New cookbook champions sofrito and Puerto Rican food off the island

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Starting with sofrito as a shortcut, this laab recipe was conceptualized by Maisonet from her time living with a Lao family. Photo by Dan Liberti.

Even though 5.5 million people living in the US count Puerto Rico as their ancestral home, the island’s cuisine is rarely seen in cookbooks or on food television. Food columnist Illyanna Maisonet aims to change that with “Diasporican: A Puerto Rican Cookbook.”

While the Taino — the Indigineous people of the Caribbean — cultivated crops like corn, it was colonialism that shaped the cuisine. With the arrival of the Spanish, French, Dutch, and enslaved Africans, ingredients like pork and rice were introduced. Maisonet explains that today, more than 80% of food is imported to Puerto Rico, which means it’s expensive, and businesses such as Walmart and Costco have a strong foothold on the island and influence how Puerto Ricans shop.

“Puerto Rican food is not spicy, even though we have pique, a hot pepper, vinegar-based hot sauce traditionally made with the skins of pineapple,” Maisonet says. “Puerto Rican food is about building layers.”

Puerto Rican Laab
Makes 2 or 3 servings

For as much as I have yelled at people on social media about not using the terms homage or inspired by, you’d think that I would have never committed this crime. And yet, here we are. It’s a long story, but you already know it if you’ve been following my journey; I lived with a Laotian family in my teens. I don’t want to get into details because they’re essentially meaningless regarding this bastardization of laap. This recipe is from my memory of how my Lao family made the dish and the flavors that satisfy my own cravings. I use padaek (a much thicker, more seasoned, and pungent sibling of fish sauce) because it’s a Laotian ingredient and the Saigon (also known as Super) brand because they’re what I saw being used when laab was made at home. I don’t know enough about Laotian food to have other preferences when it comes to ingredients. I just stick to what I saw when I lived with my Lao family, the Khamsalys.


  • 2 tablespoons canola oil
  • 1 pound ground pork
  • 1 large shallot, coarsely sliced
  • 5 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
  • 2 Thai chiles, coarsely chopped
  • 1 cup fresh green beans
  • 2 tablespoons toasted rice powder
  • 1/4 cup sofrito (see page 23)
  • 1/3 cup fish sauce (preferably
  • Squid brand)
  • 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 3 tablespoons padaek (preferably
  • Saigon/Super brand)
  • 2 limes; 1 halved, 1 cut into wedges
  • 1 bunch cilantro, coarsely chopped
  • 1 bunch mint, coarsely chopped
  • 1 bunch basil, coarsely chopped
  • 1 head iceberg, bibb, or romaine
  • lettuce, leaves separated
  • 1 bunch radishes, thinly sliced
  • 1 cucumber, thinly sliced


  1. Add the canola oil to a large skillet and place over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the pork and sauté for 2 to 3 minutes, add the shallot and sauté for 1 minute, then add the garlic and chiles and sauté for 2 minutes more. Stir in the green beans and sauté for 1 minute, then stir in the toasted rice powder and sofrito and cook for 1 minute. Stir in the fish sauce and cook for 1 minute, then stir in the sugar and cook for 1 minute more. Add the padaek, stir to incorporate, and cook for 1 minute.

  2. Squeeze the juice of the lime halves over the mixture. Stir in half of the cilantro, mint, and basil, reserving the remainder of each for serving. Transfer the pork mixture into a serving bowl.
  3. Place the lettuce leaves, remaining herbs, lime wedges, radishes, and cucumber on a serving plate. Spoon the pork mixture into a lettuce leaf and top with some herbs, cucumber, radishes, and a squeeze of lime. Fold closed and eat.

Reprinted with permission from “Diasporican: A Puerto Rican Cookbook” by Illyanna Maisonet copyright ©2022. 

Illyanna Maisonet explains that the new generation of Puerto Ricans aren’t experiencing the agrarian society of the island. “Literally in the middle of the jungle, there will be a shopping plaza built with a Walmart and a ton of fast food places,” she says. Photo by Gabriela Hasbun.

On the cover of her first cookbook “Diasporican,” food writer Illyanna Maisonet features her mother’s hands holding a tettering stack of coconut arepas stuffed with octopus and dripping with sauce. Photo courtesy of Ten Speed Press.