The French have mirepoix. Germans have suppengrun. Cajun kitchens have the holy trinity. Every world cuisine has a vegetable base that serves as the building block for a vast swath of its recipes. They function as aromatics – background essentials upon which the rest of the dish is built. The humble beginning, for a large number of Latin American countries, is sofrito.
The original sofrito was a Catalan confit of onions, leeks, and pork, though Columbus’ return of tomatoes, spices, and herbs from the New World diversified the dish by the 16th century. Replete with tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic, paprika, and olive oil, the Spanish sofrito would be carried to the shores of Central America, the Caribbean, and the Philippines, where it was interpreted and modified to suit the tastes and agricultural capabilities of each culture it reached.
Sofrito acts as a sauce, stew, or marinade that is often the first step in a recipe. Purists maintain that sofrito is not a condiment – which traditionally it has not been – though some have repurposed the dish as such. While color and consistency vary regionally, nearly every Latin American sofrito is centered around garlic, peppers, onions, tomatoes, and cilantro. The ingredients may be chopped, ground, blended, or fried together to attain various flavor profiles. Given its versatility, it is often prepared in large batches and refrigerated or frozen for a later use, which in Latinx kitchens, will inevitably arise.
“Cada cocinero tiene su librito,” the expression goes which translates to “every chef has his/her own little book.” Thus, two neighbors out to cook the same sofrito in any one country can use conflicting recipes to end up with vastly different dishes; both can be delicious and “traditional,” a subjective concept to begin with. This is all to say that the list below of variations on New World sofrito is subject to debate and far from definitive. The ever-evolving, fluid nature of cooking sofrito that makes it so elusive in its singular methodization is also what has allowed it to survive into the modern age in its myriad forms.
The classic Spanish sofrito sautés blended onions, garlic, and green pepper over olive oil to evaporate moisture and brown before adding crushed tomatoes or tomato sauce. The red mixture is seasoned with salt and paprika and left to reduce until thick. Spain’s sofrito finds its way most often into the country’s national dish, paella.
The Puerto Ricans abandon tomatoes and heat altogether in their take on sofrito. Green peppers, onions, cilantro, culantro, ajis dulces, garlic, and oil are simply blended until smooth. The light-green base is essential to stews like Wilo Benet’s fricase de pollo for a kick of sweetness, and savory baked goods like Jose Santaella’s pastelon de lechon y batatas.
The defining characteristics for DR’s sofrito are the vinegar and annatto that give it a tang not found elsewhere throughout the Caribbean sofrito-scape. The base of red onions, green peppers, garlic, diced pimentos, oregano, and cilantro are, like PR’s recaito, simply blended to desired consistency for immediate use or storage
If anyone were to add pork to their sofrito, it would be the Cubans. Garlic, bay leaf, Spanish onions, bell peppers, Roma tomatoes, and ham are sautéed before tomato paste brings everything together as it caramelizes. White wine is added for acidity and cilantro for freshness before it is blended together to use in Cuban staples like picadillo, or comfort food like Ana Sofia Pelaez’ harina con cangrejo.
Hogao is used as a condiment more than any of the aforementioned variations. Colombians add cumin to their savory sauté of onions, scallions, tomatoes, and garlic to give this chunky, burnt-orange base a smoky finish. It can be found alongside national dish bandeja paisa.
Header image credit Pat Kight from Flickr.