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How Sofrito Got Its Flavor: From Medieval Europe To Puerto Rico And New England

Joel Rodriguez and Luis Rodriguez Jr. stand under a replica of the firehouse in Ponce, Puerto Rico, which their grandfather built.
Cassandra Basler
Joel Rodriguez and Luis Rodriguez Jr. stand under a replica of the firehouse in Ponce, Puerto Rico, which their grandfather built.

A basic cooking technique that’s described in one of Europe’s oldest cookbooks has become the “secret sauce” to Latin American and Puerto Rican cuisine. It’s called sofrito and it’s the flavorful base for traditional Christmas dishes like Roasted Pork Pernil and rice and chicken. WSHU’s Cassandra Basler visited a family in New Haven that supplies the fresh blend of veggies, oil, herbs and spices to New England. 

The walk-in refrigerator whirrs as Luis Rodriguez Jr. checks on his fresh batch of green sofrito. The scent of herbs hang in the air.

“These are the final pallets that I put together…[and they are packed in a dozen and a half each case.]”

Rodriguez Jr. is the second-generation owner of Sofrito Ponce. His son, Joel, says they just finished packaging for supermarkets in Connecticut and Massachusetts in time for Christmas.

“Right here is 4,500 containers.”

Back in the office, Rodriguez says the business has grown a lot since his father, Luis Sr., started selling it at his two stores in New Haven.

“He licensed it and patented it, and it started to move a lot more into the community. And people in stores would come to our small bodega and asking for Sofrito.”

Luis Sr. finally moved his sofrito production to an industrial kitchen and warehouse about 30 years ago. But scholars say the sauce itself had a long journey before it became the staple of Puerto Rican cooking.

Paul Freedman, a history professor at Yale, studies the Middle Ages...and food. Freedman says sofrito has popped up in his studies because it’s an old Italian, Spanish and Catalan way of cooking.

“It certainly is a feature of the Catalan cookbook, the Libre de Sent Soví. This is from about 1300, and it involves onions chopped up in olive oil.”

Freedman says it was brought to the New World by the Spanish colonizers. When it reached the Americas, new ingredients like tomatoes, peppers, garlic, and spices were added.

“Sofregit, as it’s called in Catalan, remains a basic cooking method and everybody knows what sofregit is just like everybody who cooks Puerto Rican food knows what sofrito is.”

Freedman says the secret to a good sofrito is the right proportions and fresh ingredients.

Back at the Sofrito Ponce office, Luis Rodriguez agrees.

“Sofrito’s a mixture of some really good seasonings, pepper, onion, garlic, some other family recipe that we put into it…And we prepare it fresh and that’s what you’re smelling.”

The Rodriguez family keeps the seasonings and the exact proportions a secret…out of respect for Luis Sr.’s recipe. Rodriguez says they pay homage to his hometown with a logo that depicts the firehouse right in the center of Ponce. It’s the second largest city in Puerto Rico, a port on the south side of the island that’s home to 140,000 people. A FEMA spokesperson says that 50,000 of them have filed claims for disaster relief since Hurricane Maria.

“As someone that you know is Puerto Rican and born in the U.S., um, my heart broke big time when I saw what happened and just people that hear this, I want them to know how much our company is here to always support our community.”

Luis Rodriguez Jr. says that as more people travel from Puerto Rico to New England after the storm, he hopes they can find a little taste of home in their food. 

Copyright 2021 WSHU. To see more, visit WSHU.

Cassandra Basler comes to WSHU by way of Columbia Journalism School in New York City. She recently graduated with a Pulitzer Traveling Fellowship, which means she has two years to report on an issue anywhere in the world (she's still figuring out where she'd like to go). She grew up just north of Detroit, Michigan, where she worked for the local public radio affiliate. She also wrote about her adventures sampling the city cuisines for the first guidebook to be published in three decades, Belle Isle to 8 Mile: An Insider's Guide to Detroit. Before that, Cassandra studied English, German and Urban Studies at University of Michigan. When she's not reporting on wealth and poverty, she's writing about food and family.
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