One of the things I love the most about travel is the sheer gastronomic delight of tasting traditional local cuisine. In Latin America, beans and rice rule… in many wonderful variations and combinations. Arriving in Las Galeras, the small village literally at the end of the road on the northeast coast of the Dominican Republic, we moved into our “cabina” as the children have taken to calling it and then went in search of dinner. The first few days in a new place are always a bit hectic as we navigate the landscape, figure out the transportation, restaurants, etc.
On this particular evening we were all rather hungry and since we hadn’t spent much time with our trusty Lonely Planet travel guide (that offers recommendations on lodging, restaurants and more to the backpacker type traveler) we were forced to take our chances and make a call based on what looked good.
I’m big on aesthetics and I often choose places based on how appealing they look. This time around we ended up at perhaps the most visually un-appealing place in town. In addition, it was dark and appeared closed. We walked into the courtyard anyway.
What caught my eye was the sign on the restaurant. It read “Restaurant Típico”. Típico is the word for, as you might guess… Typical. Comida típica refers to a simple, standard dish that is common in a particular country or region of Latin America. In the Dominican Republic, the most common meal is affectionately know as “La Bandera” – the flag. It consists of rice and beans, some type of stewed meat dish, some fresh veggies and a plate of tostones or fried plantains.
Now back to our search for dinner. I wanted rice and beans. I’d been thinking about eating Latin American comida típico since Alaska and I was ready. Even though Las Galeras is not a hugely popular tourist destination, it still has its share of restaurants catering to tourists with international palates. I didn’t want pasta. I wanted rice and beans.
So we walked in and in my broken Spanish I asked if they served arroz con habichuelas ( rice with beans ).
We sat down and ordered two Presidentes as well… the Dominican equivalent of Budweiser but at least 10 times better, especially when served very, very cold. We waited a long time but when the food came… well, it far exceeded expectations. We’d asked for beans and rice (or at least that is what we thought we were asking for). We did indeed get beans and rice but also an amazing dish of chicken, another of beef, a plate of tostones and some potatoes and carrots that blew me away. Ah…. La Bandera. We got all this for about 600 pesos or $15.
I told the proprietors that I needed a Dominican cooking lesson.
“No problema! ¿Cuando?” ( no problem, when? )
“La próxima semana.”. ( next week )
So it was agreed that I would go back the following week and we’d talk about cooking lessons.
I made arrangements to arrive at the restaurant on Monday morning. Mari, my profesora and I got right to work. The morning was a blur. Thankfully I took notes and Mari wrote down lots of things too, though they are all in Spanish so I’ve got some work to do with translating them. We made rice and beans of course and a chicken dish.
Mari was extremely patient with me. She’d explain something and then say “¿Entiende?” (You understand?). At least half the time I’d shake my head no and she’d try again using different words or visual cues. Mari spoke no English. Cooking lessons in Spanish are a great way to expand one’s vocabulary!
She never measured a thing, not once. In fact I don’t think her kitchen had a measuring cup or spoon in it. From a western standpoint it was one of the most ill equipped kitchens you could imagine. The only electronic item she possessed was an immersion hand blender used to mince the garlic into a paste. She had an array of pots, a bowl or two, a very dull knife, a few spoons of various sizes, a strainer, a spatula and a cutting board. That’s really about it. Funny how so many people in the US have kitchens filled to the brim with gadgets of all shapes and sizes that do everything from coring an apple to julienning a carrot and yet microwaveable convenience meals and fast foods are billion dollar industries.
An enormous pot of rice. One of the most enlightening parts of my cooking lesson was how to prepare rice. My rice is never better than mediocre at home. The secret is… (shhhhh) to cook it forever and to let a layer of the rice on the bottom of the pot get brown and crispy. This is called “con con” and it is served along with the rest of the rice (in a separate bowl). My kids love it.
Much to my delight, Mari told me to meet her the next afternoon for a trip to the market and another cooking lesson at my house. We were going to make a Sancocho. Sancocho is a traditional Latin American soup or stew with many regional variations. In the Dominican Republic it is considered, along with La Bandera to be a national dish. Typically Sancocho is made with various types of meat and veggies. We made ours with marinated beef, chicken and longaniza – a type of pork sausage. For veggies we used carrots, cassava (similar to a potato), plantains, celery, onions, peppers, garlic and some other type of root veggie that I couldn’t quite figure out. It was served with rice.
The next day, I met Mari again for another trip to the market and another cooking lesson. I have to admit, the supermarket was a little intimidating. It is one of those things that I mentioned in my last post that I had seen in the DR that would blow the minds of many in the extremely sanitized US.
Produce ranges from really fresh to something that would qualify as compost at home. Eggs are not refrigerated. In fact they are…err… how do I put this? Fresh from the chicken. They do not undergo any sort of cleaning process from the farm to the store if you know what I mean. I was a bit squeamish about this at first, instructing the boys to pick out the cleanest eggs they could find. But I got over it. Just a little washing is all they need, no big deal. I am after all a backyard egg aficionado myself back in Seattle.
Now the meat is a different story. If you want to buy chicken for example, you ask the shopkeeper for some. He goes and gets one and brings it up to the front counter. The same place where you pay for your groceries at the end of your shopping trip. (If at this point you are imagining a QFC or a Kroger or a Hannafords or whatever large chain grocery store exists in your neck of the US woods) forget that image. It’s really nothing like that.
So the chicken… it gets put on a cutting board and the man cuts up however many pieces you want. He cuts the tips off the toes but you get the feet if you want them. When he’s done, he tosses the chicken into a plastic bag for you, sets the cutting board against the counter on the floor, leaves the knife on the counter top and moves onto the next item of business. He doesn’t wash his hands or the cutting board and he doesn’t wear plastic gloves.
So you are freaked out by this eh? Well, I was too. I mean the fear of God is put into us in the States. Raw chicken must be cut on a different cutting board than anything else, the board and knife and anything else that came in contact with the chicken must immediately be washed in hot, soapy water or we will die a certain, miserable death from something associated with bacterial contamination. Right?
Again, I know that food borne illness is a real thing and it’s not bad to take care to keep a clean kitchen and to have good, hygienic food preparation standards. And yet, I can’t help but wonder if we overdo it a bit in the US and if lots of our food borne illnesses come from the nasty, highly unsanitary conditions that are the norm in the factory farms where most of our chicken, beef, pork and eggs come from.
But I digress…
In cooking lesson number 3 we prepared “moro de habichuela”. You guessed it, another variation of rice and beans. This dish used to be known as “moros y cristianos” or Moors and Christians, a remnant of colonial times. Apparently it is still called this in Cuba but in the DR it’s been shortened to just Moro. we made ours with freshly pressed coconut milk… As in we bought a coconut, found a guy with a machete to hack the hard outer shell off, grated the entire coconut, added some water and pressed out the milk. Mmmmmmmm….
Of course some of the most delightful foods in the DR don’t need to be cooked at all or at least I don’t need to cook them. Bananas grow thick all over the place. Pineapples and papayas are readily available too. We’ve been enjoying fresh juices and batidas or smoothies as well as coconut ice cream.
When we have needed a break from La Bandera there is an excellent French bakery in town. It serves the most incredible homemade bread and has fantastic pizza for dinner. They even have, of all things, carne pizza which is in essence hamburg pizza. It’s the same as in Maine, but different.
It is challenging to get into a groove when one is out of his or her culinary element. Back home we have our standard breakfast, lunch and dinner items and we are rather picky at that. When I arrived here in the DR my first inclination when I visited the store and could not find much at all that was familiar, was to get on the phone and have someone send us a giant box filled with groceries. I quickly realized the folly in that. Not only would it be too expensive but we didn’t come all the way here to eat the same food we eat at home.
I’ve adjusted. A typical breakfast at the cabina is simple. Corn flakes or eggs, yogurt, oats, bread with nutella, juice and cafe con leche. Not really all that Dominican but hey. Lunch is often boiled eggs, slices of cheese, bread from the bakery or casabe with nutella (a wheatless flat bread), sliced tomatoes, fruit and olives.
Sometimes we cook dinner at home and sometimes we go out. A reasonably priced meal for all of us costs about 600 – 1000 pesos or between $15 – $27.
Oh and of course there’s nothing like topping off the day with a refreshing Caribbean libation.