Pollo guisado was one of my favorite meals growing up in Puerto Rico. I loved how the braised tender meat slid off the bone of the chicken (usually thigh, although I secretly preferred white meat, which is pretty much a sin on the island). The jugoso sauce the pollo simmers in was a delicacy we savored, spooning it generously over the mandatory side of freshly steamed white rice. Add sweet plantain maduros, a slice of avocado sprinkled with salt and olive oil— and you are living la vida deliciosa, Boricua-style.
So you can imagine I was pretty curious when I first learned this stewed chicken staple is cooked slightly differently in the other Latino nation that loves this dish as much as we Puerto Ricans. I’m talking the country a couple hundred miles to the west. That’s right, our Caribbean neighbor al lado: Dominican Republic.
Belqui Millili-Ortiz of the popular cooking blog Belqui’s Twist is one of Familia Kitchen’s favorite Dominican homecooks, so who better to ask? She is a humble person, usually. But not when it comes to this recipe. “My pollo guisado honestly is one of the most amazing-tasting chicken dishes I have ever had in my life,” Belqui tells me. “This is the way that I grew up cooking pollo guisado, and it’s the recipe I cook for all my non-Dominican friends because I know they will be super-impressed. So much so, that it is the top-requested dish when they come to visit. So that goes to tell you something!”
Belqui grew up in Washington Heights, a historically Dominican neighborhood in New York City (it’s where Lin-Manuel Miranda set his beautiful musical In the Heights). Her parents both worked long hours at factory jobs, so she took on cooking dinner for the family from a young age. Pollo guisado is one of her mom’s family recipes she made sure to get down pretty early on, she remembers. It was one of her favorites.
Here’s how the Dominican version of pollo guisado differs from the Puerto Rican classic I grew up loving. For one, the stew calls for 1 tsp of soy sauce, an ingredient you never see in traditional Puerto Rican recipes. It uses tomato paste, not that little can of tomato sauce with “Spanish”-style spices we mix into everything. It does not use sofrito. And, it adds 1 Tbsp of white sugar.
“Yes! Sugar helps give that golden color to the chicken because when you put sugar in hot oil, it caramelizes. The color it gives the chicken is amazing,” says Belqui.
“I also make a pan-seared version of this recipe with all white meat,” she adds. ”It is how I cook this dish most of the time, because I have a ton of white-meat lovers at my house. But I always prefer this version combining dark and white, using the whole chicken. I love how the dark meat absorbs so much flavor from the adobo and other spices. I also love having the choice of using drumsticks, wings and/or thighs, because I love me a good thigh!”
When I make Belqui’s family-famous pollo guisado, I will start with this whole-chicken recipe. But I’m betting right now I’ll probably end up (just like the rest of her family) favoring the white-meat version. Sacrilege, I know. Then again, this version looks exceptionally rico. Using soy sauce likely sweetens and breaks down the thighs and drumsticks to savory deliciousness. Maybe I’ll reconsider and stay on the dark side.