The uninitiated may not even know what plantains are or find themselves baffled at the large banana-like fruit that they found in some Latino market. Please pay attention: Plantains and bananas are related, but it’s best not to confuse the two. While bananas are generally eaten ripe and raw, plantains need to be cooked whether they are ripe or unripe. We’ll tell you how to cook plantains, and you’ll love them too.
Plantains are to Dominicans what apple pie is to Americans. Plantains are so much a part of our culture that many a Dominican-American refers to himself as “plátano”. We may joke about how plantains make us stupid, but the reality is that we love our plantains, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a Dominican who doesn’t love them — or a Puerto Rican, they love their plantains too!
So, what do you do with a plantain–or many?
If Dominicans were to choose a national dish, this would be one of the strongest contenders. We love our mangú. The very thought of the smooth mash, topped with soft red onions, sends chills down our spine. Mangú is the traditional breakfast dish in the Dominican Republic, although nowadays it is reserved for weekends and special days, on account of being a bit too heavy on the organism of modern urbanites, who spend their days sitting in front of a computer—as opposed to plowing the fields like we used to.
If we had to find a word to define this dish I’d go with “umami”. There are many strong flavors competing here (plantains, garlic, pork cracklings), but somehow they all work it out amongst themselves to play a harmonious symphony of flavors.
This is a dish that originated in neighboring Puerto Rico, but Dominicans have enjoyed it for so long (possibly the beginning of last century) that it has now become an adopted dish of our cuisine.
Tostones are not exclusively Dominican. They are very popular in both Puerto Rico and Cuba too—not surprisingly, we share a lot of the same dishes and ingredients—but we love our tostones to the point that they are almost always offered as an option where traditionally french fries are served. Yeah, there’s no way to resist some crispy tostones sprinkled with coarse sea salt.
We once asked our Facebook followers to pick between tostones and Fritos Maduros, as expected, Fritos Maduros put up quite a fight. They are that popular with Dominicans—Puerto Ricans and Cubans too. Because hey, sweet fried stuff is great, especially if you serve it as part of your meal. Oh yeah, did I mention this is not a dessert?
Some have compared it to shepherds’ pie, but no, sorry I have to say no to that. You see, we Dominican types love mixing our sweets and savories, and nowhere do we do it better than in these creamy layers of sweet mashed ripe plantains, stuffed in the middle with juicy minced beef, and topped with ever-so-abundant melted cheese. Oh boy!
This here my friends is the cure for hangovers you may or may not have been waiting for. And even if, like myself, you don’t partake in the imbibement of spirits, a steaming bowl of garlicky aguají is the kind of thing that lifts your spirit and cleanses your soul—it also fouls your breath. It’s apparently good for settling a “nervous” stomach too.
I must honestly say that this is no longer a very common dish in the Dominican Republic, where it once was. It may be because the original one was fried, which probably doesn’t make it appetizing for modern Dominicans. I am hoping to change that by adapting the traditional recipe to modern sensibilities: These piononos are baked, and they are every bit as good—if not more—than the traditional ones. No need to thank me.
Did I mention how much we love mixing our sweets and savory? Yes? Well, it bears repeating: We absolutely do, and this dish here, this combination of spices, caramelized brown sugar, and rum, in soft, melt-in-your-mouth ripe plantains is the stuff of dreams for us. I guess I don’t have to mention this is not a dessert.
Christmas in the Dominican Republic is not the same without this tamal-like delight. It has to be said that there is a whole cottage industry dedicated to making Pasteles en Hoja (and other party foods), so most people do not make them at home on account of how time-consuming they are to make. But if you don’t have a trusted doña to buy them from, roll up your sleeve and get going. The result is completely worth the trouble.
Ok, so are ripe plantains ever served as dessert? I am glad you asked because there is this one dish… Mala Rabia is one in our list of bizarre Dominican food names: it means “bad rage”, so one would expect a strongly-flavored, perhaps fiercely spicy dish, but this isn’t. It’s actually a mild dessert that combines sweet potatoes, ripe plantains, and guava, served in a light syrup. And it’s totally worth trying.
But it doesn’t end here. Of course, whether you prefer ripe plantains or green plantains, we have many more dishes where plantains feature as an important ingredient. Check them out. If you want to see how plantains are cooked in other Latin American countries, check these recipes too.
And now you know how to cook plantains.