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.
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."
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.
“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.
- 1 cup gandules (pigeon peas), soaked overnight
- 1 pound lean pork (tenderloin is best)
- 1 whole onion
- 6 cloves garlic
- 1 pinch or more pepper, to taste
- 1 (8-oz) can tomato sauce or tomato puree
- 4 stalks green onion
- 1 bunch cilantro
- 4 cups chicken broth
- 2 cups rice, uncooked
- 1 pinch or more salt, to taste
- 1 tablespoon achiote seeds (substitute: 1 1/2 tsp paprika + 1 1/2 tsp turmeric)
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil (or Crisco)