllRecipes
Like with the arroz con gandules, as mentioned previously, Pernil is another meal many Puerto Ricans eat during the holidays. This marinated pork shoulder is often served alongside arroz con gandules in Puerto Rico and other Latin American countries for events like Christmas or Easter.
“Pernil” is the Spanish word for pork shoulder, unlike any pork you’ve likely eaten before. You’ll have no trouble finding Pernil in San Juan, especially if you take this private city food tour.
The meat is slow-roasted and the skin is incredibly crisp. My best comparison would be to Peking duck which is equal parts succulent and crispy — my favorite combination.
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Puerto Rican Breakfast
From a dreamy morning picnic on the beach or dining al fresco at a cafe with café con leche in hand, you can’t skip an excellent Puerto Rican breakfast. For someone who loves a savory and sweet breakfast, morning mealtime in Puerto Rico is my ideal.
While I love meaty Puerto Rican pasteles or a Puerto Rican sweet roll, sometimes I need a little bit of both. That said, here are some of my favorite Puerto Rican breakfast foods.
Recommended Recipe: Guava Quesitos – Food & Wine
One of my favorite things about the Spanish language is that adding “ito” to the end of a word can turn it into something small. For instance, quesitos, or little cheese, are my favorite Puerto Rican breakfast pastries, and all-time favorite name for a food.
These are rolled puff pastries filled with a slightly sweet cream cheese mixture. Sometimes they’re even topped with a honey glaze.
Sometimes quesitos are flavored beyond the traditional cheese filling. Coconut cream, bacon, dulce de leche, piña colada, guava paste, and other inclusions make their way into these pastries from time to time.
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7. Pan de Mallorca
Recommended Recipe: Mallorcas: Puerto Rican Breakfast Rolls – Sense and Edibility
A buttery roll lightly coated in powdered sugar, pan de Mallorca or Mallorca bread is a Puerto Rican sweet roll. You’ll frequently see these pastries in hotel breakfasts, so I highly encourage grabbing them if you spot them. They can be a bit messy, but worth it.
Mallorcas originated in Puerto Rico, though it is believed they are named for a similar pastry from the Spanish island of Majorca. If you stay in San Juan, you’ll spot these beauties in plenty of bakeries around the city.
Recommended Recipe: Crema de Maiz or Puerto Rican Cornmeal Cereal – My Stay at Home Adventures
One of the breakfasts that Puerto Ricans love is a range of cremas. These hot cereals or porridge are popular because of their simplicity and comforting flavors. If you are sensitive to food textures like I am, crema will suit your palate better than others.
Another popular hot cereal is maizena. This slightly sweet porridge is gently flavored with vanilla and cinnamon. It is made even better with a dab of coconut cream, butter, or milk.
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Recommended Recipe: Bacalaitos (Puerto Rican Codfish Fritters) – Latina Mom Meals
While bacalaitos are a typical street food in Puerto Rico, these deep-fried salted cod fritters are also popular side dishes at breakfast. Topped with condiments like hot sauce, ketchup, or mayonnaise, these little snacks are favorites for many travelers discovering Puerto Rian cuisine for the first time.
Sometimes these deep-fried delights can be seasoned with peppers and garlic too. So maybe if you get these at breakfast, you’ll also want to pop some gum before heading out for the day. I promise it helps.
Recommended Recipe: Pasteles – New York Times Cooking
A unique combination of Puerto Rican meat pie and tamale, pasteles are made with a protein source and green bananas. Sounds a bit bananas, right?
Well, they’re amazing. And, despite being small, they are pretty filling and show up on most food tours.
Pasteles are sometimes made with ground beef, pork, or other stewed meats, which is a flavorful way to begin any day. Pair these with some crispy green plantains; you’ve practically got a whole meal right there.
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Puerto Rican Rice Dishes
White rice is a quintessential element of Puerto Rican meals, as it is in most of Latin America. Why that is the case mostly has to do with availability, colonialism, and slavery. Rice is malleable, cheap, versatile, and can easily fill one up; hence why so much classic Puerto Rican food is full of the delicious little grain and is a staple in Puerto Rican households.
Colonialist Ponce de León (you’ll recognize his name, which is shared with Puerto Rico’s second largest city) introduced rice to the island when he showed up in 1493. Since then, rice has become vital to delicious Puerto Rican food.
11. Arroz con Pollo
Recommended Recipe: Mama’s Puerto Rican Chicken and Rice (Arroz con Pollo) – Ambitious Kitchen
Considering that the Spanish brought rice, or arroz, to Puerto Rico, it makes sense that one of the country’s main rice-based dishes is similar to Spanish paella. The Puerto Rican version is arroz con pollo (rice with chicken).
No one knows for sure if the recipe is from Puerto Rico or Spain. Puerto Ricans make this dish with beer and annatto, which aren’t really used in Spanish cuisine. Given that Puerto Ricans use both in cooking frequently, it’s probably a fair assumption that arroz con pollo is a product of Puerto Rico. Perhaps you can ask your guide on this Puerto Rican food tour in Old San Juan.
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12. Arroz con dulce
Recommended Recipe: Arroz con Dulce – Kitchen Gidget
Arroz con dulce could have gone into the dessert section later in this piece, but it made more sense among the other white rice dishes. Puerto Ricans aren’t alone in making this sweet, comforting meal; arroz con dulce can be found throughout Latin America. And you’ll certainly feel like a local on this tour centered around that experience.
This delicious rice pudding is a favorite of mine, even though. Generally, I wouldn’t say I like rice pudding.
That’s because arroz con dulce in Puerto Rico is thicker and less soupy. Being a more cake-like consistency gives this side dish an incredible texture that typical rice pudding doesn’t have.
13. Arroz con maíz y salchichas
Recommended Recipe: Arroz con Salchichas – Recetas Boricuas
Now before you realize what salchichas are, remember that this is among the super simple and popular Puerto Rican foods — perhaps you’ll even encounter it on a part-day food tour of San Juan as I did. Salchichas are Vienna sausages, so arroz con maíz y salchichas is rice with corn and Vienna sausages. After all, Vienna sausages are basically hot dogs (fight me on this), so don’t knock it until you try it.
Along with the main ingredients, the Puerto Rican dish is usually made with tomato sauce, green peppers, and capers. A side dish of plantains or avocado is also typical for this rice dish. Cubans also make this meal as well.
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14. Arroz junto
Recommended Recipe: Puerto Rican Rice – Mexican Appetizers and More
Arroz junto (or “rice together”…) technically describes all traditional Puerto Rican dishes with rice. The term refers to any dish made by combining rice, beans, and protein in the same pot. Puerto Ricans often flavor these dishes with annatto, and the spice causes the rice to become orange-tinged.
Although the name is an umbrella term for many meals, arroz junto is specifically the Puerto Rican equivalent of any other variation of this kind of food. This Puerto Rican dish can be a full meal or a side dish.
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15. Arroz y habichuelas
Recommended Recipe: (Vegan) Arroz y Habichuelas – Plant Based Boricua
This is simply Puerto Rico’s version of rice and beans. Arroz y habichuelas is usually made with white rice, beans, sofrito, tomato sauce, and seasonings. Puerto Ricans often add a protein to this, too, like bacon or ham, though it isn’t necessary, and I normally go without it.
If you are out somewhere like San Juan or Ponce (where many mainland American tourists go), you may see this dish listed as Puerto Rican rice and beans. Just remember that it’s the same thing.
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Puerto Rican Soups and Stews
There isn’t much to say about the soup or stew background in Puerto Rico. Depending on where you’re coming from, the temperatures in Puerto Rico might not suit your soup palate. Even so, there are some comforting soups you need to know about.
16. Asopao de gandules
Recommended Recipe: Asopao de Gandules (Pigeon Pea Soup) – Punchfork
That’s right, the gandules (or pigeon peas), are back! Asopao (the Puerto Rican equivalent of stew), is a frequent entry on soup menus. This particular stew is one that many Puerto Ricans consider the ultimate comfort food, especially if plantain dumplings are in the picture or you’ve been enjoying a bar crawl in San Juan.
Besides pigeon peas, the asopao includes tomato sauce, bell peppers, sofrito, rice, and a protein like ham, and it sort of resembles jambalaya. Even if you aren’t a big fan of pigeon peas, this is nothing like pea soup and is one of my personal favorites.
17. Asopao de pollo
Recommended Recipe: Asopao de Pollo – Delish Delights
Not quite chicken soup, asopao de Pollo (or chicken stew), is a comforting Puerto Rican favorite during cold weather or when someone is feeling sick. A simple dish with adobo, sofrito, rice, veggies, and, of course, chicken, generations of Puerto Rican families have been nursed back to health with this stew.
This is yet another of the famous Puerto Rican foods to serve during the holidays. So if you plan on visiting Puerto Rico during the winter season, try to get your hands on some asopao de pollo on a lunchtime excursion.
18. Sopa de Fideo
Recommended Recipe: Sopa de Fideo – Latina Mom Meals
Here is the chicken noodle soup a lá Puerto Rico! “Fideo” means “noodle” in Spanish, and this soup will give you a familiar flavor even if you’ve never had this Puerto Rican dish before. However, the inclusion of tomato sauce adds a tangy punch of flavor to this familiar kind of soup.
You may have noticed that many of the top Puerto Rican dishes include tomatoes or tomato sauces, so it should be no surprise that even a comforting chicken soup is no exception. Enjoy this sopa (or soup) as a side dish or entree.
Recommended Recipe: Puerto Rican Sancocho – Food Fidelity
The most traditional stew in Puerto Rico’s cuisine is sancocho. This hearty stew isn’t unique to Puerto Rico; it’s also found in other countries like Colombia, Honduras, Venezuela, and the Dominican Republic, among others.
Sancocho is made with three main kinds of ingredients: chunks of meat, root vegetables, and other non-tuber veggies. Because sancocho can be made in numerous ways, you may see it named in variants like sancocho de gallina or sancocho de patitas around Puerto Rico. Know that these variations generally refer to the main protein ingredient like gallina, which indicates chicken/hen.
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20. Carne guisada
Recommended Recipe: Carne Guisada – Goya Foods
Although the dishes sound similar, carne guisada and carne asada differ slightly. “Guisada” is a beef dish with less tender or stew meat, while “asada” is made with grilled steak. Both of these dishes are found in Mexico, too, though in Puerto Rico, carne guisada specifically refers to a beef stew.
What makes this beef stew more unique to Puerto Rico is the inclusion of sofrito in the taste profile. With sofrito at the base of this meal, you can always tell it is distinctly Puerto Rican.
Puerto Rican Desserts
Anywhere I go, desserts tend to be my favorite part of a meal. Luckily Puerto Rico is kind to those of us with a sweet tooth.
What makes Puerto Rican desserts even more tempting is that they generally aren’t overly sweet. So, like rice pudding, these sweets are an excellent way to end a dinner or treat yourself during the day.
21. Arepas de coco
Recommended Recipe: Arepas de Coco – Salima’s Kitchen
Arepas, for all intents and purposes, are essentially cornbread biscuits. And if you see a sign for arepas de coco in Puerto Rico, you know you’re in for a treat! These are coconut fried breads, a sweet little pastry-esque delight.
A few other countries also make arepas. These breads are common in Colombia, Venezuela, and Panama. If you’re a fan of Disney’s Encanto (like I am), Mirabel’s mother makes them with cheese.
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22. Tres Leches
Recommended Recipe: Tres Leches Cake – Familia Kitchen
Originally from Mexico, tres leches is probably a dessert many of you are familiar with. Literally translating to “three milks,” tres leches is made with whole milk, sweetened condensed milk, and evaporated milk. This dense cake isn’t too sweet though it is incredibly moist and decadent.
The Puerto Rico iteration of tres leches isn’t very different from the original. It still uses sweetened condensed milk and evaporated milk, though sometimes coconut milk is substituted. Other countries that are famous for serving tres leches are Albania, Venezuela, El Salvador, and Cuba.
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Recommended Recipe: Tembleque – Curious Cuisiniére
Coconut milk is the perfect segue into another traditional dessert in Puerto Rico: tembleque. This creamy delight is perfect at the end of a long summer day, a simple coconut pudding made with coconut milk, heavy cream, cornstarch, sugar, and cinnamon. It can also be topped with syrups, diced fruit, chocolate shavings, or wine reductions.
Tembleque originated in Puerto Rico and roughly translates to describe something that shakes — kinda like Jell-O. While this creamy coconut pudding is from Puerto Rico, there are variations throughout Latin and South America.
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24. Flan de queso
Recommended Recipe: Flan de Queso – A Sassy Spoon
Flan de queso (or cheese flan), is like a cheesecake. This decadent Puerto Rican dessert is made with cream cheese, which is the perfect marriage of cheesecake and flan. Often topped with caramel, this treat is a bit less filling than other cream cheese confections, though just as sweet and tangy.
The significant difference between this Puerto Rican and Mexican flan is that the Puerto Rican version uses condensed milk rather than regular milk or cream. It can also be made with coconut milk. Both desserts are equally creamy, though the Puerto Rican flan is lighter on the palate.
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25. Besitos de coco
Recommended Recipe: Coconut Kisses – Enrilemoine
Irresistible little macaroons, besitos de coco (or coconut kisses) are a dessert you won’t get enough of. Not only are these little cookies delicious, but they’re also super easy to make. Light, fluffy, chewy, and simply too good to resist, coconut kisses are divine.
Sometimes these cookies are topped with chocolate drizzles or pieces; however, they can also be served plain too. When you inevitably fall in love with these, don’t forget they only take a few ingredients to make when you get home.
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Top 5 Best Puerto Rican Cookbooks
Inspired to do some Puerto Rican Cooking? Looking to recreate flavors from your travels? Yeah, me too; here are some of my favorite cookbooks for
- The Easy Puerto Rican Cookbook: 100 Classic Recipes Made Simple – By former wrestler, the “Average Guy Gourmet” Tony Rican (Check out his Youtube channel!)
- Puerto Rican Cookery – By celebrated Puerto Rican native Carmen Aboy Valldejuli. An absolute essential.
- Diasporican: A Puerto Rican Cookbook – By the first Puerto Rican food columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle, Illyanna Maisonet.
- Puerto Rican Cookbook: 600+ Simple, Traditional Caribbean And Southern Dishes For A Balanced Lifestyle – By Kurtis E. Papa; this tome is a favorite of mine!
- A Taste of Puerto Rico: Traditional and New Dishes from the Puerto Rican Community – By renowned food writer Yvonne Ortiz.
What is Puerto Rico’s most famous food?
The national dish of Puerto Rico, arroz con gandules, is the best-known food on the island. Pasteles, tamale-like wraps with green bananas and stewed meat, are also famous foods from the island. My favorite Puerto Rican food is mofongo which is made from mashed plantains and chicharrón or fried pork skin.
What cuisine does Puerto Rico have?
Like many of the Caribbean islands, Puerto Rican cuisine is uniquely defined by the mix of heritages that have meshed on the island. Generally, the cuisine is defined as being uniquely Spanish, African, Taíno, and American. You learn a lot about Puerto Rican history from the food they serve and originate.
What is a typical Puerto Rican lunch?
Both lunch and dinner typically include a variety of foods, though rice, beans, and a protein like ground beef are usually in the mix. You may find bacalaitos or cod fritters appetizing, pasteles, and a range of stews or soups.
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Amanda is a Chicago-based queer travel, arts, and lifestyle writer who is passionate about exploring the world. Her work has been featured in Newcity Stage, The Chicago Reader, HuffPo, and Yahoo, as well as the November 2022 book, “Chicago Like a Local.” Amanda’s favorite destinations include Costa Rica, Prague, Dublin, Hong Kong, and every Disney park she’s visited.