Tucked between Avenue C and Clinton Street in the Lower East Side of Manhattan is Adela Fargas’ tribute to her Afrodecendientes roots.
Casa Adela Café Restaurant, 66 Avenue C, creates traditional foods with traditional kitchen tools. Casa Adela, an abuelita (grandmother) style Puerto Rican eatery opened in the early ’70s and is still standing.
On a recent trip to my old neighborhood, the beautiful storefront window’s display of pilones y maseta, pronounced pea-lone e mass-et-ah, (wooden mortar and pestles/crushers) immediately caught my attention; beckoning me to come closer, to take-a-peek. But it was the aroma escaping from the doors of Casa Adela, that drew me in.
“So, what’s a pilon y maseta” you ask? Good question. It is an African-born cooking tool that captures Puerto Rican traditional culinary. It is a must-have home kitchen tool and comes in many sizes.
The massive wooden ones on display were used to mash foods down to a pulp or fine powder, or to process dried coffee beans for distribution. The smaller household version continues to dominate the Puerto Rican kitchen and is a treasure passed on from generation to generation. I have my mother’s; a point of contention when she passed away and I cleverly swiped it from my siblings.
Uses for this kitchen tool includes mashing garlic cloves and other herbs to create a paste called sofrito. This sought-after seasoning is used on meats, vegetables, fish; and to calderos (pots) de arroz y gandules (of rice and chickpeas.) More important, the pilon y maseta is the key tool used to make the traditional Puerto Rican dish, mofongo.
The delicacy first introduced by the Afro Taino Indian an brought to the island by African slaves still holds up as an original favorite. Mofongo is made from fried green bananas, actually from the cousin of bananas the green platano (plantains).
Platanos are first cut and fried until golden brown. Then they are mashed in a pilon y maseta along with the sofrito (special seasonings) and formed into a ball. Looking more like a work of art, it is usually served with bits of crispy fried meat, or seafood, adorning the ball. A side dish of broth keeps the plantano ball soft and pliable.
The rhythm and sounds of la maseta slamming into el pilon coming from the kitchen overshadowed the blaring sounds of a Spanish talk show flashing on the big screen television that was hoisted high up towards the ceiling, saving every square inch of the covenant space at 66 Ave. C. in NYC.
The menu, riddled with Puerto Rican delights, posed difficult choices for me. What to get? What to get?
“Arroz con habichelas” (rice and beans) I screamed inside my head. Bisteque ensebollado (steak sautéed in onions) camarons al ajo (shrimp in garlic sauce) oh my. Decisions, decisions.
The pilon y masta display at the storefront window that would rival any pilon y maseta museum (if there is such a thing) drew me in, so mofongo it is. A very dicey choice since mofongo can oftentimes turn out to be a hard ball of smooched starchy plantanos served with way burnt, pieces of carnitas (meat) surrounding the prize. A side dish of a clear broth is served with it, usually pretty salty. Oftentimes, it’s just a ball of fried, smooched starchy platanos soaked in broth. Still, it calls me.
Maybe it’s because of the work involved in making mofongo. It’s usually a family affair. With specific tasks given to each one who wants a slice of the mofongo pie (so to speak). The sounds of the pounding of fried platanoes being crushed in the pilon y maseta, more than my pallet, led me to this difficult decision among the treasures listed in the menu.
Turned out to be an excellent choice. This was a mofongo to rival all mofongo’s out there in mofongo world. Surprise. The ball was a golden sphere of plantanos topped with a small piece of “cuero” crispy crunchy skin like crispy bacon. No crunchy burnt pieces of pork on this work of art. Every bite soft, fresh, filled with garlic and pulled port. The taste of garlic pungent, the way I like it.
This broth was sancacho (a thick savory sauce, with almost soup-like consistency) adding an incredible punch to the already spectacular explosion of heavenly flavors.
“Somos Puertoriquenos los hacemos con sason – sabor (we are Puerto Rican we make it with seasoning with flavor),” said Luis Rivera, son of Adela, and the new captain at the helm of this ancestral restaurant.
When in the Big Apple visit the Puerto Rican Afro-Latino cuisine. More than just good eats, it’s a legacy of ancestral proportions.