Arroz con gandules is a rice dish served throughout the holidays in Puerto Rico. (Photo KCAW/Katherine Rose)

Christmas lasts longer in Sitka than in many other places. Russian Christmas — which comes almost two weeks later — is partially responsible, but as Sitka becomes more diverse, so are its holiday traditions. For the first episode in our new series on Sitka’s food culture- Sitka Platters –  KCAW’s Katherine Rose spends some time with Nina Vizcarrondo as she cooks a traditional Puerto Rican dish for Three Kings Day.

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If it’s the Christmas season, you’ll likely find Nina Vizcarrondo cooking something special. But a detailed recipe? That might be harder.

Living in Alaska has its drawbacks, and for Nina specifically, access to food is a big one. But she and others have found a work-around. Like this “sofrito.” It’s a key ingredient in many Puerto Rican dishes, but you can’t get it in Sitka. So her mom mails it to her frozen.

“It’s a mix of recao,  which is kind of like cilantro. It has onions, cilantro, peppers. It’s supposed to give flavor to your food. Since we don’t have recao here, she mails it to me. That will go into our beans, into arroz con gandules.

That’s what Nina is cooking today- arroz con gandules is a bright orange rice dish served throughout the holidays in Puerto Rico. The Christmas season lasts a little longer there, they celebrate through January 6, or Three Kings Day, when this dish is traditionally served.

She starts by sauteing garlic, and throws an icy cube of sofrito in the pan, followed by rice, pigeon peas, a little water and lots of seasoning. “Puerto Rican cuisine is not really spicy, but I like spicy,” Nina says. Then she adds some chili powder.

Next, a packet of Sazon, another ingredient she can’t get in Sitka. This gives the rice its bright orange hue.

“Magic in foil. See how it changed?” Nina says.

As she’s stirring, Nina’s phone rings. It’s her mom, the person who makes it possible for Nina to cook with these ingredients.  “Sorry, let me tell my mom I’m busy because she will get mad. Hello, Mommy?”

“She’s one to call,” Nina says. “Every time I’m making something. What did you make to eat today? Did you put saison and alo on it? Oh you didn’t use Goya tomato sauce? I’m like, no, mom. I’m in Alaska, we don’t have that here. Well then that wasn’t the dish. So quick to judge,” Nina laughs. “But we’ve gotta make with what we have here.”


The rice has to cook for about 20 minutes, so Nina and I have some time to talk. She says globalization of food has its pros and cons.

“This is a pro,” she says. “You can maintain your culture identity no matter how isolated you are.”

She’s been thinking a lot about her home country this time of year as she cooks.

“I remember the three kings would be with the mayor in a pickup truck throwing gifts and candy. Those were good times but with the situation the island was in, I get so sad to think about how those kids might not be experiencing that this year,” she says. After Hurricane Maria, Nina went back to Puerto Rico to bring supplies and see her family. Her employer, Allen Marine, bought the ticket.

After about 20 minutes you can smell the seasoned rice from across the room. It’s savory, flavorful but not too spicy, and the tender pigeon peas offer a nice contrast to the buttery rice.

“It’s needed because, for me, growing up, Christmas and Puerto Rico is like none-other,” Nina says. “Food is how you remember things. That nostalgia- oh I ate that and it smelled like this. Those memories come along with the smell and the taste.”

Nina and her family will be celebrating Three Kings this January 6th and teaching her son about Puerto Rican traditions…through one medium in particular.

“How can I teach my son about my culture if not through food?”