The Puerto Rican Pantry Staple That Chef Juan José Cuevas Uses on Everything
Pique, a condiment made of fermented pineapple juice and a mix of chilis, adds flavor to just about anything—make it yourself or order it online.
Here in mainland America, we’re relying on condiments like ketchup and ranch dressing to liven up bland sandwiches. But when Puerto Ricans want to add a pop of flavor to their plate, they reach for pique. The hot sauce, typically made with locally-grown chilis and fermented pineapple juice, has an essential place on restaurant tables and in kitchens all over the island.
Juan José Cuevas, executive chef at 1919 in San Juan’s Condado Vanderbilt hotel, makes batches using locally-grown ingredients, inspired by the sauce his grandmother used to make while he was growing up on the island. “Pique was part of my daily diet,” says the chef, who returned to Puerto Rico seven years ago after working in celebrated restaurants from San Sebastian, Spain to San Francisco and New York City.
While most recipes call for the same ingredients—pineapple skin steamed to extract its juice, plus chilis, garlic, oregano, and Thai coriander (also known as culantro or recao leaves), steeped in vinegar and a little oil—the types of chilis used can vary, depending on taste, tolerance for heat, and accessibility. “When I lived in the country with my grandmother, we used the chilis that grew in her backyard,” says Cuevas. “So whatever you have on hand.”
The sauce usually includes hotter peppers like habaneros or ají caballero, but Cuevas prefers using ají dulces, or sweet chili peppers. “It’s a traditional chili from Puerto Rico, it’s very aromatic, but it doesn't have the heat,” he says. “I make a balance between that and more traditional chilis.” In fact, according to the chef, the sauce isn’t meant to set a fire in your mouth. Instead, pique is meant to add even more depth of flavor to the country’s traditional dishes. “We’re not trying to make this as hot as possible,” says the chef. “It’s spicy, but it’s very aromatic at the same time.”
With a thin consistency, the hot sauce is added to everything from bean stew and mofongo to salted codfish (or cheese, octopus, pumpkin …) fritters sold at roadside kiosks. Cuevas says the way to use pique is one dash at a time.
“Usually Puerto Ricans add a drop or two to any food they’re eating,” he says. “Some of the fritters, after you get the first bite, and you have the hole, then you put a drop in there, and then add a little more. You just add a drop. It’s not supposed to burn you—the flavor develops, and the heat.”
You can buy a bottle here, or mix up one of your own by steeping the ingredients in a repurposed glass bottle. (Take a cue from Puerto Ricans and use an empty, cleaned rum bottle.) If you can’t find ají dulces, which come from Puerto Rico and other Caribbean and Latin American countries, you can sub in ripe red bell pepper. Cover the mixture with a cheesecloth, and leave it for anywhere from two to five days; the longer it steeps, the hotter it will be. But, Cuevas warns, don’t put the cap on the bottle before the fermentation process is finished, or risk a pique explosion. Ketchup and ranch dressing have never been that cool.