Living in Alaska has its drawbacks, and for Nina Vizcarrondo 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.
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.”
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.
“Food is how you remember things,” Nina says. “That nostalgia- oh I ate that and it smelled like this. Those memories come along with the smell and the taste. How can I teach my son about my culture if not through food?”