The word cuchifrito derives from a blend of Spanish words for pork (cochino, hence cuchi) and fried (frito, from the Latin frigere).
The dish is Puerto Rican in origin. In the island it is usually made with pigs’ ears—or what Puerto Ricans know as cuajito. Cuchifritos include, but are not limited to, a variety of side dishes such as morcilla (blood sausage), papas rellenas (stuffed, fried potato balls), and various other parts of the pig prepared in different ways.
The term cuchifritos also refers to restaurants that sell this type of food, typically serving tropical juices alongside, like passion fruit, mango, tamarind, and coconut. In New York City, restaurants and vendors advertising cuchifritos tend to use colorful signs and signs with flashy lights to catch your eye.
One of these best-known spaces is 116 Cuchfrito, an establishment in Spanish Harlem located at 168 East 116th Street, New York, NY 10029 (between Lexington and Third Avenues).
For over 50 years cuchifritos establishments have been sprouting in Puerto Rican and Dominican areas in New York City—in Hamilton Heights, Washington Heights, the South Bronx, Sunset Park, Brooklyn and other neighborhoods. Dishes served at cuchifritos establishments include:
- Alcapurrias—dough, made from starchy tubers, filled with meat, then fried
- Bacalaitos—pancake-like batter containing salted codfish, flour, water, sofrito, (a cooking base made of sauté onions, peppers, cilantro, cumin, tomatoes, culantro.) spices, and herbs
- Empanadillas—Puerto-Rican-style patties filled with meat or cheese
- Chicharrón—pork cracklings
- Morcilla—blood sausage
- Pastelillos—flour or yucca dough stuffed with beef or cheese, then deep-fried
- Plátanos rellenos—mashed sweet plantains, stuffed with beef or cheese, then deep-fried
- Pasteles—meat pie, similartotamale, traditionally prepared inacuchifrito with green banana masa (corn flour dough) andporkbutt, made into a filling and wrapped in banana leaves
In Spain, cuchifritos—known there as cochofritos consist of sauté lamb or goat, then fried with olive oil, garlic, vinegar, basil, rosemary, bay leaves, and spearmint. This dish is served hot, considered a rural specialty of the country in areas such as Castile and León.
Puerto Rico is known as the birthplace of the cuchifrito, served on the island and now all over the world. As time has gone by, different countries, including the aforementioned Spain, have developed their own version of the original dish.
One of my fondest memories is driving with my mother in Puerto Rico on our way home, stopping in a wooden hut in the area of Cantera, Santurce, and ordering from the server at the open window cuajitos, carne frita (fried beef chunks), and guineo sancochao (boiled green bananas) topped with pickled red onions.
Every time I go to a cuchifrito stand in New York City I am transported to Puerto Rico and that childhood memory.