Puerto Rican Chef Luis Liceaga Learned Kosher Cooking in College

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Luis Liceaga, chef/owner of Loco Lucho (Photos provided)

Luis Liceaga, chef/owner of Loco Lucho, the Puerto Rican restaurant in the Reading Terminal Market, is not necessarily someone you’d peg to have kept kosher for part of his life.

“My friends called me ‘Liceagastein,’” he joked, “and I loved every minute of it.”

It began when Liceaga arrived at the University of Pennsylvania from Puerto Rico 40 years ago. He did not know a soul.

The first person he met was David Alben, a fellow freshman from Yonkers, N.Y. The second person he met was Michael Yasner, a junior from Long Island. Both were Jewish — a culture that Liceaga had little exposure to growing up Catholic in Puerto Rico. They became instant, immediate, lifelong friends.

“It was like we were long lost brothers. David and I even looked alike. We didn’t think about it at the time — we just became friends and hung out together all the time, but I’ve considered it a lot over the years, and once you take the religious rituals out of our two backgrounds, we are very, very similar,” he said.

“Both Puerto Ricans and Jews value family above all. We place such respect on parents and grandparents. We are both are very warm, welcoming and affectionate. Food is a huge part of our traditions. I was so far from home, and both David and Michael’s families sort of adopted me. I called David’s parents Mom and Dad. I went to their homes for holidays; it was wonderful.”

The friends added a fourth to their trio, Jose Melendez, another student from Puerto Rico, and the quartet decided to live together the following year. The first item of decoration they acquired for their pad was a sign the hung over their door: “PRJB Pleasure Palace” (PRJB stood for Puerto Rican Jewish Boys — which they now attribute to the folly of youth; they were 19 after all).

Liceaga was the only one who knew how to cook, so the kitchen became his domain. He came by the skill honestly; his mother, grandmother and great-aunt are the renowned cookbook authors of the seminal work on Puerto Rican cuisine: Cucina Criolla.

Yasner was strictly Orthodox, so they had to create a kosher kitchen. Liceaga learned the rules from Yasner’s and Alben’s mothers and grandmothers.

“They taught me Yiddish curses as well was the recipes and the rules! We got two sets of dishes; we observed Shabbos,” he said. “I bought the chametz during Passover. We did seders. I still remember the Four Questions word for word.”

In addition to traditional Jewish recipes, Liceaga adapted Puerto Rican dishes to kosher dietary laws. A favorite of the group was his arroz con pollo, or chicken with rice.

Arroz con Pollo

Serves four hungry college boys, or six regular appetites

  • 1 chicken (2½-3 pounds), cut up
  • Salt
  • Adobo seasoning (can be found in Latino section of most grocery stores)
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 can stewed tomatoes (19 ounces)
  • ⅓ cup cooking sherry
  • 1 package sazon (seasoning mix, available in Latino section of most grocery stores)
  • ½ teaspoon paprika
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1½ cups water
  • 1½ cups uncooked white rice
  • Pimentos and/or green olives to garnish.

Season the chicken generously with the salt and adobo. In a large skillet with a cover, heat the oil and brown the chicken on all sides.

Add the onion and garlic and brown the chicken for five minutes more.

Add the remaining ingredients except the rice, cover and simmer for 15 minutes.

Add the rice, cover and simmer for 30 minutes.

Top with sliced pimentos, and/or pitted green olives, if desired, and serve.

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