To my knowledge, no one in my family has ever written—or likely ever read—a recipe for habichuelas guisadas, the Puerto Rican oxblood-colored kidney beans stewed in a tomato sauce so flavorful they belie a relatively short cooking time. All of us just know how to make it.
I have no recollection of learning how to prepare and portion the ingredients for the dish, though I do recall we always used canned beans. When I make it at home in Istanbul, where I moved five years ago, I start by making sofrito.
Sofrito, an amalgam of aromatics and herbs that Spanish colonizers brought to the Caribbean, is what makes all Puerto Rican guisados shine. It was the foundation for all my mother’s soups and my grandmother’s corned beef asopao and arroz con pollo. It is also the only thing I remember making all together with my mother, aunt, and grandmother, all seated around my aunt’s spacious table in Levittown, New York, when I was in my late 20s.
The exact formulation is not without contention, and our individual concoctions, just like our habichuelas guisadas, have been shaped by our varied locations. Like Abuelita herself, my grandmother’s sofrito comes from the island and uses heaps of onions, garlic, cilantro, culantro, and ajicitos dulces, habañero’s unspicy doppelganger. Mami omits the ajicitos dulces, because they were never widely available where we lived in the Chicago suburbs. She likes her sofrito “dirty,” with a splash of manzanilla olive juice and a jalapeño or two for a kick. When I ask Mami what Tio, her brother, who lives near her in central Florida puts in his, she shakes her head disdainfully and relays a painful family secret: “He buys it.”
Unlike many Puerto Ricans, I don’t keep a stash of the eye-watering mixture on hand. In my Turkish-sized refrigerator, which is about two-thirds the size of a typical American one, its pungency would cast a garlic glow over anything in proximity.
I make my sofrito by hand because I do not own a food processor. I figure I’m due for a good cry, so I start with the more acrid—and therefore more cathartic—purple onions over the white ones. With my left palm astride the blade and right hand fisted around the handle, I chop onions, a head of garlic, and two Turkish kırmızı biber, a carrot-shaped pepper with a bright sweetness. I have no memory of ajicitos dulces, but I like to imagine these local peppers taste just the same.
I fall into a teary but calming trance, chopping ingredients so finely that they are nearly liquefied. Unlike the muddy yellowish-brown blended version, this sofrito has colorful edges like a salsa.
Perhaps bean preparation is locked into my genetic memory, a gift from my Indigenous, African, and European ancestors.
While black-eyed peas and pigeon peas arrived in the Americas via the trans-Atlantic slave trade, phaseolus vulgaris—an eclectic species of beans that includes red, black, white, and even striped kidney beans with both matte and shiny skins—was first cultivated in Mexico and made its way to the Caribbean, and into habichuelas guisadas, from there.
Rice, the eventual sidekick to these beans, was brought by Africans to the so-called New World—a misnomer if there ever was one—braiding the grains into their tresses. Throughout the African diaspora, rice and beans became a classic combination, eventually morphing into dishes like bruine bonen met rijstin in Suriname, and Brazilian feijoada.
Somehow, I remember Mami’s flourishes: adding a pinch of thyme, using canned-kidney-bean brine as a thickener, and mashing a few beans against the side of the pot for a toothier sauce. But living in Istanbul has changed other aspects of my guisado. Pork, traditionally used to flavor the beans, is so ubiquitous in Puerto Rican cuisine that I’ve sometimes jokingly referred to it as “puercoriqueña.” But pork isn’t available in Turkey, a Muslim-majority country. It’s expensive when you find it, and there is little variety outside bacon and Italian-style deli meats. And adding Turkish beef sausage to my beans is just a step too far for me.