Bay Area author Illyana Maisonet releases new Puerto Rican cookbook, “Diasporican”

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Illyana Maisonet developed the first recipe for her new cookbook, “Diasporican,” about 10 years ago, by shadowing her grandmother as she made arroz con gandules. Often called Puerto Rico’s “national” dish, arroz con gandules is a “soldering of genetic strains from various continents,” Maisonet writes, melding rice and pork from Spain; gandules, or pigeon peas, from Africa; and culantro, a native Puerto Rican herb cultivated by indegenous Taino people. (In “Diasporican,” Maisonet likens culantro to cilantro’s punchy cousin “who comes to visit from the hood.”)

Arroz con gandules is the most important recipe in the book, Maisonet told The Chronicle, where she was once a columnist. 

“Is it a party, is it a gathering, is it a function, is it a funeral, is it anything without arroz con gandules?” she said. It was also the most difficult recipe for her to develop, because when preparing it, her grandmother, Margarita, measured nothing. Maisonet was frequently required to interrupt. “I’m like, ‘okay, stop — let me measure this water!’”

Maisonet was raised in Sacramento and lives in the Bay Area, and many of her recipes are “diasporican” — creations of the diaspora that call for local California substitutions, such as Dungeness crab for Puerto Rican blue land crabs. She anticipates criticism on the subject, but is ready to defend herself. In Puerto Rico, she points out, many cooks substitute inexpensive salmon for native snapper, which is mostly exported to the mainland. 

“It’s the same thing,” she said. “You have shifted to a different type of fish because of economic necessity. You did what you had to do to keep this recipe alive. That is essentially what diasporicans are also doing. We are still keeping this recipe alive, and we are making it happen through geographic and economic necessity.”

Illyana Maisonet, a former San Francisco Chronicle food columnist and author of the new cookbook

Illyana Maisonet, a former San Francisco Chronicle food columnist and author of the new cookbook “Diasporican.”

Gabriela Hasbun

In 2015, Maisonet traveled to Puerto Rico with her brother-in-law, the photographer Dan Liberti, to conduct research. “Diasporican” delves deep into the history of Puerto Rican foodways, with scholarly but spirited digressions on the origins of ingredients like achiote oil and funche, Puerto Rican polenta. That year, she printed copies of a “cook-booklet” to pitch to agents and publishers, and was able to share a copy with her grandmother in the hospital shortly before her death.

Publishers were not initially interested in the project, however. In 2020, Maisonet aired her frustration on Twitter, including with Bon Appetit’s then-editor-in-chief, Adam Rappaport, who had passed on her pitches. In reply, the food writer Tammie Teclemariam tweeted a photo of Rapaport, who is white, dressed as Puerto Rican for Halloween, precipitating his resignation. 

Finally, in 2020, Maisonet landed a deal with Berkeley’s Ten Speed Press. But she isn’t yet ready to declare success. “I’m not gonna feel that way until I’m like Oprah,” she said. 

Just how different is the final, polished product than her original, self-published booklet?  

“Honestly, not much,” she said. The photography is still her brother-in-law’s, though with additional photos of Puerto Rico from the San Juan photographer Erika P. Rodriguez. And there are now blurbs from food world celebrities like José Andres.

There are also many more recipes, though the one for arroz con gandules is still her grandmother’s. It does, however, contain one change that may upset traditional Puerto Rican cooks. Rather than cooking her sofrito — the foundational mix of culantro, cilantro, peppers, garlic, onion and tomatoes that Maisonet calls “the soul of Puerto Rican cooking” —  at the beginning of the recipe, “I put my sofrito in right at the end,” she said. “It gives you that punch of flavor that I’m looking for. I know they’re going to come to me, but whatever, I don’t care.”

Pinchos with guava barbecue sauce, a recipe from Illyana Maisonet's new book,
Pinchos with guava barbecue sauce, a recipe from Illyana Maisonet’s new book, “Diasporican.”Dan Liberti


Pinchos with Guava BBQ Sauce

Makes 6 servings

Mami and I knew we were officially lost as we drove down the Carretera 2, cutting through Manatí , when we saw the Walmart. We turned off the main highway. And turned. And turned. Finally, my mom spotted a trailer on the side of the road. It was hoisted on cinder blocks with a sign out front: PINCHOS DE POLLO 3×5$. Before I knew it, my mom had power-walked toward the trailer. When the vendor saw us, he pulled a couple of marinated chicken skewers out of his Cambro food carrier and set them over the charcoal grill. The chicken danced and sizzled as it turned Hawaiian Tropic gold. He then slathered the skewers in quintessential Puerto Rican guava BBQ sauce, and the sugars immediately started to caramelize and pop, lacquering the chicken. He placed a slice of French bread on top of each skewer and handed them to us. The chicken was thick and luscious, sweet, tangy, and sharp, the guava sauce a perfect counter to the rich dark meat. This is my genuflection to that vendor; my recipe is bright with fresh citrus, spicy with sriracha, and complex with fish sauce. — Illyana Maisonet

Juice of 1 lime
½ cup orange juice
2 tablespoons sazón 
2 tablespoons mixed herb blend (such as Mrs. Dash Table Blend or Trader Joe’s 21 Seasoning
Salute)
Kosher salt
6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs

Guava BBQ Sauce
2 cups ketchup
¼ cup water
¼ cup packed light brown sugar
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 tablespoon chili-garlic sauce
1 tablespoon sriracha
1 tablespoon onion powder
5 garlic cloves, finely minced
1 cup guava paste (from a concentrated block), cut into small pieces

6 slices French bread

In a large bowl, combine the lime juice, orange juice, sazón, and herb blend; season with salt;
and stir to mix into a marinade.

Cut each chicken thigh into eight cubes, adding to the bowl of marinade as you go. When all the
chicken has been cut, massage the marinade into the chicken. Let marinate at cool room
temperature for 1 hour or in the fridge for up to overnight.

Preheat a grill to medium-hot. Soak six wooden skewers in water for 30 minutes.

To make the sauce: In a medium saucepan over low heat, combine the ketchup, water, brown
sugar, vinegar, lemon juice, soy sauce, fish sauce, chili-garlic sauce, sriracha, onion powder,
garlic and guava paste and bring to a simmer. Let simmer for 3 to 5 minutes.

Thread eight chicken cubes onto each skewer. Grill the chicken for 15 minutes, then lightly
bathe the skewers in BBQ sauce and cook for 5 minutes more. Slather with another coat of sauce and cook for an additional 5 minutes. The sauce should be slightly charred.

Cap each skewer with a slice of French bread and serve immediately.

Reprinted with permission from Diasporican: A Puerto Rican Cookbook by Illyanna Maisonet copyright © 2022. Puerto Rico location photographs by Erika P. Rodriguez. California location and food photographs copyright © 2022 by Dan Liberti. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

Caleb Pershan is the San Francisco Chronicle’s assistant Food + Wine editor. Email: caleb.pershan@sfchronicle.com

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