The pre-Colombian Tainos had no significant form of domestic or wild livestock, other than some species of aquatic birds or parrots, to complement their diet of tubers and seafood. The arrival of Columbus, and later the Spanish colonists, changed life in Puerto Rico through the introduction of every imaginable European wild and domesticated fowl. Quails, pheasants, ducks, geese, turkeys, chickens, pigeons, guinea hens, soon became commonplace on The Island.
As happens in nature, adaptation to the environment dictates the ratio of survival for species. On The Island, none of the wildlife species survived, but the domestic variety adapted well, and some chickens and cocks eventually evolved into regional breeds identified as del Pais (“from The Island”). These are still bred today in small numbers on farms and in backyards by sentimental individuals.
I call the following recipe Taino Pollo Picante, as a personal tribute to the Taino Indians, who were not able to overcome the hostilities of a newly-imposed environment. and who ultimately chose not to adapt.
1 4-pound chicken
8 garlic cloves, peeled
1 teaspoon rock salt
1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
4 small hot chili peppers
1 teaspoon minced fresh gingerroot
1/4 teaspoon saffron threads
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin seeds
1/2 cup olive oil
2 teaspoons paprika
1/3 cup Spanish brandy
3 chopped green onions
2 medium tomatoes, chopped
1/3 cup chicken stock
1/2 cup burgundy
1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro
Garnish: lemon wedges
Wash the chicken parts, pat dry and remove the skin. Place in a deep square pan and set aside. In the belly of a mortar, combine garlic, salt, oregano, and black peppercorns. Press down with the pestle until garlic is crushed and peppercorns are cracked, then add the chili peppers, minced ginger, and saffron threads. Slowly pound the mixture until achieving a paste and incorporate the oil slowly. At the same time, stir with a spoon to break down the paste.
Spread the mixture evenly over the chicken parts, lifting the chicken pieces to ensure distribution of the marinade to the bottom of the chicken parts. Sprinkle all parts with paprika. Cover and refrigerate overnight. If no mortar and pestle is available, execute the steps in a blender set on low speed until all the ingredients are coarsely chopped, then remove the canister, add the oil and shake or stir to break down the paste and blend the ingredients.
In a preheated deep skillet, over low-to-medium heat, arrange marinated chicken pieces side by side and brown the chicken on all sides. Spread the chopped onions, chopped tomatoes, and drizzle the burgundy over the chicken parts.
Cover and finish cooking on low heat for approximately 35 minutes. Remove from heat and sprinkle chopped cilantro on the chick prior to serving. You may serve directly from the skillet.
Serving Suggestions: Serve with White Rice and Black Beans, Puerto Rican style. On the side, an Avocado Salad would be great, as would any tender root vegetable.