Three Continents on Plates
The convergence of three continents in ancestral dishes
The history of Dominican gastronomy remains unwritten. The loose paragraphs of respected historians that have placed on paper the legacy of Tainos, Africans and Europeans in the typical diet is the resource on hand to trace the culinary inheritance that Dominicans have preserved and reinvented generation after generation, in stews, juices and roasts that have an unmistakably local identity.
The Dominican meal, this protein-rich composite of rice, beans and meat, with salad and fried sides as indispensable compliments, and sancocho, are symbols of a gastronomic identity that we flaunt in and outside of our borders as excellent national dishes.
But no one can argue that Dominican fare transcends its two most emblematic dishes, and that it constitutes a delicious palette of flavors and aromas that verge on the category of excellent cuisine.
The nouvelle cuisine has again taken up tubers, pulps and other foods disparaged in the past, like yautia and variations of the green plantain, bringing them to the distinguished tables of restaurants and hotels and villas. It has contributed to the rescue of the authentic Dominican gastronomic heritage, the same that exists in the hidden countryside and towns of the South, the East, the North or the Línea. That heritage has been transmitted from hearth to hearth and features defined profiles of what are considered to be typical regional dishes.
Chivo liniero, heavy with oregano; southern chenchén in a pork stew; fish with coconut from Samaná, are examples of some of the regional contributions that have graced a variety of tables and seduced a variety of palates.
It is for those that take up the task of writing the succulent history of Dominican cuisine to establish what has fed the inventiveness of the kitchens of the towns and cities to construct over centuries the great array of dishes that make up Dominican fare.
A few scarce notes are taken from books and magazines to bring us closer to the origins of what we consider the essence of Dominican cuisine, though various delights are still left to be described.
For Bernardo Vega, it is unarguable that yucca and its industrialization, through cazabe, represent the most important Taino agricultural contribution to the Dominican diet. Cazabe, as is written in a text on the Taino cultural influence, was not only a source of excellent nutrition for the Tainos but also for the conquistadors. In their first years in the area, they would have died of hunger but for this product.
Remember that the Indians, in their fight to defeat the Spanish, opted to go to the mountains so that no one could process the large quantities of yucca and so the Spanish might die for lack of food.
Yucca, corn, cazabe, the arepa and catibía were and continue to be an essential part of the Dominican diet.
Other important indigenous sources of nutrition that continue to be used until today are corn, yautia, peanuts, palm hearts, cotton, mapuey, beans, sweet potatoes, lerén, bija and chilies.
Europeans first saw corn and peanuts in the Dominican Republic, Vega has emphasized. He also highlights the indigenous legacy of tubers: yucca, sweet potato, yautia and mapuey.
A product of his compilation was also the edition of Los Frutos de los Taínos, with the texts his father, Julio Vega, wrote, which establish that the native fruits and foods of the Indians were pineapples, guava, guanabana, papaya, jagua, star apple, jobo, anon, hicaco, cherimoya, mamon, mamey and chili.
His list includes the seafood that the Tainos fished from shallow zones: lambíes, burgaos and other seafood like carey¸ crab, and hicotea.
He also recorded a variety of fish, and it should be noted that still today, the majority of the fish that abound in our waters carry Taino names: carite, menjúa, cojinúa, jueral, dajao, guábina, macabí, tiburón, guatapaná.
According to the historian, the fact that we enjoy roasts of poultry and exquisite meats also places us in eternal debt to our indigenous ancestors, who echoes other authors that assure that the conservation of meat by smoking hutia, iguana, fish and poultry, is a Taino tradition. Bucán is a Taino word, as is barbacoa.
Marcio Veloz Maggiolo emphasized that the guáyiga (Zamia debilis) was the primary bread of the Indians. It is the oldest documented cultivated food on the island.
It was prepared by allowing the dough to ferment until maggots were found and then kneading it into a type of arepa and cooking it in a comal (large griddle) or a burel, another type of indigenous cooking implement.
The writer and anthropologist maintains that among the pre-ceramic and pre-agricultural inhabitants of Cueva de Berna, close to Boca de Yuma, guáyiga was used as food around 1800 B.C. And he states that, in the excavations done by teams from the Museo del Hombre Dominicano, they recovered, in consolidated blocks of ash, the remains of well-conserved guáyiga leaves that points to the supposition that the root was roasted or used in some way as a food.
He has also indicated that in the El Porvenir site, around a period between 1200 and 905 B.C., the analyses of pollen made by J. Nadal in Arizona also record a high percentage of guáyiga.
Influences from the Canary Islands
For Mike Mercedes (recognized Dominican chef), the arrival of the Canary Island inhabitants to the country marked a fundamental starting point in Spanish culinary influence. The great calderos, or pots, arrived with them; and it was those islanders of Iberian origin that gave life to the sacred Dominican sancocho.
Carlos Esteban Deivi concurs with the chef of kings and presidents when he affirms that the Canary immigration had a significant influence on the process of the cultural formation of the Dominican people. “The Dominican cuisine contains dishes of obvious Canary origin, like sancocho and gofio. It also contains a wide variety of sweets: bienmesaba, pilón, raspadura, pastel de hoja and piñonate”, he maintains.
Vega also claims the Canary origin of sancocho, the hallowed broth of meats and vegetables, maintaining that in the Canaries it was called salcocho and has the basic characteristic of the “use of varios meats and vegetables, as also occurred in the Antilles and part of Cuba and Venezuela, where there was significant Canary immigration.”
Veloz Maggiolo argues that the gofío of the Canary immigrant, whose main ingredient was wheat mixed with corn, changed its basic materials to create the Antillean gofío, which is mixed with cow’s milk or other liquids differing from those used in the Canaries.
From African kitchens
The routes traced by ships laden with slaves also sketch the culinary horizon broadened by African cuisine, exported by force during the conquista of the new continent.
The historian Carlos Esteban Deive established that certain methods of cooking, boiling, roasting with an open flame or steaming, seem to be a culinary legacy of African origin. Steaming is used to cook plantain leaves in Santo Domingo, which serve to wrap pasteles en hoja, made of plantains, beef and other ingredients.
He dissents with other sources that attribute the origin of the popular sofrito to Spanish fare. “Also in Santo Domingo, a very popular salsa was used as a condiment: sofrito or escabeche, made of onion, pepper, garlic and tomato,” he has explained, adding that sofrito bears a striking resemblance to the salsa ata of Yoruba cuisine.
He argues that mofongo, a fried, mashed green plantain to which pieces of chicharrón, or crackling, are added, seems to originate from the language of Cabo Verde, where the word cufongo means “ball of corn”.
One of the plants brought by black African slaves was the banana or guineo. With them, the ñame arrived, as did the guandul, or pigeon pea, which is linked to the Kikongo word wandu, a type of pea.
The malagueta chili and African palm oil, with its production process, are also part of the African culinary heritage.
The arrival of freed slaves to the minor Antilles, at the end of the last decade of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, to San Pedro de Macorís, Samaná and Puerto Plata, infused their essences into Dominican cuisine. These Afro-Americans, named cocolos, became known for their cuisine, which used wheat flour as a base. Yaniqueque, the famous fried cake of corn or wheat flour, is the inheritance from these emigrants, which made a cake named Jame´s cake, derived from “journey’s cake”.
In Samaná, they incorporated the use of oil and coconut milk and also integrated calalú, known in other parts of the Caribbean as Quingombó or gombó, made with yautia leaves, molondrones, beef and fish. Fungí, prepared with corn meal, salt, molondrones and stewed fish, is another treat enjoyed in the Northeast.
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