Puerto Rican

Puerto Rican Rice & Beans—By Way Of Hawaii

July 13, 2018

Soon after I had landed in Puerto Rico, while I was in a car driving past the resort-studded Condado neighborhood of San Juan, I spotted a billboard advertising Goya Sazón—the reddish spice blend essential to the island’s cuisine. To locals, this display might seem mundane; but to me, a person who grew up in Hawaii, my eyes lit up. Here was the seasoning that made “ganduddy rice”—a local term for Puerto Rican arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas), perhaps the most elusive street food in the Pacific—so tasty.

An elusive dish that just got a whole lot less elusive, to Hawaiians like me at least. Photo by Rocky Luten

Anyone craving a taste of the Caribbean in Hawaii knows that in order to satisfy that craving, they need to set their sights roadside, looking for hawkers who occasionally sell the almost-always homemade dish. Sharp eyes and serendipitous timing are good skills to have, but they don’t guarantee a satisfying plate of gandule rice, as the dish is also called. That’s a matter of pure luck.

“Going out to Waianae or Wahiawa (on the island of Oahu), you may spot people selling Puerto Rican food on the side of the road,” says Dan Nelson, a representative of the Puerto Rican Heritage Society in Hawaii. Other likely bets for gandule rice and other Puerto Rican fare include county fairs, local fundraisers, and cultural celebrations, like the one Hawaii’s Plantation Village in Waipahu hosts every year. The rarity of ganduddy rice is, in part, due to how the dish rose from a dark patch of Hawaiian history.

In the late 18th century, Hawaii saw an influx of Puerto Rican laborers, who came to work on sugar and pineapple plantations after two hurricanes decimated their native sugar cane fields in August 1899. They faced extensive xenophobia and racial discrimination when they arrived. A survey of newspapers in 1901 shows an average of an article a day expressing suspicion about the newcomers. The Hawaiian Sugar Planters' Association, who unofficially controlled the presses at the time, branded Puerto Rican immigrants "thieves" and "people who brought in disease."

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“The seasoning is different, with thyme instead of achiote and turmeric, and I think salt pork instead of bacon, but the common base of rice, pigeon peas, tomato, onion is there. Finding pigeon peas locally is difficult, though. I have yet to find dried ones, and the one grocery store that used to carry canned ones - meh - doesn't anymore. Sigh...”
— Annabel
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As their numbers grew, albeit much slower than European and Asian populations, they intermarried with other Catholic groups on the plantation; primarily the Portuguese, Filipinos, and Spanish. According to Nelson, these events likely contributed to why Puerto Rican food in Hawaii is, even to this day, somewhat clandestine.

My own memories of arroz con gandules are vague at best. The orange dish, freckled with pebbly gandules and pressed into a tupperware container, was likely present at volleyball team potlucks, post-home game. What I am sure of, though, is that when gandule rice did make a surprise appearance, it provoked boundless enthusiasm.

Puerto Rican food in Hawaii is, even to this day, somewhat clandestine.

“We mostly ate gandule rice at home, or at a family luau,” says Tricia Ruiz, the Filipina co-owner of Kiawe Roots, a new restaurant on Kauai’s south shore, which she runs with her half-Puerto Rican husband. “There weren’t any restaurants that offered gandule rice that we can remember." Perhaps that’s why the dish is a mainstay on their menu (and a very popular item, at that).

On my trip to Puerto Rico, I ate more than my fair share of arroz con gandules at various restaurants, celebrating the ease of having access to the dish. In Hawaii, every “ganduddy rice” recipe is different from family to family, because it’s a dish associated with home cooking more than restaurant cooking. It lacks uniformity. For example, Nelson told me that his wife’s Puerto Rican aunt uses chicken thighs in place of the usual pork that traditional recipes call for; she also adds lima beans and uses achiote oil for the coloring instead of Sazon. “It’s one of those dishes that everyone has their own version of,” he says, “a family recipe.”


More Delicious Puerto Rican Fare

My trip to Puerto Rico, which has been slowly rebuilding in the months following Hurricane Maria and back-to-back storms, resurfaced the familiar flavors of arroz con gandules that I feel are so integral to Hawaii food culture and the people who are part of it. Now, back in my home kitchen, whenever I get the urge to return to those flavors, I’ll turn to this dynamic recipe from The Original Hawaii Plantation Village Cookbook—which uses achiote seeds (or, as a substitute, a mix of paprika and turmeric), rather than Sazon. It is my own little way of making this elusive dish a little less elusive, and celebrating the diversity of Hawaiian culture.

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5 Comments

himynameisjs October 13, 2018
1. I love reading about Hawaiian expats experiencing life outside of the islands—please keep these articles coming! My parents left Oahu for Alaska in the mid-1980s in search of better employment opportunities. There was a small enclave of Hawaiian locals who made their homes there because of the oil economy boom at the time. <br />2. Minor correction: 1899 is in the 19th (not 18th, as was cited in the article) century.
 
Elicia M. July 28, 2018
My favorite food,Puerto Rican ! Thank you so much I've been looking recipes for this cuisine for SO long!🤗💕
 
Annabel July 27, 2018
I grew up on the Bahamian version of this, simply peas and rice. The seasoning is different, with thyme instead of achiote and turmeric, and I think salt pork instead of bacon, but the common base of rice, pigeon peas, tomato, onion is there. Finding pigeon peas locally is difficult, though. I have yet to find dried ones, and the one grocery store that used to carry canned ones - meh - doesn't anymore. Sigh...
 
Ttrockwood July 15, 2018
Swapping in achiote seeds doesn’t replace Goya Sazón though... there are several other ingredients- the most important one being the msg that make their seasoning so tasty!
 
Elen C. July 14, 2018
You need. Sofrito .I'll taste much better.