August 3, 2017 at 11:00 AM
"Without a doubt it is the most popular, best known, most loved Puerto Rican dish," says Von Diaz, a radio producer and writer based in New York. She's talking about mofongo, a dish made by smashing fried green plantains — frequently in a pilón (mortar and pestle) — with garlic, olive oil and, most traditionally, chicharrón (fried pork skin). The mixture is often molded into a bowl or mound before being stuffed or served with any number of meats or vegetables and a garlicky sauce.
According to historian and author Cruz Miguel Ortíz Cuadra, mofongo comes from the Angolan technique of mashing large amounts of starchy foods, then adding liquid and fat to soften the mixture. (Slaves from Angola and other parts of Africa were brought to Puerto Rico in the 1500s.) Indigenous people on the island also used this mashing and pounding technique, explains Diaz. Ortíz writes in his book, "Eating Puerto Rico: A History of Food, Culture, and Identity," that the word "mofongo" stems from the Angolan Kikongo term "mfwenge-mfwenge," meaning "a great amount of anything at all." Going even further back, the dish traces its roots to the West African fufu, a mash of boiled yams. Today you'll find many iterations of the iconic mofongo in Puerto Rican, Dominican and Cuban restaurants.
Garlic, a culinary influence from Spain, is key. Fresh cloves are mashed into the plantain mixture and also enliven a sauce, sometimes tomato-based, that comes with many a restaurant version.
Plantains, originating from South Asia, arrived in the northwest Caribbean islands in the early 1500s. Unripe, green plantains are starchy and much less sweet than their ripened counterparts — they contain very little moisture, making a gravy or saucy filling essential.
While pork is traditional — and further illustrates Spanish influence on the dish — mofongo can be filled or topped with almost anything, from steak to poached shrimp to a mixture of vegetables.
In restaurants, you'll probably get a sprinkling of cilantro and a slice or two of lime; the fresh accent and acidity help cut through the mofongo's richness.
Find mofongo in the District at Los Hermanos (1428 Park Rd. NW, 202-483-8235) and Banana Cafe & Piano Bar (500 Eighth St. SE, 202-543-5906); in Silver Spring at La Casa del Mofongo (9441 Georgia Ave., 240-863-3750); and from the food truck Living La Chiva Loca (location updated on Twitter, @livinglachiva).