Puerto Rican cooking covers a wide spectrum of styles and methods that have developed over five centuries. The native ingredients of the Tainos have been enhanced and modified with each new influence. Puerto Rican food has incorporated all of them so that criollo cooking is replete with unique spices, flavorings, and seasonings: cilantro, black peppercorns, aji dulce (sweet chili pepper), oregano, and recao (a small leafy plant used to impart a tangy flavor to food), to name a few.
The main difference between Puerto Rican cuisine and that of the North American mainland lies in three words: sofrito (a flavoring), adobo (a seasoning), and achiote (a coloring). Sofrito is a term that has no true English translation. It is a mixture of cilantro, sweet chili pepper, recao garlic, onion, and pimientos that serves as the base ingredient for countless dishes. Adobo is a combination of black peppercorns, oregano, and garlic, which is crushed in a mortar and rubbed liberally into meat, fish, or poultry. This seasoning is available in processed form at supermarkets, but nothing can compare to the gusto imparted by the homemade variety. Achiote is made of annatto seeds cooked in vegetable oil or olive oil. In the old days, the natives of the island would cook the seeds in lard. Annatto is the pulp of the tropical tree Bixa orellana; the dye that comes from this pulp is used as coloring in some cheeses. It was also used by Caribbean and South American Indians as body paint.