A key ally in Hispanic cooking has a name: sofrito. It is a sauce that is a blanket of flavor and color, enhancing whatever it smothers, be it a chicken breast, a mountain of shredded beef or a stew that can raise the dead.
Those chopped ingredients – onion, tomato, garlic, onions, peppers and cilantro – sprinkled with oil and cooked over low heat, make up the foundation for much of the Hispanic food repertoire.
“There is no savory cooking without sofrito,” says Juan Manuel González, who cooks in a Salvadoran restaurant in northeast Tulsa. “My pupusas made with cheese and pork include in their sauce and pickles a sofrito with a good amount of garlic. The trick is to fry the onion and tomato very slowly, for about 20 minutes.”
González’s approach conforms to the definition found in the dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy, which states that the verb sofreir means to fry food and condiments lightly over low heat.
“So a sofrito should be done without hurry,” said Santiago Romero, a cook in a Mexican restaurant in east Tulsa, who specializes in a chicken mole.
“We make a sort of mole paste, then mix it with the chicken broth, and cover it with a sofrito made of fried onion and tomato.” Romero’s version uses liquefied tomatoes, rather than chopped.
The captivating aroma that emanates from Magda Carrasquero’s frying pan is thanks to the Venezuelan recipe for sofrito; the key to its success is that “everything must be very chopped, finely chopped.”
If it is true that cuisine is the essence of a people, then the flavor of Honduran baleadas, which are similar to flour tortillas and filled with beans, is enlivened by an onion-rich sofrito sauce. That’s according to Alfonso Villasmil, a chef in a Honduran restaurant in southeast Tulsa. “It is the dish that must be on the table of any Honduran, and those who know this, do it with a sofrito.”
Puerto Ricans have turned sofrito into the essential foundation of their stews, rice dishes and their famous beans. In fact, a master of Puerto Rican cuisine, Carmen Aboy, included in a 1950s work, Creole Cuisine, three kinds of Caribbean sofritos, thus demonstrating the range of this condiment-rich base.
In a way sofrito is a constant; it is almost invisible, but essential in the Latino kitchen. It is a kind of indelible memory of our roots, and nothing brings that to mind than an aroma, particularly if it contains garlic, onions and tomatoes. The presence of sofrito will continue gracing Latino tables, dressing our favorite dishes with its juices.
Other names for sofrito
Photos by Juan Miret