The Caribbean, more than any other region of the Americas, shows the results of the world-changing Columbus landfall in its food ways. This makes sense, because the whole business started on the north coast of Hispaniola, now the Dominican Republic, where the first European settlement of any kind was established at Isabela by Columbus during his second voyage in 1493. Spanish settlement quickly spread to the other big islands, to Puerto Rico in 1508, Jamaica in 1509, and to Cuba in 1511. Transatlantic trade followed rapidly. After the conquest of Mexico (1519–1821), it was inevitable that transpacific commerce would begin. In 1565, the galleon San Agustín sailed from Manila to Acapulco. Its goods traveled overland to Veracruz and then sailed on other ships to Spain, after stopping in Caribbean ports.
This first global trade route famously brought gold and silver to the Iberian Peninsula and Europe, but more lastingly it cross-fertilized the agriculture of three continents. In most places, entrenched local foodways absorbed the new larder—Europe assimilated Andean potatoes, Mexico added pork and animal fat to its almost meatless Aztec diet—but the Caribbean islands, because their indigenous people perished almost entirely from European diseases and other disruptions to their culture, were a gastronomic tabula rasa. Into this vacuum, rushed the foods and food ideas of Europe, Africa, and Asia. Local foods remained as well. Perhaps no dish exemplifies this literal melting pot better than the alcapúrria.
I first encountered it on the beach at Isla Verde, east of San Juan and just to the west of the self-consciously post-African village of Loiza Aldea, on the north coast of Puerto Rico. These torpedo-shaped fritters, which resemble the carimañolas of Caribbean Colombia and Panama, are part of the large family of deep-fried oddments that evolved as adaptations of an African style of cooking to local possibilities. In the U.S. South, hush puppies substituted cornmeal for black-eyed pea flour. In Colombia, slaves made a dough of cassava. In Puerto Rico, cooks combined the native tuber with the plantain or cooking banana they knew from Africa (Musa paradisiaca)* or the indigenous cassava and filled it with the picked meat of crabs from the local mangrove swamps.
Other fillings are known, including chopped meat and chicken. But the crab filling is the one you encounter in stalls (kioscos) at Puerto Rican beaches. Even four hundred years after some clever African immigrant invented this dish, its improvisational quality remains clear. The starchy constituents of the globalized dough mixture still vary from kiosco to kiosco. In a study conducted for a master’s degree in food science and technology at the Mayaguez campus of the University of Puerto Rico (thesis submitted 2005), Maridía Rosario Passapera, investigating bacterial contamination of alcapúrrias, collected samples at thirteen stalls and determined that seven contained mixtures of yautía and cassava (yuca), three were a mix of yautía and plantain, and one each contained only yautía or cassava. Although the yautía cassava mixture would appear to be the standard variation, cookbooks invariably advise mixing yautía and plantain, which suggests that this is the “classic” version. The achiote-reddened lard is a substitute for the naturally reddish palm oil that would have been used in West Africa.