Hot chocolate, spiced cider, mulled wine — chances are you've probably had one of these to warm up around the holidays.
For many Puerto Ricans, coquito is the go-to holiday favorite. It's a creamy, boozy rum punch that Puerto Ricans on the island and around the world mix up to sip and to share this time of year.
Think eggnog, but better — with coconut milk and lots of rum.
And home cooks can get pretty protective — and competitive — about their coquito recipes, especially at the Coquito Masters. Each year, participants bring their best coquito recipes to compete in a blind taste test for the Coquito Master title.
"It's always interesting when you have first-timers that come in and are very nervous about competing, because you know more than anyone that this represents the family and represents our ancestors and our heritage. And it seems like there's a lot of pressure to come through and do it right," says Debbie Quinones, the self-titled "Coquito Contessa."
For the past 16 years, Quinones has organized the Coquito Masters in New York. She spoke with NPR's guest host Ray Suarez about the traditional drink's origins, the competition and what it means for Puerto Ricans in the wake of recovery on the island after Hurricane Maria.
On how the judging happens
So you know, I think that after doing this for some time we've learned some lessons. And one of the things that we do is we have pitchers that have ice chambers that keep the coquito cold. Because when contestants give us their entry they're very nervous. They're like, "You have to keep it cold. Make sure you shake it." That's what we do. We keep the coquito cold, we make sure that we shake it before we put it into the pitchers.
And it's a blind taste test where the pitchers have letters and then people vote with the letter. And what we tell them is basically you're looking for a coquito that is blended, that has flavor, that has body and that has not too much alcohol.
On what makes good coquito
Sometimes people think that they have to hit you with a hammer of alcohol, and I don't think that's what coquito is. Coquito is a blend of all the ingredients that have come to the island via different countries, so to speak, right, because they all landed on our island and they brought different ingredients and we transformed it into this beautiful ambrosia. So it shouldn't be something that knocks you out. And on the other side, it shouldn't be something so light that it's a milkshake, right. And you don't want it too chunky that you're eating ice cream.
On what the competition means for Puerto Ricans post-Maria
Now more than ever I'm reflecting on what this contest means. I want to do more work around culinary preservation. There's so much of a larger burden and a responsibility and challenge that now — I've been doing this going on 16, 17 years — and now there's kind of like, "OK, you can do more." And I plan to do more.
What I want to do is look at more of preservation efforts for Puerto Rican cuisine and looking at maybe doing workshops on like "here's how to make a pastel or a coquito or sofrito," or the things that we would go to Puerto Rico looking for. Because now we have the responsibility to carry on that culinary legacy.
Isabel Dobrin produced this story for the Web.
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