Vegan Dominican: A Culinary Perspective, Part One
People of different cultures around the world have always communicated with one another. They engaged in trade, exchanged projects, and shared ideas for the growth of their civilizations. Just as pyramids are found in Egypt and Chichen Itza, Africans and Natives share in a genetic and cultural brother/sisterhood. Simply, they are part of a Diaspora of varying shades continuing in fruitful communication throughout history. Through centuries of encounters, the creation of one of the most richest and delicious tropical wonders of gastronomy in the world is found – la comida criolla Dominicana.
Influences from the Diaspora
We may start on with the historical relationship between Quisqueya and Borinken, two islands linked throughout centuries. The aboriginal Arawaks that settled in the islands maintained communication and traveled amongst each other. After colonization, Dominicans left to Puerto Rico as early as the late 15th century due to political instability. According to Jorge Duany in his essay “Dominican Migration to Puerto Rico: A Transnational Perspective,” he writes, “The swift development of the Dominican sugar industry, centered around eastern provinces of San Pedro de Macoris, La Romana and Puerto Plata, attracted thousands of workers from other Caribbean islands, including Puerto Rico”(1). During the beginning of the 20th century it grew to 6,069 Puerto Ricans(2). With dishes like asopao, pastelón, mofongo, bacalaitos, aranitas, whether of African or Taino origin, there is a Dominican/Puerto Rican equivalent. Both islands are also keen on tropical root vegetables like yuca, platano, rulos, guineitos, yautias and ñame whose origins are also African or Taino, with names varying region to region. Cooking techniques, herbs, spices and dishes are made with slight differences in preparation and ingredients. For example, Puerto Ricans use the sofrito as their core flavoring. Dominicans use Sazón (or sazón sofrito) which entails a similar process of preparation of grinding and storing the herbs and spices. However, most Dominicans prepare their Sazón on the spot and sauté it in oil before adding the rest of the ingredients for cooking.
In the late 1800’s, Quisqueya received workers from the English colonies seeking work in the sugar industry. Referred to as the “cocolos,” thought to be a mispronunciation of Tortuga, the island where the bulk arrived from, they would add history and richness to the culture of the island. Most of the “cocolos,” of African ancestry, settled in San Pedro de Macoris, La Romana, and La Vega. The “cocolos” enriched Dominican food with the addition of fish cooked with vegetables and nuts, the white yautia, okra, honey, varieties of dumplings, the famous yaniqueques (Johnny Cakes), conconete (coconut bread cookies), fish corn mill, lambi (a sea snail) and bacalao (codfish) (3). Preparing sauces by adding coconut, lime and annato seeds are all “cocolo” contributions. This is where you get the dish, Gandules con coco from. Also, popular national drinks like mabi, made from a tree bark and fermented and the Christmas guavaberry drink made from the fruit of the Arrayan plant.
Dominican food has also received influences from China. The Chinese first arrived in Quisqueya in the mid 19th century through the “coolie” trade, which brought indentured servants into the new world. What was merely a stop to the United States became permanent enclaves. In Quisqueya specifically, Chinese laborers built “bricks and quicklime in the Cibao region. This group…eventually built warehouses in Samana, Yuna and Moca. By 1870, the Chinese migrants had built the cemetery in Moca”(4). The Chinese community continued to grow slowly into the 20th century and many came rushing in during the U.S. invasion from 1916-1920 and in the 1930s to 1950s due to the Sino-Japanese War. The former group of Chinese that requested visas were laborers living in Jamaica and the latter tended to be skilled workers and entrepreneurs. Very much like the Chinese spots in the urban hoods of the U.S., “Pica Pollo,” is a famous Chinese chain of Dominican fried chicken restaurants, which included Dominican-Chinese food. As a result of the mainstream success of the “Pica Pollo,” Dominicans have been able to adapt dishes of Chinese origin onto their cuisine and these include Chofan (Chow Fan), Chop Suey and pollo frito or chicharrones de pollo. It is hard to grasp that fried chicken would be associated with the Asian component of our Dominicaness, but it really is. There are variations to these dishes, most notably in the choices of vegetables and the lack of bean sprouts. These differences truly make this a tropical fried rice.
Middle Eastern culture and Islam have also influenced Dominican cuisine. Spices like cumin, ground coriander and turmeric have origins in the East, adding wonderful and richer flavors. The history of Islam and Middle Eastern culture in Quisqueya begins in Spain. The Moors were African Islamic peoples with a rich mathematical and scientific tradition that ruled Spain for over 700 years. Their entire rule brought civilization to new heights and impacted the conquistadors that would eventually expel Moorish influence and allow their lust for conquest to get them to the Americas.
It is the Moorish culture of the Spaniards that fused into the Indigenous and African elements to form the current national folklore, which include the culinary arts. For example, a popular Dominican dish is called Moro, where one cooks rice and beans together in the same pot and it can be made with any type of bean. Moro literally means “moros y cristianos” (Moors and Christians) to denote the fusion of cultures/peoples in Spain. Varying versions of the Moro dish are found all over Latin America.
Islam also has origins in slavery, where a high percentage of the slaves arrived with this rich and ancient philosophy. Nicolas de Ovando, Quisqueya’s first royal governor referred to them as Black ladinos(5). They were extremely hard to repress (due to their education) and most of those involved in the slave revolt of 1522 were of Islamic origin. It makes sense that during this time, these slaves brought with them seeds and spices, along with the slave traders themselves, which they would use to cook with. It is not until the 19th century that an influx of Lebanese immigrants revived the cuisine through adaptations of their kibbeh, which we call Quipe/Kipe, niños envueltos and arroz con fideos. The Dominican quipe is made without the mint, allspice, cumin and lamb. Instead we use ground beef, Dominican sazón and raisins. The niños envueltos are made with cabbage leaves as opposed to bok choy leaves and the arroz con fideos are pretty much the same. Today, you find this same dish in northern Africa, territory also settled by the Moors.
The Foundation of Quisqueyan Cuisine
The primary foundation to Dominican cooking is predominantly West African. Professor Silvio Torres-Saillant stated, “…and the contributions of blacks to Dominican cuisine take form of both cultural transmissions from Africa and Creole innovations traceable to the plantation regime…”(6). The enslaved woman fulfilled cook duties incorporating flavors from her homeland, experimenting with herbs and spices to make exceptional tasting dishes that would serve as the basis for a new cuisine. In this way she showed her expertise and ability to embrace alchemy, art and science through food. Dishes like Chenchen, a cracked corn pilaf dish, resemble the nshima and sadza of Africa because of the usage of corn in those dishes(7). The famous pasteles (found in Borinken too) have an African counterpart called kenkey with the indigenous equivalent is the tamal. The famous mangu and sancocho are also dishes that find its connection to Africa. The garlic-plantain balls that we add to thicken bean stews and others can find its equivalent in the kenkey. Mangu, arguably the national dish, is extremely similar to fufu, which is made from cassava or a number of other root vegetables mashed. You can eat fufu accompanied by a stew. The African connection extends to cooking techniques as sofreir, allowing for some of the spices/herbs to pan fry prior to adding the main ingredients.
The African and Indigenous equivalents persist and reveal a diasporic unity. Divisions of culinary influences are only useful to identify paths of evolution of a dish. Just as a tamal, pastel and sadza are all interpretations of a wrapped vegetable, we people are all of a multi-ethnic Diaspora.
(1)Duany, Jorge. “Dominican Migration to Puerto Rico: A transnational perspective.” Centro Journal XVII. 001 (2005): 242-269. Havens Center. Web. 10 Mar. 2015. pg. 245
(2)Ibid, pg. 246.
(3)Suero, Indhira. “Mis Queridos Cocolos.” Listin Diario. Merit Designs. 6 Aug. 2011. Web. 10 Mar. 2015.
(4)“The Chinese Community and Santo Domingo’s Barrio Chino.” http://dr1.com/articles/chinese.shtml. N.p. 1995-2015. Web. March 8, 2015.
(5)“Islam in the Dominican Republic.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islam_in_the_Dominican_Republic. Creative Commons Attribution. January 5, 2015. Web. January 5, 2015
(6)Torres-Saillant, Silvio. “The Tribulations of Blackness: Stages in Dominican Racial Identity.” Latin American Perspectives 25.3 (1998): 126-146. JSTOR. Web. 10 Mar. 2015. pg. 132
(7)Suero, Indhira. “Gracias a las manos africanas: SON INCUESTIONABLES LOS RASGOS DOMINANTES DE ORIGEN AFRO EN LA DIETA ALIMENTICIA DOMINICANA.” Listin Diario. Merit Designs. 27 Aug 2011. Web. 11 Mar. 2015.