Food is not the star of the movie West Side Story, but when we saw the new Spielberg take on the classic musical—which we loved!—we left hungry. The three Puerto Rican leading ladies—Maria, Anita and Valentina, played by la única Rita Moreno—sing, dance, love and live large, their vidas rooted in the streets of their tiny corner of New York City, which soon will be razed. But in Anita’s kitchen and Rita’s pharmacy soda shop—we see them strong, vibrant and in command. Homey and inviting, their sets are bursting with bright colors and flavors we can practically taste.
Because if you’re Puerto Rican, you know: wherever Puertorriqueños gather, back on the island or here in the States, there’s going to be way too much food and drink. That’s the Boricua way. And it is going to be dazzling with sabor.
Which got us to thinking here at Familia Kitchen. What Puerto Rican recipes would Maria, Anita and Rita whip up in their cocinas to eat with their families and neighbors?
What is the food of West Side Story?
We’re betting on these 5 beloved, traditional Boricua dishes—delicioso, authentic and enduringly popular: today and in the mid-1950s, when the award-winning musical is set. We hope they inspire your cooking and eating if you’re on your way to watch West Side Story or, like us, waiting to hear how many Academy Award nominations the movie gets! (We are crossing our fingers all three West Side Story women get a nod: the actors who play Maria and Anita—Rachel Zegler and Ariana DeBose—and Valentina’s Rita!)
Arroz con Pollo—Puerto Rico’s National Dish
Arroz con pollo is comfort food at its most criollo, on and off the island. If you want to eat Puerto Rican, this is the main dish you gotta make. It’s a one-pot wonder that comes together quickly and can sit on your stovetop, covered, until you’re ready to serve it. Chicken thighs are marinated in garlic and olive oil and and then cooked in an aromatic sofrito—the Puerto Rican cooking base that is used in almost every traditional dish. Green and red peppers, culantro and/or cilantro, and manzanilla olives are chopped and added, along with rice. The dish simmers, covered, for about 20 minutes. Don’t lift the lid when it’s done—let the arroz con pollo sit in its own steam for at 15 minutes más, at least, so it builds pegao—that crackly, crispy, caramelized layer of almost-burnt rice at the bottom of the pot that Boricuas prize.
And Tostones, of Course!
Tostones are twice-fried plantains, and the perfecto salty side with your arroz con pollo. Puerto Ricans proudly speak of being stained by la mancha del plátano: the mark of the plantain. That’s how identified Boricuas are with this fruit that’s eaten daily in so many households. Tostones are crispy, lick-your-fingers-worthy, and addictive. We think Anita would fry up a big batch on the regular in that colorful kitchen of hers.
It’s Not a Party Without Puerto Rican Empanadas
When we were growing up in Puerto Rico, our favorite school-lunch snack was empanadas de carne, Boricua meat pies filled with garlicky ground beef sauted in sofrito (see?) and sliced manzanilla olives. Roll out flour dough into discs, stuff them with beef picadillo, fry or bake them, and you are good to go—ready to dance in the streets like Anita.
Required: A Hearty Serving of Rice and Beans
Rice and beans—arroz con habichuelas—is a staple in the Puerto Rican diet. The beans, usually pink or red, are stewed with sofrito, calabaza or Caribbean pumpkin, and spices. When ready to eat, scoop a generous ladle or two over freshly made white rice—medium grain, por favor. This is a filling meal we think Anita would make for her boyfriend Bernardo and his sister Maria almost every night, especially when money was tight.
Our West Side Story Feast Ends—as It Must—With Flan
A classic custard made with eggs and cans of condensed and evaporated milk, flan is a favorite dessert that comes together fast. It is a sweet, light postre to cap off a hearty Puerto Rican comida. To make yours extra authentic, add a shot of island rum or an orange liqueur like Curaçao, like my mom always does in her family-famous flan. Mom calls it her secret ingredient, and she must be doing something right because everyone asks her for the recipe. We think flan is what Rita Moreno’s character Valentina in West Side Story would make at least once a week for her family—saving a slice for Tony, when he comes to work in her shop the next day. If only he went to work instead of the fight.