Most cultures have some version of a comforting, hearty rice stew in their diets. The Chinese have congee, West Africans have jollof, and U.S. Southerners have gumbo. Puerto Ricans have their very own version, which we call asopao.
Much like its international counterparts, asopao’s consumption isn’t relegated to the winter months—there really isn’t a “winter” in Puerto Rico, so asopao is a dish that is enjoyed year-round. That said, this asopao can be particularly comforting in the colder months.
What Is Asopao?
Asopao is rice stew—it’s basically a savory porridge. It can be prepared using most meats, poultry, or seafood. This version combines my two favorite asopaos ingredients into one, substantial meal: shrimp and pigeon peas.
Sofrito, a common Spanish mixture made from tomatoes, onion, peppers, and garlic forms the flavor base, giving the stew a bold flavor without imparting any spiciness. Adding shrimp and pigeon peas gives the asopao an earthiness that balances the sofrito.
The peeled and deveined shrimp, as well as canned pigeon peas, are the co-stars to this thick, porridge-like rice. Ham is also used to create this base, which will flavor the rest of the stew.
What Are Pigeon Peas?
Pigeon peas—or gandules, as they’re called in most Spanish-speaking Caribbean islands—are not as common in diets in the States as they are in the rest of the world. Much like the well-known green pea, pigeon peas grow in pods that need to be split open before extracting the small, brown peas.
Pigeon peas have an earthy, unique flavor that holds their own in many dishes and plays well with other flavors, too.
You should be able find them easily in most supermarkets where the Hispanic foods are sold (look for the Conchita brand). Most stores sell them canned, although larger stores (or those in predominately Hispanic, Indian, or African communities) may also sell them frozen. Both forms can be used without any adjustments to the recipe. Dried gandules take way too long to cook, if you can even find them in stores.
Recaito and Sazón Seasoning Blends
Recaito is an herb-based paste that’s popular in most Caribbean cooking. It’s used to add a punch of aromatic flavor to stews, beans, or meat dishes. The main ingredient is culantro, or Mexican coriander, along with white onion, garlic, and sweet peppers. While it can be made from scratch, I’ve found that jarred recaito is a great stand-in.
- FIND IT! Try making your own recaito following this recipe on my site Sense & Edibility, or look for it online from places like this one.
Sazón is a flavor-enhancer used in many dishes in the Hispanic kitchen. It’s an MSG blend of seasonings that impart color and flavor at the same time. The sazón I like has culantro, which gives food a flavor that's similar to cilantro, but more potent. It also contains annatto (achiote), a seed that imparts color when added to foods.
What Kind of Rice to Use?
The main ingredient of any asopao is, you guessed it—rice! Long grain rice is what I use because I always have it on hand. Medium or short grain rice will work as well.
Rinsing rice may seem like an odd step, but it does a great job of removing excess starch, which can make the stew too thick.
Soaking the Rice Makes a Difference
After rinsing, soak your rice in a mix of water and the pigeon pea liquid for 45 minutes prior to cooking. This gives it time to soften and achieve the proper texture in the relatively short cooking time for this stew. Without the soaking, the rice needs to cook longer to become tender, but that longer cooking time can also turn it to mush quickly.
To make things efficient, I recommend starting your rice soaking prior to cutting and measuring your other ingredients.
Also, save the water from the soaked rice, as you'll need it to later to add more flavor and body to the stew!
What to Serve With Asapao?
Because this is such a rich stew, the only accompaniments you’ll need are a few slices of ripe avocado and a slice of toasted, buttered French bread. Serve immediately, because the rice will continue to absorb the liquid as it sits.
The longer the asopao cooks, the more liquid you will need to add to maintain that stew consistency. Stir in a cup of hot water (or chicken broth if you want more flavor) and add more, as needed, to thin out any leftover asopao.
How to Store and Freeze Asapao
Leftovers will last for three days under refrigeration—just pack them into an airtight food container. The asopao can also be frozen for up to two months, and thawed for 24 hours prior to reheating. The rice will have broken down more after thawing, but it will still taste as wonderful as when it was first made.
Try These Other Puerto Rican Dishes!
- Puerto Rican Salmorejo (Stewed Crab and Tomatoes with Rice)
- Pastelón (Puerto Rican Plantain “Lasagna”)
- Arroz con Tocino (Puerto Rican Rice with Salt Cod)
- Spicy Chicken Nuggets (Chiccarones con Pollo)
- Coquito (Puerto Rican Coconut Eggnog)
Asopao de Camarones y Gandules (Puerto Rican Rice Stew With Shrimp and Pigeon Peas)
- 1 (15-ounce) can pigeon peas (gandules), drained and liquid reserved
- 6 1/2 cups water, for soaking the rice
- 1 1/2 cups rice
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 4 ounces ham, diced
- 1 medium white onion, diced (about 1 cup)
- 1/2 large green bell pepper, diced (about 3/4 cup)
- 1/2 large yellow bell pepper, diced (about 3/4 cup)
- 1 medium Roma tomato, diced (about 3/4 cup)
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 tablespoons recaito flavor base, store-bought or homemade
- 1/4 cup tomato sauce
- 6 stuffed Spanish olives
- 1/2 teaspoon capers
- 1 1/2 teaspoons sazón seasoning, store-bought or homemade, optional
- 1/2 teaspoon oregano
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
- 1 pound peeled and deveined shrimp, tails removed
Rinse and soak the rice:
Rinse the rise in a strainer under running water to remove the excess starch from the outside. In a large bowl, mix the reserved liquid from the pigeon peas with the water for soaking. Add the rice to the bowl and soak for 45 minutes.
When the rice has finished soaking, drain the water into a large pot on the stovetop, and turn the heat to medium-low. Keep it at a low simmer; you'll add this liquid to the asopao later.
Cook the ham and the veggies:
In a 3-quart Dutch oven or similar large pot, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the ham and brown it, about 3 minutes.
Reduce the heat to medium. Add the onion, peppers, tomato, garlic, and recaito to the pot and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 6 to 8 minutes; or until the vegetables have softened and begin to form a thick, chunky paste.
Stir the tomato sauce, olives, capers, sazón, oregano, salt, and pepper into the paste, and cook for 2 minutes.
Add the rice to the pot:
Add the rice into the pot and stir to thoroughly coat the grains in the sauce. Add the pigeon peas and the warmed, reserved soaking water.
Simmer the stew:
Bring the stew to a gentle simmer and continue to cook, uncovered, for 15 minutes.
After 15 minutes, stir the shrimp into the asopao and continue cooking, uncovered, for an additional 5 minutes.
Serve the stew:
Serve promptly, as the stew will thicken the longer it’s left to sit. Thin the stew as needed with hot water or with chicken stock to maintain consistency and flavor, especially when reheating leftovers.