Who knew making Puerto Rican Sofrito in the land of spices and imported goodies from all over the world would pose such a challenge! It turns out that the essential ingredient needed to make “recao” (as we call it) is recao itself and is practically an anomaly here in Dubai. Gasp! What a tragedy! What do I do now?
At first, I considered using its sister herb, cilantro, but then thought the cake’s not worth the candle. I’m not going to put all that effort into something that will not give me the true authentic and exact taste of this pleasantly intoxicating and indulgent herb.
Recao (the herb), Eryngium foetidum L., is found in the West Indies, Central America, Thailand, Southeast Asia, and West Africa. Little did I know that it’s known by at least 67 common names. Among them are culantro (Puerto Rico), fit weed (Tobago); Shadow Benny in Trinidad, Ngo go in Vietnam, and koulant in Haiti.
Recaito (the condiment) is a splendid green aromatic puree of onions, culantro (recao) leaves, garlic, green peppers, and aji dulces (small sweet chile peppers). In Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, recaito is used as the base seasoning known as Sofrito. It may be referred to Sofritio or Recao likewise. Recao is what pretty much gives Caribbean food its distinct flavor; many other islands in the West Indies use it as well.
Recaito condiment is normally used as the starting base of soups, stews, beans and rice dishes. Most Puerto-Ricans first sauté annatto oil or lard (Yes, pig fat!), add the recao-based condiment, and follow with the rest of the dish’s ingredients. Of course, you do not have to use swine fat; you can substitute with a vegetable-based product instead. Best part about it is you can store large batches for later use. Freeze in ice trays for convenient pop-out cubes of this savory cooking goodness!
If you decide to look for it in the store, the crop is typically sold in bunches of 6-10 leaves. Look for them tied together with a rubber band or twist tie. I have yet to this Green Goddess here in Dubai. If you do attempt to square the circle and are lucky enough to find this piece of heaven on earth here in the UAE, PLEASE do let me know! If and when you find this prize, be sure to wrap the bottom end of the leaves in plastic with a little bit of moisture or place in a cup of water to slow its decay.
The one thing I’ve learned over the years of being married to my husband is that people are essentially the same. Even though we are both from the Caribbean, we come from slightly different cultural backgrounds, but yet have so much in common. We call it Recao, his people call it Shadow-Benny. Having both been raised mostly in the U.S. Virgin Islands, we don’t have much of a culture clash despite that my people originate from Puerto Rico and his from Trinidad. Our forefathers brought their cooking secrets, favorite recipes, and condiments across the waters into what created the wonderful cultural fusion of what Caribbean food is.
Now we are in Dubai living the infallible ex-pat life, chock-full-of conveniences, glam, and unimaginable availability of services to make your life comfortable and posh. We’re not exactly a part of the upper crust, just regular working folk like any other back home trying to get ahead. We enjoy and learn so much from this very architecturally bold and cosmopolitan city, described by some as The New New York. Other than some odd idiosyncrasies, it’s a pretty comfy place to live. If we can just find some Recao, then we’d be all set. 🙂
Worse case scenario, I may have to experiment with Cilantro in my makeshift kitchen lab. Perhaps, I can create Recao leaves by spontaneous generation. Otherwise, I will have to hunt down some seeds and grow my own. 😉
You know you’re Puerto Rican if you have Recao growing in your window sills, patios, fire escapes or anywhere it fits! 🙂