Finding Strength in Sofrito in Puerto Rico


Hardship and hurricanes have shaped the island’s food for centuries. But chefs and home cooks make magic with whatever ingredients they have.

Christopher Simpson for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Simon Andrews.

By Von Diaz
Published Oct. 26, 2020

From her home in Cayey, P.R., the chef Natalia Vallejo speaks with measured sadness about shutting down Cocina al Fondo, her intimate farm-to-table restaurant in San Juan. But the closing amid this particular crisis feels different than if there had been a storm.

After a hurricane, people typically gather, forming a rebulú — a spontaneous, noisy all-nighter that spills out into the streets, with a big pot of sancocho stew simmering on the stove. Imagine Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s video for the song “Despacito,” but without electricity, and with the swirling smell of plantains.

“Family and friends would come together, each one contributing what they could,” Ms. Vallejo said. “We shared, we laughed, we cried. Almost every day I cooked and ate with friends or family — we would light the grill and listen to music.”

Instead, she has remained at home, separated from her family.

To live and eat in Puerto Rico means being prepared for disruption, particularly between June and November — hurricane season, which now appears to be worsening as a result of climate change.