It’s interesting how various phrases, terms and “memes” move from one culture to the next. It makes it even more intriguing when said “meme” sticks around in a local culture with no real proximity to the source itself.
For the Antillas espanolas of Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Dominican Republic, moros y cristianos, a term offering a more symbolic look into the marriage of rice and beans like in moro de guandules, is one such example.
To even begin to understand how or why this term came to signify rice and beans in the same plate, you would have to trace an etymology all the way back to the island’s previous colonial Spanish homeland.
Moro de Guandules, the Reconquista and La Cocina Criolla
Okay, granted, the term moros y cristianos is nowadays a bit of an anachronism, at least in the Dominican Republic.
Since gaining its independence from Spain in the 1860s, there’s a saying that roughly translates to “the Christians left but the Moors stayed,” hence the y cristianos part has been dropped from normal colloquial speak. As a result, rice and bean dishes are more simply referred to as moro… like moro de guandules.
Still, it’s intriguing that this Dominican reference hearkens to a time in Spain’s history… and not their own.
The Moors and the Reconquista
First, let’s break down the two pieces of the phrase. There’s the moros, referring to the Moors, and there are the cristianos, referring to the Christians, and these two are very strongly linked together in Spanish history.
Into the early 8th century, most of the Iberian peninsula was under the sovereignty of the Visigothic Kingdown. This all changed, however, when the Moors arrived from the Maghreb and North Africa starting in 712.
Launching a massive territorial expansion campaign on behalf of the Umayyad Caliphate back in Damascus, a mixed army of both Arab and Berber fighters entered through the South of Spain and systematically conquered most of the Peninsula over 8 years. By the end of the campaign, the territory of Al-Andalus had been annexed as part of the Umayyad Empire. Eventually, Al-Andalus would itself separate from a crumbling Umayyad Empire just 40 years later and set up its own Caliphate, but the ~800 year Moorish presence in Spain had formally kicked off.
Not ones to dilly dally, several Christian kingdoms immediately launched campaigns to squeeze the Moors and their corresponding Muslim presence out of Europe. The period of the Reconquista (“reconquest”) began somewhere between 718-722 and would last until the final Moorish defeat at Granada in 1492.
For the first century of the Reconquista, it was more a geopolitical fight than an ideological one. However, the 883 AD publishing of the Chronica Prophetica, a literary work highlighting the Christian-Muslim divide and emphasizing a need to rid the Europe of Muslim influence, certainly did the job of turning the conflict into one of faith.
And so began the prolonged ideological grudge match between the moros y cristianos.
La Cocina Criolla and Local Dominican Specialties
What makes this particularly intriguing, however, is that the end of the Reconquista came in 1492, the same year that Christopher Columbus set sail for the West Indies. It would be several decades at the very least before the Antillas espanolas would be established as Spanish colonies, by which point the Moorish presence was long gone. That this tiny saying has lasted even until today, though, exemplifies the profound influence the Spaniards have had on these cocinas criollas.
In its original form, the term criollo – which is similar to the French creole – was used to describe a person born in the West Indian colonies but of European descent. Centuries of cultural and ethnic intermingling have made it difficult for anyone to be truly criollo in the traditional sense, hence the term has since gone on to imply an overall European ancestry for the contemporary culture.
It would be fair to call the greater national Dominican cuisine a cocina criolla, since most of its prevalent ingredients either stem directly from Spanish influence.
Take, for example, the four most prevalent basic ingredients in the Dominican cuisine: garlic, onion, cilantro and tomatoes. All were key ingredients in the medieval Mediterranean diet and were imported into the West Indies by the Spaniards. Interestingly, cilantro fell a little out of favor in the European cuisine following medieval times but has stayed highly relevant in the Dominican cuisine… and in moro de guandules.
Even the emphasis on foods like rice and beans was brought on by the Spanish. Rice had long been an abundant cereal grain that could travel well with the Spanish, and it served particularly useful in extremely hot and humid climates like the West Indies could be. As a result, in both the Dominican cuisine and other cocinas criollas, rice has become a regionally appropriate big deal.
About the Recipe
For as flavorful a dish as this comes to be, it is remarkably easy to create. Still, there are a few key components to a good moro de guandules that need to be addressed: the sofrito, the leche de coco and the guandules.
Enter the Sofrito
Herein is one of the key components of any West Indies cuisine: the sofrito.
The concept of the criolla sofrito is based on its occidental Mediterranean ancestors. The Italian soffrito and the Catalan sofregit are both culinary concepts that have been around at least since the 12th century.
As a broad generalization – though it differs from nations, cultures and regions – the idea behind sofrito is to saute aromatic ingredients together in olive oil until the vegetables have softened. This freshly made sofrito constitutes the base of your dish onto which your later components are added.
Generally, the Dominican sofrito is considered a bit milder and emphasizes more the use of ingredients like onions, garlic, and cilantro instead of spices. Other ingredients for the sofrito – also referred to as sazón – might include bell peppers, tomato paste, oregano, thyme and any other type of fresh herb or vegetable you can find.
For moro de guandules, the sofrito is pretty straightforward. You start by taking your aromatic ingredients over a higher heat in order to saute and soften them. From there, you’ll then add in your pungent herbs and, in some cases (like ours), tomato paste or even fresh tomatoes.
Once everything has cooked together and softened a bit, you can focus on the next piece: the leche de coco.
Leche de Coco, or Coconut Milk
For most moro de guandules recipes, you’ll absolutely need a hefty helping of coconut milk added in.
Part of the reason is because of the particular part of the Dominican Republic, Samaná, from whence this moro recipe hails. Located in the northeastern part of the Dominican with a coastline along the Atlantic Ocean, Samaná is a region with an incredibly vibrant and tropical vegetation that has made its way into local dishes.
Samaná is also known as the main hub for cocolos, or Dominicans of non-Hispanic descent. A large part of the Samaná population are actually of American descent as freed black slaves would emigrate down to the Dominican Republic in the 1800s.
As a result of what you can call some “non-traditional thinking,” a Samaná resident thought to cook rice in a broth with added coconut milk, an idea which gave birth to the unique touch that moro de guandules has as a recipe.
As your sofrito/sazon is ready to go, you’ll add in your coconut milk to create a nice soupy consistency into which your rice and guandules will cook through next.
All about Guandules
Since dropping of the y cristianos part, there has been a greater flexibility when it comes to Dominican moro dishes overall. So long as there is some sort of union between rice and beans, it’s considered a moro dish. You can have red bean moro, black bean moro, pinto bean moro and so on…
But for a true moro de guandules, you need to use the pigeon pea.
Pigeon peas, or guandules, are a particularly robust legume that’s found its way into the hearts (and bellies) of Dominicans. It’s a odd smaller type of legume that cannot be eaten uncooked, although when it is, it gives a more distinctly firmer texture and meatier flavor than other types of bean-driven types of moro.
The guandules themselves need not go in until later into your moro, after the sofrito and the broth has been made for both rice and pigeon peas to cook in.
After at least 10 minutes of simmering and cooking in your sofrito and coconut milk broth, your rice and guandules should be cooked and ready to enjoy!
Our Take on the Recipe
It’s always so enjoyable when we find a “no brainer” source recipe, which is what we had with this recipe from Dominican Cooking. Still, even with the straightforwardness, we still made a few of our own adjustments.
For one, we swapped out the olive oil in favor of coconut oil. The underlying reason for this was due to coconut oil’s higher smoke point, which offered us a healthy way to cook and soften the sofrito ingredients with greater intensity and less time.
From there, we made some changes to overall proportions. As lovers of garlic, we upped the amount in our recipe, and we added in carrots and more onions into the fold as well. We actually weren’t as much a fan of the olives in this moro, so we omitted them outright from our own.
Finally, in an effort to make a more manageable portion for a family (and not an army), we reduced the portions of rice and correspondingly the coconut milk and water that went in. As an added bonus, we really liked the increased proportion of guandules to rice that this caused.
Other than that, the recipe is incredibly simple to make, and it carries a flavor that you don’t want to miss.
What would you put in your moro de guandules? Comment below!
Food styled by Phil Roepers
Helpers for this Recipe
Moro con Guandules: Dominican Pigeon Peas Rice
Yield 6 people
- 2 tablespoons of coconut oil
- 1/2 red onion, diced finely
- 5 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 teaspoon cilantro, finely chopped
- 3 stalks of celery, sliced thinly
- 2 medium sized carrots, chopped thinly
- 1 red bell pepper, finely diced
- 2 medium sized tomatoes, diced very finely (keeping as much of the juices as possible too)
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1 15 oz can of pre-cooked pigeon peas
- 1 15 oz can of full coconut milk
- 1 cup of water
- 1 1/2 cups rice, pre-rinsed and pre-washed
- 1 teaspoon of capers
Stage 1 - Create Base Broth
- Take a large stockpot over medium-high heat and add your coconut oil
- Once the coconut oil is melted, add your onions, garlic, carrot, red pepper, and cilantro. Stir around for at least 1 minute as the vegetables begin to cook, sweat and become fragrant
- Next, add your thyme, oregano and diced tomatoes. Again, stir around for ~1 minute as the entire base develops into more of a broth-like consistency
- Add your coconut milk and water to the developing broth and stir well through. You should get a nice soupy consistency with a soft orange color once everything is mixed through
- At this point, raise the heat to high and bring the stockpot to a boil
Stage 2 - Add Rice and Pigeon Peas
- Once your broth has come to a boil, reduce the heat back to a medium heat and add your rice. Stir the rice very thoroughly through for at least 2-3 minutes. Make sure to stir well enough to keep rice from sticking to the bottom of the stockpot!
- After several minutes as the rice starts to absorb and expand, add in your pigeon peas and stir well through. As you're doing this, reduce the heat of your stove to a lower simmer
- Once everything is well mixed in, cover your pot and let the rice simmer for 12 minutes
- After 12 minutes, turn the heat off from underneath the stockpot. Uncover the rice and stir around before quickly re-covering the stockpot. Let your moro con guandules steam for another ~3 minutes or so, then you're done!