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Puerto Rican Soup Customs

Situated right smack in the choicest part of the Caribbean, this beautiful island couldn't avoid being found by Columbus on his second voyage in 1493...nor resist being colonized by the Spanish...populated by Brits, French, Danish, Dutch, African slaves, and even the Chinese, following the abolition of slavery...nor ceded, ultimately, to the United States in 1898, which still goes down hard with the separatists.

Native Arawak Indians were pretty much destroyed by European death dealers like weapons and disease. Then fierce, cannabalistic Caribs from nearby islands attacked throughout the 16th century but never got a foothold on the island. Even so, the foundation of Puerto Rican cuisine lies in its new world, native American roots: called today cocina criolla, it included wild beans and cultivated vegetables like cassava, yucca, taro, yams, peanuts, corn, and sweet potatoes. Over time, though, this primitive cookery acquired special tastes and seasonings from its settlers that make it distinctive--green and ripe plaintains, lime, ginger, sour orange, cilantro, and oregano--which have sustained themselves in traditional cookery since the end of the 19th century.

And its soup? Very much associated with the slave and indentured servant days. Workers would pool their small stocks of meat scraps and vegetables, throwing them into a common kettle (caldero) and cooking them with water over a coal fire until it was time for lunch at midday. Today, soup can be a luncheon meal, but most often it is the first course of dinner--followed by rice, beans, and a meat dish.

Special soups include asopao (chicken soup), served at Christmas but regarded as Puerto Rico's "national" soup....and sopa de fideos y pollo--a rich chicken noodle soup that can cure anything and is also the first solid food given to babies.