This is the second entry of a series I’m doing for a class project about food, culture and race in the Dominican Republic. If you haven’t read my first entry in the series, please click here. If you have already, I know you’re wondering when I’m actually going to talk about food, so let’s begin!
This entry will serve as a closer look into at the Dominican cuisine – its connections to West African food and an explanation of what Dominican meals are composed of . Let’s start with the assertion that there are very few dishes that are truly Dominican, with no other outside influence. As Clara writes in her blog post on www.dominicancooking.com, “Dominican cuisine is the result of crossroads of many continents and many countries.” The island of Hispaniola is one of the first spots of globalization in the Caribbean and the food of the Dominican Republic represents this! It is a mixture of flavors, ingredients and techniques inspired by the Taino Indians (natives to the island of Hispaniola), Spanish, African, Middle Eastern and other Caribbean cuisines.
Because I am looking at the relationship between Domincan and African food, the most important moment for my research is “[t]he introduction of African slaves in 1503, presenting yet another new (and important) gastronomical imprint on Hispaniola” (Dominican Cooking). This is the key to tracing the influence of African food on Dominican cuisine.
I’m also going to assert, for the sake of more detailed comparisons, that most of the African slaves brought to the island of Hispaniola came from West Africa, based on these findings. This assertion serves to avoid making base claims about all African cuisine; by dividing the continent up into regions with similar characteristics (as done here) I can make stronger connections to the gastronomy of the Dominican Republic.
That being said, Our Africa relays that “the cuisine of West Africa tends to rely on heavy starchy foods […] Maize/corn is common in many areas. Rice dishes are also widely eaten in the region. Cattle, goats and sheep are raised (varying by region), though meat is often a luxury for poor families.” This summary aligns with my food experience in the Dominican Republic: one, if not two, sources of starch are present during La Comida (lunch, which is usually the largest meal of the day). I’ll get into what each meal can consist of in a bit.
Meat was also not served in abundance. Usually it was a side dish, something that accompanied a much larger portion of rice and beans. As noted by the Bowie Museum, “Slaves were often given leftover foods from the plantation kitchen, and lesser cuts of meat when animals were butchered. They developed recipes that used these meats, and meats discarded from plantation kitchens.” This can explain the appearance of dishes like “rabo de cerdo” (pig tail) or “rabo de res” (beef/ox tail) on the menu at a Dominican restaurant. It also explains why meat is not served in portions like we’re used to in the USA – the animals necessary simply weren’t (and still aren’t) available for that kind of mass consumption.
Typical Dominican Meals, adapted from The Colonial Zone:
A usual breakfast can include any of the following: Mangu (a plantain dish) topped with fried, pickled onions, Queso Frito (fried cheese), fried salami, fried eggs, oatmeal, fruit, fresh juice, and definitely coffee. Here’s an example of what a super-charged breakfast may look like, but it’s probably not indicative of what is eaten in households every day.
Lunch is called La Comida and is usually the largest (and longest) meal of the day. A classic lunch food is La Bandera Dominicana (The Dominican Flag), composed of three parts: rice and beans, some meat, and any type of salad. The idea is that the three are served side-by-side, creating an appetizing flag. Here’s a picture of a bandera with stewed chicken and pasta salad.
Lunch can also be various family-style portions of arroz y moro (rice and beans), stewed or grilled meats, fresh vegetables like avocado, and green salad. If you’re lucky, you can also get a side portion of tostones (fried, smashed plantains) or concon, which is the crunchy rice that sticks to the bottom of the cast aluminum pan that you cook the rice in. Here are a few pictures of the lunch spreads I had with my host family.
Dinner is a small meal, as you’re usually still full from lunch. I usually ate a sandwich or leftover rice and beans. Sometimes I would eat mangu or maduros (another plantain dish) with fried eggs and pickled onions. Often, I would just eat some fresh fruit as I had usually indulged and eaten a mid-afternoon snack of an empanda or quipe from the food trucks around Santiago.
I know I mentioned a lot of plantain dishes in this entry – if you don’t know what they are, no worries! #3 in this series will focus specifically on the role of plantains in the Dominican and West African diet and will explain the different forms of plantain you may encounter while eating your way around the DR.