Illyanna Maisonet's cookbook Diasporican: A Puerto Rican Cookbook doesn't fit neatly into one, set box.
Then again, neither does actually being a Diasporican — a member of the more than 5 million-strong tribe of "Ni De Aquí, Ni De Allá," as Maisonet writes.
Her book is a memoir, cookbook and retelling of Puerto Rican history and it's a testament to her life's work of documenting and preserving food throughout the Puerto Rican diaspora.
Maisonet, a longtime food writer and the nation's first Puerto Rican food columnist, is herself Diasporican. She's the only child of her mother, Carmen (who was just 3 years old when her own parents arrived in California).
Maisonet, her mother and her grandmother (Margarita) all became cooks "out of economic necessity," the book details.
"We did not have the privilege of cooking for pleasure or joy. Our story is one of generational poverty and trauma with glimpses of pride and laughter, all of which have been the catalysts of ample good food in my life," Maisonet explains in Diasporican. She grew up in Sacramento, Calif., where the area's diversity influenced Masionet's "Cali-Rican" style of cooking.
Much of the writing in Diasporican pulls from her prior work in her San Francisco Chronicle column, Cocina Boricua. The column combined her matter-of-fact retelling of her personal story with recipes and other features.
That same writing, honest and weaved with ribbons of historical context, also appears in Diasporican. Maisonet includes 90 recipes; some are from her family, others are Puerto Rican classics, and still more are her own creations that rely on traditional flavors from the island.
Most importantly, though, Maisonet details how Puerto Rican cuisine came to be. She includes her deep research to give readers a broader understanding of where the island's flavors (an amalgamation of Taino, Spanish, African, and mainland U.S.) come from and how its food, culture, and people were shaped by immigration, conflict, and colonization.
The diversity of Puerto Rican culture, cuisine
With Diasporican, Maisonet celebrates the diversity that exists within the Puerto Rican community — itself tough to categorize.
"There are white Puerto Ricans getting radical and surfing in Rincón with sun-bleached blond hair, and Black Puerto Ricans with afros creating arts and crafts in Loíza. And everything in between. And our food reflects that diversity," Maisonet writes in her book.
And this struggle often means no one knows anything about Puerto Rican food. Not even Puerto Ricans, she notes in the book.
Getting Diasporican published was a years-long process, owing in part to the lack of diversity within publishing and the lack of understanding of Puerto Rican food.
"Being a writer doesn't make you a lot of money and it takes a very long time to make a name for yourself. I was fortunate enough that my subject is pretty niche and not many (or possibly any) writers were consistently writing about Puerto Rican food," Maisonet told NPR over email. "Which is why it was a hard sale to publishers, they publish what they understand."
She notes there are maybe around 10 published Puerto Rican cookbooks out there.
Developing a recipe itself is a sometimes difficult process.
"I feel like the part where you envision how the recipe comes together is easy for an experienced cook; combining flavors, how things should be cooked and for how long. Then you need to actually put it all together in real time and see if the flavors are what you want. Or, if the cooking vessel you chose nailed the texture you want. Sometimes it gets done in one take. Sometimes, like with the Mallorcas, it can take years," she said.
Mallorcas are a sweet, spiral bun, the recipe for which was first documented in 18th century Spain, Maisonet writes in her book. The actual origin of the pastry is likely older.
"When it comes to the stories that sometimes accompany the recipes, those can take weeks to months. Often sieving through Spanish documents that need to be translated. It took six years for this book to see the light of day and I worked on recipes for it up until the deadline to hand it over to the editors," she said of the process.
Maisonet says she felt no pressure to make her writing and recipes palatable for publishers.
"The only pressure I felt was to represent my grandma's recipes accurately. The beauty of being a Diasporican is you're already living outside of a defined box," she wrote to NPR. "The Puerto Ricans de la isla already aren't expecting much from you. And the publishers didn't know what Puerto Rican food was. You're basically free to do whatever. It all depends on what type of pressure you put on yourself."
The effort to continue her work can get discouraging, however.
"Everyone around me was telling me to quit, including people who are very close to me. They told me to get a 'real' job so I could make a 'real' wage. And they made sure to tell me this every month, year after year. They honestly didn't tell me I made the right decision until I was on Good Morning America," she said. "When I fail, they'll go back to telling me to get a 'real' job and pretend this success ever happened. That's what discourages me. I believe in myself. But, I also believe when others are telling me I'll fail. I already know it's only a matter of time. Everything comes to an end."
Illyanna Maisonet's Califas Shrimp
Makes 4 servings
The first time I made this recipe was for a cooking demonstration at the San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. I used shrimp from one of the regular vendors, H&H Fresh Fish. I immediately became obsessed with their product—they have some of the most beautiful seafood I've encountered. Since 2003, Hans Haverman and Heidi Rhodes have been the resident seafood buyers at Santa Cruz Harbor, where H&H is based. They run a small and efficient operation that provides Bay Area residents with sustainable, regional seafood. Puerto Rico has always been an island where the regional cooking depends entirely on available local resources. Colonization didn't change that.
Then it was about local resources and the types of crops that haciendas grew, prices of imported foodstuffs and international political climate. This is why Califas Shrimp is and is not a traditional Puerto Rican dish. It's one that eats like shrimp and grits, but combining seafood and funche has been a thing since enslaved Africans were forced to work in the sugarcane fields.
Historically, bacalao was simmered with onions and tomatoes and served over funche. This cornmeal mush was cheaper than rice, which was a monetarily valuable commodity, and the mush was already something that enslaved people were used to eating.
Slavers could appear to be doing a favor for enslaved people by forcing them to eat something relatively familiar, when really it was just a cost-saving move to provide a nutrient-rich dish that could sustain a hard-working person for very little money.
1/4 cup Mexican chorizo
1/2 cup orange juice
2 tablespoons lemon juice, plus 1/2 lemon
1 tablespoon sazón
1/2 teaspoon sambal (such as sambal oelek)
1/4 cup sofrito
1 cup water
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons salted butter
1 pound 26/30-count shrimp, peeled and deveined
Funche for serving, (see below)
Place a skillet over medium-high heat. Add the chorizo and sauté for about 4 minutes, or until the meat begins to brown and renders some fat. Stir in the orange juice, lemon juice, sazón, sambal, sofrito, and water to loosen the mixture. Season with salt and pepper. Scrape the chorizo and sauce into a bowl and set aside.
In the same pan, combine the butter and shrimp, season with salt and pepper, and cook for 1 minute.
Using tongs, flip the shrimp and cook for 1 minute more; the shrimp should be slightly pink. Add the chorizo mixture and sauce and finish with a squeeze of lemon juice.
Spoon the funche into serving bowls, top with the shrimp-chorizo mixture, and serve immediately.
Makes 4 to 6 servings
2 cups water
1 cup ground polenta
1 (13.5-ounce) can coconut milk
2 tablespoons salted butter
In a large saucepan over medium-high heat, bring 11/2 cups of the water to a boil.
Whisk in the polenta. When the mixture begins to thicken slightly, turn the heat to low and add half of the coconut milk. (You do not want the coconut milk to boil because it may separate.) Cover and cook for about 40 minutes, stirring every few minutes to prevent the polenta from sticking to the pan. Remove from the heat and whisk in the remaining coconut milk, then season with salt. If the polenta is still really thick, stir in the remaining 1/2 cup water. Stir in the butter and serve immediately.
Reprinted with permission from Diasporican: A Puerto Rican Cookbook by Illyanna Maisonet copyright © 2022.
Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House.