Growing up in Washington Heights, Dominican food (even though I’m Puerto Rican) was always something I indulged in. Whether it was my aunt’s cooking (she married a Dominican man) or my friend’s parents, Dominican dishes were always on someone’s dinner table that I was eating at. So throughout the years, my love for the country's cuisine really became part of my culture, my upbringing.
When I moved to West New York, New Jersey, Dominican food wasn’t readily available. Yes, there were Hispanic restaurants by me, but mainly Cuban. So I certainly missed the good ol’ days of mangú and pastelón. Not the healthiest of dishes, but definitely D-E-L-I-C-I-O-U-S ones!
Side note: If you’ve never had Dominican food, it is a must-try. Go out and get some — it will not disappoint!
Okay, so years later when I started dating my husband and got invited to his family’s Christmas dinner I thought, Yaaaasss, I’m going to have all the Dominican dishes I crave! The foodie in me was definitely doing the happy dance. So as the weeks became days and the days became THE day, I couldn’t contain my excitement. I kid you not, I was like a kid in a candy store.
I got all dressed up — a loose-fitting dress for the occasion seemed most appropriate — and was well on my way. As I sat at the dining table, I should have quickly caught on, but I think my “want” clouded my “reality.” Dinner started with salad and no appetizers. You know, empanadas, papa rellenas, etc. They were completely absent, nonexistent.
As dinner progressed and the main course was served, I thought to myself, "This doesn’t look familiar. Where is the pernil? The rice and beans?” Instead we were eating soy sauce rice, which I later found out was his mom’s version of an Asian-inspired dish. I couldn’t even believe it.
How could this be?! None of the food I expected to eat was at this table. I had done my homework, right? They were Dominican, born and raised. I certainly thought it was a given. But nope! Don’t get me wrong the food was delicious, it just wasn’t the Dominican food I was used to eating.
So that night and pretty much every other holiday since (with maybe the exception of one or two in nine years) the dishes have actually been health-conscious ones. I quickly learned that my new family lives a very healthy lifestyle — still not sure why we don’t cheat on holidays — but my waistline sure thanks my mother in-law!
Looking back, I definitely see how I was being a bit presumptuous to think that they would just cook the food I was use to, the food I deemed Dominican. The truth is, I love the food so much and so badly wanted to indulge in it, but if there’s anything my mother-in-law has taught me is that health is extremely important and we need to take care of ourselves.
Now, hold on! A girl still needs to have a cheat meal once in a while, right? So what’s a girl to do? Wait a couple of years before she feels comfortable enough to ask for some of the Dominican dishes she so often craves. Today, at least once a year (or whenever I ask), my suegra makes me whatever I want, and, I must say, it is amazing. One big, swooping hooray to the best Dominican food I’ve ever had. Totally worth the wait and every single calorie!
So have you had a similar experience? Culture shock of any sort? Tell me! Tell me!
Kathleen Pagan is a Founding Creator and lifestyle blogger. When she's not writing for Vivala, you can find her at endlesslyelated.com.