Caldo Santo

Loiza, Puerto Rico

Loiza represents power, culture, revolution, history, and future. From bridge to bridge, Loiza is more than I ever imagined it could ever be.

This project of the origins of our food has brought me to Loiza various times and every time is an incredible experience and I learn as I have never learned before.

The origins of Loiza go so far back into our past, that it probably initiates in Western Africa by way of the Spaniards. But even in Borikén, Loiza symbolizes progressive ideas.

Loaíza or Yuisa (the name is not 100% clear) was a female Cacique who governed way back in the Taino era the extended plains that went from, what is now known as El Yunque National Rainforest, all the way to the white sandy beaches in the Atlantic Ocean. That is where the name Loiza comes from, some say. Today, Loiza is administered by yet another fearless woman, Julia María Nazario, the Mayor.

Loiza just celebrated the Caldo Santo Festival. In my life, I have never heard of Caldo Santo until my wife sent me a Facebook invitation to the event. I started looking up what it was. A stew, more like a chowder maybe, where coconut milk is the liquid and in it ‘viandas’ like yautía, batata and pumpkin are cooked in. Different types of fish, mostly fresh, as Loiza is a coastal town, are mixed in, sofrito and the key ingredient achiote, is blended in for the yellowish color.

To understand Puerto Rican food, we must understand the many cultures that have influenced what we are today as a people.

The Tainos were here before the Spanish. After the Spanish settled, they brought the Africans. More and more other cultures and nationalities settled in Borikén.

Caldo Santo is tied to religion, Catholicism to be precise. Loiza people make this delicious dish on Palm Sunday. The day represents Jesus’ triumphal entry to Jerusalem. They use fish, well, that is what Catholic rule dictates, to eat fish during Lent, and well, as a coastal town, there is abundant fish on Loiza’s shores.

Beach in Loiza
Beach in Loiza!

Coconut stock, because then again, Loiza has lands perfect for growing coconut trees and because of their African heritage. Although coconut is said to have its origins in South Asia, it may have come to Puerto Rico by way of the slave trade.

African slaves started arriving in Puerto Rico in the early 1500s. Loiza, granted the status of a town in 1692 by the Spanish Crown, was the place where African slaves were sent to. Most of the Africans that arrived on the Island were from Western Africa, in Loiza, mostly from Nigeria of the Yoruba tribe.

Africans introduced many ingredients to our culture, also the technique of frying foods. But as they were in Puerto Rico, their ingredients, methods, and practices integrated into Taino and European cooking and ingredients.

The Caldo Santo, as I said, has its roots in Catholic traditions, but the mix of ingredients is local, Taino, and mostly African. The fish used is the fish that live and breed on Puerto Rico’s Atlantic shores. The ingredients are mostly African influenced like the root vegetables used in making the dish like batata, pumpkin, malanga, yautía among others.

Chegüi Lacen
Here with Cook Chegüi Lacen – Photo by my beautiful wife Mariela Gonzalez-Tardy

During the Caldo Santo Festival, various versions of it were available to taste, all served with white coconut rice. The first Caldo Santo my wife and I tasted was Chegüi’s. He rapidly was eager to explain the history behind his Caldo Santo. The grandson of the legendary Toño Lacen, Chegüi inherited the heavily guarded secret recipe, and out of all the grandkids, he is the only one that can cook it “almost as Papá”.

He uses batata (sweet potato) and calabaza (pumpkin) as his viandas (starchy vegetables). He also incorporates gandules (pigeon peas) into it.

Chegüi was so excited he walked us to his house, nearby the place of the festival, but outside the event grounds.

My wife and I walked into an area of a few houses together, passed a few chickens, and arrived at what is still is a brick oven built by his grandfather God knows when. He was very proud of the oven and told us that Papá used to cook all kinds of dishes in that oven.

As we were walking back to the festival, he introduced us to uncles, cousins, and other family members that live in close proximity with each other.

Chegüi’s Caldo Santo was thick, savory, and sweet at the same time. The viandas were cooked for so long they could be tasted but not felt in your mouth. The coconut rice was a great compliment to it.

Lina Parrilla, another great Caldo Santo Cook
Lina Parrilla

After walking around and having a drink while we shopped some crafts from local vendors, we headed to Lina’s kiosk to try her Caldo Santo. Lina is a character, with a tropical and very colorful personality. Very proud to be from Loiza and extremely proud of her African heritage. Her Caldo Santo was a bit sweeter than Chegüi’s and she used far more root vegetables that can be not only seen but felt in your mouth also. Lina uses achiote to give it some color and sofrito for added taste.

Lina’s story of the Caldo Santo was more of the religious side of the dish, as it is eaten mostly during Semana Santa (Holy Week).

As Puerto Rican as it gets, but mostly, as Loizan as it gets, Caldo Santo represents the three main cultures and the one main religion in Puerto Puerto Rico, but it represents uniqueness. It represents a side of Puerto Rican history and culture not talked about as much in other parts of the Island. Caldo Santo represents people and their struggles, their triumphs, their dreams, and their past. That’s what I learned from it, that’s what I soaked in, the stories, the smiles, the faces of the people, men and women behind the calderos cooking, sometimes in wood fires, the Caldo Santo.

Me alongside the Mayor Julia Nazario and Caldo Santo Cook, Lina Parrilla.
Me alongside Mayor Julia Nazario and Caldo Santo Cook, Lina Parrilla. The photo was taken by my lovely wife, Mariela Gonzalez-Tardy.

I have learned so much more about Loiza in the last few months than I ever learned in school. I have learned that they are proud of their culture and heritage. They keep their traditions and love to share them. There is a culture within a culture in their municipality limits. They love food, music, and arts. In spite of the sometimes not-so-great reputation of the town, I encountered good people willing to talk and share everything and anything.

They love having visitors from other cities and towns and from other countries, tourists and travelers alike. I walked through tiny streets where kids play outside with the breeze of the Atlantic Ocean hitting their faces.
Aromas of food being cooked invaded my car when I recently crossed the bridge that connects Loiza to Rio Grande. It was intense. Food everywhere, the beach right there, the sound of the waves, the sun just covering it all. Music in the distance, fruit and vegetable stands, and people smiling. I have tasted and felt Loiza. It’s not just a town, Loiza is an experience.

General Recipe and method of preparation

Some of the traditional ingredients in the Caldo Santo
Some of the traditional ingredients in the Caldo Santo – But there are secret ingredients that none of the cooks are willing to reveal.
  • Boil coconut milk, fresh is great, can is O.K.
  • Use achiote to tint the milk
  • Add sofrito to taste
  • Add viandas (root starchy vegetables) – batata, taro, plantain, ñame (Do not add the pumpkin just yet)
  • Once the viandas are soft, add the pumpkin and fish & seafood.
  • You can also use oregano, salt and pepper to taste, even cilantro.
  • Cook until is thick

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