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Vanessa del Valle

 

Vanessa del Valle is an avid cook currently living and learning about her Puerto Rican heritage in Nevada City, California.

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Health And The Puerto Rican Diet

April 2010 - We have all, at one time or another, been forced to question our health. Whether it was a horrified gasp as we stepped onto a bathroom scale or interest in a new gym membership, no one is free from self-scrutiny. At five foot three, one hundred and seventeen pounds, I struggle with self-scrutiny constantly. While I am aware that by my society’s standards I am “thin” and look “healthy” I know that there are huge changes I could make to my daily routine that would drastically improve my overall health and well-being.

As we all know, when we talk about health in America one’s diet is almost everything.

Unfortunately, according to the National Council of La Raza, Puerto Ricans are 1.8 times more likely than whites to develop diabetes, and it is estimated that twenty-five to thirty percent of Hispanics over fifty are diabetic. This is extremely unnerving as diabetes is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S. Heart disease is the first. We are all aware of the rampant obesity crisis. But for Puerto Ricans, or anyone with a rich traditional cuisine, facing our undeniable health crisis is at best challenging, at worst painful and confusing. The same question keeps running through my mind: how does one keep one’s beloved heritage alive while maintaining optimum health? Can one truly be Puerto Rican and healthy?

At first glance, most people would resolutely say no. Our most beloved meals are heavy on the meat with heavier sides of starch. We can deep fry anything like nobody’s business. Tostones are considered vegetables. White refined rice is rampant. Tosino makes an appearance at nearly every meal, in mofongo, cooked with the arroz and in pasteles. Iceberg lettuce with a wedge of pink, unripe tomato is considered a salad, and usually goes untouched in most Puerto Rican eateries. On my last vacation to Puerto Rico, my husband and I ate a salad at every restaurant that offered a good, green salad. We ate a total of two, both from the same restaurant (and it wasn’t for lack of searching). It doesn’t look good for us Puerto Ricans.

This is painful for me to write about. It’s painful for most of us proud Puerto Rican cooks to think about. Facing the challenges our cuisine presents us with is to hold up the proverbial (and sometimes real physical) mirror and examine our own, comfortable ways of life. That doesn’t always feel good. I was compelled to keep typing this, though, even though I find myself cringing because the world has, for the first time in history, given birth to a generation of children whose life expectancy is shorter than that of their parents. Painful as altering a few recipes is, isn’t it more painful to be ill? I want to pass on positive traditions to my children, not habits and traditions that will make them sick. In the end, we need a generation to pass this wonderful culture on to, and although our abuelitas may not have ever cooked rice without their beloved tosino, Abuelita faced a different world with different challenges. At first, I felt like a traitor when I altered things. The truth is, my beloved Abuelita died of kidney failure…I have convinced myself she is looking down on me saying, “I understand!

To alter tradition is sometimes really frightening. It means you are actively altering your identity. Will you continue to be accepted? Will you still be able to hold on to your roots? The answer to those and the millions of other questions we ask before we dive in to something new is a resounding YES. I like to think that with these horrible health statistics, my fellow Puerto Ricans will begin new traditions, find new positive ways to express ourselves. Please don’t misunderstand me—our traditional foods aren’t bad. We should never demonize them. They are fantastic pieces of our wonderful culture and we need to keep them alive. I would say, though, that the every day foods we eat should be examined because those are the ones that will catch up with us. We don’t need to forget our roots, we don’t even need to stop cooking traditionally. I think it’s important, though, for us to create healthier options that can carry our culture into the future, in addition to what we do already. I refuse to believe that being Puerto Rican (or any nationality, for that matter) is inherently unhealthy. So I present to you some healthy ideas that you might want to try incorporating into your daily cooking:

~Skip the tocino, skip the lard. I’ve cooked many a pot of rice without it, and fried many a tostone without it. As scary as it might sound, I promise you it isn’t. An extra pinch of salt will give you more flavor without the calories and cholesterol.
~Make arroz con gandules with brown rice! My mother started doing this years ago, and while the consistency is different (usually more moist) it is a delicious and very nutritious alternative. If you’d like to try this, buy some long grain brown rice and experiment. Please note that brown rice needs double its volume of water (1 cup rice, 2 cups water) too cook properly, and that it takes far longer to cook than white. A pot for me takes about 35 minutes. It’s worth the wait. You might find you like it even better.

~Puerto Rican-ize any vegetable that’s fresh or grows in your area. I sprinkle adobo on everything- corn, cooked spinach, asparagus, sliced tomatoes, you name it. Garlic and oregano make everything taste good, and adding real vegetables to your Puerto Rican meals (instead of or in addition to the starchy ones we usually eat) is so important. They provide fiber, vitamins and they’re colorful and tasty.

~Alter your meats. If you make a pork roast once a week, consider dressing up a few chickens in a garlicky marinate and roasting them instead. You don’t have to give pork up for good, but even doing something different every other week, or once a month will make a difference. You’ll be saving yourself from quite a lot of fat, and indulging in other Puerto Rican specialties (ah, what would Abuelita say if we never made roast chicken?)

~Make salad. A lot of Puerto Ricans I know think they don’t like salad. They are wrong. No one in the world can resist this salad, which my family makes every time we have Puerto Rican food: Take five ripe tomatoes and slice into bite-sized chunks. Do the same with two to three avocados. Slice white or red onion into thin rings. Mix gently in a bowl with olive oil and plenty of lemon juice, salt and pepper. You’ll never turn your nose up at veggies again. This salad is pure heaven next to any Puerto Rican dish.

~Bake instead of fry. The best tostones that have ever been made in my family came right from an oven, not a bubbling stove top. Believe me, it surprised us too! A really hot oven can do the trick for chicken too. I know it seems like nothing could taste better than things that have been fried in oil, but baking really give things a nice crunch and doesn’t leave you feeling sluggish and greasy.

Hope these suggestions can help you on your journey to better health. They are small, but important changes come from small actions. I love my culture. I love it so much, I want to be here for the next seventy, eighty, one hundred years to celebrate it. I hope you’ll be by my side, so we can celebrate it together.

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of which were Puerto Ricans,
and in consideration of all o ur friends and readers in New York.