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Illyanna Maisonet's Cookbook Celebrates Puerto Rico’s Diaspora

‘Diasporican’ features more than 90 delicious, deeply personal recipes from renowned food columnist

spinner image illyanna maisonet against orange background
Gabriela Hasbun


Illyanna Maisonet is vocal about preserving culinary traditions from her homeland, Puerto Rico.

spinner image cover of diasporican, a puerto rican cookbook; two hands holding food
Penguin Random House

Cook With Illyanna

Illyanna Maisonet shared three recipes from Diasporican for AARP members to try:

Brazo Gitano With Burge Road Cherry Cream Filling

Fresh cherries from an orchard in Stockton, California, lend a flavorful burst to this rolled sponge cake dessert. 

Carne Guisada

This stewed meat recipe — using lamb, chicken or beef — can easily become a staple dish.


Although this family recipe takes six to seven hours to cook, it’s well worth the wait.

The food writer extensively covers the ingredients, dishes and techniques of the territory's Taino, Spanish, African and mainland U.S. history in Cocina Boricua — her column in the San Francisco Chronicle. These stories, paired with 90 authentic recipes, are featured in her recent cookbook, Diasporican: A Puerto Rican Cookbook (October 2022).

Part memoir, part cookbook and part retelling of Puerto Rican history, Diasporican provides a thoroughly researched guide to essential Puerto Rican foods and flavors — adapted for functionality and accessibility stateside. Combining familial memories and her culinary school background, Maisonet, 41, documents Puerto Rico’s vast culinary culture through beautiful food and travel photography. The book also serves as a critical reminder of how geography, immigration and colonization reflect the ingenuity and diversity of Puerto Rican people.

AARP interviewed California-based Maisonet to talk about growing up in the kitchen and creating content online. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What did you love about creating this cookbook?

I loved being able to share Puerto Rican food through the lens of the diaspora, specifically from someone who grew up in Northern California. Who knew that the book would also be a part of my grief journey — my grandma died within a year into the process. A lot of the stories attached to the recipes in the book came from my San Francisco Chronicle column, and those stories gave me a way to work out my traumas.

Which recipes did you find to be most successful?

I always start with one recipe, which is actually three recipes. Pollo Guisado is a simple braise: It’s something most people will recognize, you don’t need any special equipment and it doesn’t take a lot of time. In order to make it, you still need to make sofrito (first recipe), which goes into the chicken braise (second recipe) and serve it over Puerto Rican white rice (third recipe). Puerto Rican white rice hits different because it technically uses the pilaf method; the rice is cooked and coated in fat before the water is added, and some people toast the grains giving it a nutty flavor. I’d love to be able to teach people how to make Arroz con Gandules [Puerto Rican Rice with Pigeon Peas]. I try to tell them that if you’re not using a caldero [cauldron] or a rondeau [wide, shallow pan], it’s not going to come out right. Something about the thinness of the aluminum or stainless steel walls of those two pots makes the rice turn out right every time.

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How did you become a writer, and what led to the cookbook idea?

I started writing professionally in 2015, which is around the same time I got the idea for the cookbook, which really was my brother-in-law’s idea. Writing about Puerto Rican food, that idea happened organically. It was a way for him to work on more creative stuff. I knew how to cook the food and he knew how to shoot the food, so together we learned placement of food, what they call prop or food styling. We made a tiny cook-booklet out of the photos, maybe 10 pages of recipes.

You dedicated a portion of the book to Puerto Rican products, cooking techniques, tools and flavors. Is that an essential element that you had an idea about since the beginning?

A very, very small version of that existed in that little cook-booklet that me and my brother-in-law did 10 years ago.

How do you go about sourcing products or ingredients to find something as close as back on the island. Or do you adapt to what you have around you in California?

We’re in California, so it’s not really hard to find very good substitutions. The only thing that I find impossible to get here is ají dulce, which are really sweet peppers that go with sofrito. I can find recao [Culantro]. I’ve been able to find it within the last 10 years. But there’s only a handful, if that, of stores that have it, and they cater to the Southeast Asian demographics, because Vietnamese people also use recao. When it comes to ají dulce, I use bell peppers (purple or green). You know a lot of the sofrito recipes already call for bell pepper, which is already a substitution. My grandma had to use bell peppers.

You state in the book that: “There’s no passing down of heirloom cookbooks.” What was your approach to writing and testing out recipes?

A lot of my grandma’s recipes I already had. I just wanted to see how she made some things, because I would try to make them, and they wouldn’t come out, and I just said, “We’re going to go to the kitchen and I’m going to watch you cook and I’m going to measure while you cook.” I just watched her and chronicled everything. You already know the basics by cooking growing up, but then culinary school helps you hone in how to be more precise, how to be more mindful, how to be more organized.

You’ve said of Diasporican: “This is not a Puerto Rican cookbook. This book is for the Diasporicans — the 5.5 million people living stateside.”

I intended it to be truthful. It’s for people like you and me who may not necessarily speak Spanish or speak Spanglish. I’ve been trying so hard to prove that I was Puerto Rican — writing this book allows me to realize I’m not necessarily Puerto Rican; I’m a Diasporican, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

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