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Puerto Rican Treasures: Adorable Frogs, Fabulous Fritters

By Maricel E. Presilla

February 5, 2004
Copyright ©2004 THE MIAMI HERALD. All rights reserved.

If the Dominican Republic is the land of the merengue, Puerto Rico is the island of the coquí. This tiny tree frog, the island's mascot, has a mighty voice. You cannot miss it. The male's mating call (ko kee, ko kee) is the music of the night, a melodic croak that does not stop from sundown to dawn.

Like most Puerto Ricans I know, I find meaning in the coquí's persistent chant. For me it is the symbol of all that is true and pure in Puerto Rican culture, as endearing as the polite and very Spanish don and doña with which elders are addressed, as reassuring as the taste of colonial recipes handed down for generations, as resilient as the jíbaro, the Puerto Rican peasant, and as natural as the sight of a woman frying fritters in a cauldron by the side of the road. All are powerful reminders that despite more than a century's association with the United States, this Caribbean island has a character very much its own.

If you follow the coquí's call, you'll get to know Puerto Rico, and this means escaping the comfort of your high-rise hotel or beach resort to explore and eat your way through the island. For me the coquí's route (la ruta del coquí) -- the things you need to do to understand Puerto Rico -- begins with the Brunet family and ends at a roadside kiosk.

Related by marriage to a branch of my family that left Cuba for Puerto Rico, the Brunets have always been my window to island family life and cooking. With them I learned to appreciate the discreet charm of the San Juan bourgeoisie, the old Spanish formality that lurks beneath their little rituals, the respectful and loving interaction of a family that still cooks and eats together.

I'll never forget the thrill of staying with Virgilio Brunet, the family's patriarch, and his wife at a house on stilts in La Parguera. For 40 years, Virgilio had been coming to this small fishing village not far from Cabo Rojo, building a tiny shack in the shallows of a mangrove key and gradually turning it into a modest, comfortable retirement retreat. For years, friends and family from San Juan descended upon the cabin every weekend like a swarm of locusts, sleeping in bunk beds or on the bare floor in order to enjoy the unique experience of having a mangrove key as a backyard.

From early morning, the smell of good food permeated the cabin. Breakfast was eaten outdoors on the veranda facing the calm waters, and usually consisted of bacalaítos, crunchy salt cod fritters simply seasoned with garlic and chopped parsley.

After breakfast, Virgilio took us in his boat to Cayo Caracoles, one of the mangrove islets fringing the cove, where we swam and dived in crystal clear waters, watching schools of fish pass by. In the afternoon, we headed for town to buy beer and surullitos, freshly fried corn and cheese sticks. In a couple of days I was addicted to these terrific fritters.

Puerto Rican cooks have a way with frying. As you drive around the island, you'll come upon women frying food at small kiosks on the roadside. I admire their independence and skill, their ability to turn the simplest ingredients into something delicious with an economy of means and a minimum of fuss. All they need are sturdy grates, a wood fire and a large blackened cauldron to do their work. (Thinking about them keeps me sane when equipment breaks down in my restaurant kitchen.)

The surullito or surullo (also spelled sorullo) is just one of many delicious fritters made of starchy vegetables (plantains, yuca, yautía or malanga) that you are likely to find at these roadside stands. In the early colonial period, peasants started their day with large surullos made of corn or wheat flour and steamed, like tamales, in plantain leaves or corn husks.

Though modeled after an Arawak corn preparation, surullos derive their name from the old Spanish zurullo, meaning both a lump of dough and also the end product of digestion, an impolite term that one would not mention at the table in more staid places but that stuck in the looser environment of the island, eventually losing its original connotation.

Berta Cabanillas, a Puerto Rican food historian, writes that it was black women, most probably freed slaves from the coastal plantations, who first fried the surullo instead of steaming it. These fried corn sticks were sold at makeshift stands called friquitines, the ancestors of today's roadside kiosks, together with salt cod fritters, plantain tostones and empanadas.

Today, surullitos can be found in home kitchens and fancy restaurants as well. To me, they still taste best at the side of the road, where I can watch the cook plunge them into the hot oil and fish them out when they are crunchy and golden, the sound of her burbling cauldron as much music to my ears as the song of the coquí.


Maricel E. Presilla is the chef-co-owner of Zafra in Hoboken, N.J. Her latest book is The New Taste of Chocolate.

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