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A Taste of CubaA Taste of Cuba

December 1, 2004

17 Min Read
A Taste of Cuba

Cuban cuisine is as diverse as the culture itself, with European, African, Arabic and Chinese influences accenting its cooking. While Cubans use some key flavorings familiar to North Americans, exotic dishes, such as sofrito Cubano, pernil, picadillo, yuca with mojo dressing, ajiaco or cucurucho provide a dining adventure.

Cuban snapshots

Cuba rests 93 miles south of the United States and has a population of 11.2 million, with 66% of European descent, mostly from Spain; 12% West Africans, Haitians and Jamaicans; and 22% mulattos, of mixed Spanish, African and/or Chinese origin.

Cocina Cubana reflects its culturally and racially mixed heritage. Early influences by the Arawaks and Tainos, Amerindians who migrated from South America, include stews made with root vegetables and corn, barbecue (or barbacoa) to preserve meats, and cassava bread. The Spanish introduced garlic, onions, saffron, olive oil, citrus, livestock, tomatoes, paellas, sofritos and sautéing techniques. They also brought African slaves to work on the sugar plantations, who brought black-eyed peas, peanuts, hot peppers, okra stews and fufu (mashed plantains with crispy pork bits). Cuban landowners later replaced the freed slaves with Chinese labor, who added their flavorings and, most important, rice, which became a Cuban staple.

Generally, Cubans enjoy mild, sweet flavors and cook their foods in lard or olive oil. An influx of Haitian and Jamaican immigrants in eastern Cuba has made the area's foods hotter and spicier than in central or western regions. Foods there are cooked in coconut oil and lechita (coconut milk).

Traditional Cuban cooking includes moros y cristianos (rice with black beans), arroz congri (rice with red beans and pork), ajiaco (thick stew of pork and tubers), boiled root vegetables (viandes) with mojo (a tart condiment), and meats and poultry that are usually marinated in citrus juice (lime or sour orange) and roasted. Sofrito also serves as a base flavor for many dishes. In the eastern region, congri Oriental (yellow rice with beans, colored with annatto); tamales made from mashed plantains, stuffed with spicy pork and wrapped in banana leaf; fufu; and seafood dishes cooked with coconut milk are popular.

Chef Gilberto Smith Duquesne, author of the cookbook "Rey Langosta" and chairman of the Culinary Association in Cuba, says: "There are three important criteria for good cooking: mind, heart and a good hand. A good chef will know how to adjust a local Cuban dish to any consumer."

The political mix

In 1959, the United States imposed a trade embargo on Cuba that led the country to depend on the Soviet Union for its food supply. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Cuban government started rationing basic food items -- rice, beans, salt, coffee, sugar, bread, eggs and root crops -- at local state food stores called bordegas. Cooking oil, meat, ham, poultry, cheese, fresh fruits and vegetables were not always available, so Cubans often turned to urban gardens, food fairs, open markets, or farmers' markets (mercado campesino) to find these products. And even though Cuba is surrounded by water, overfishing led the Cuban government to make fishing illegal.

Today, Cuba imports from Canada, Europe, Japan, Latin America and the United States once again thanks to the passage of the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000. But in spite of increased food imports, food shortages and the high cost of ingredients are still realities of life, so foods are minimally seasoned and traditional dishes are not generally consumed except during special occasions. Self-service cafeterias and state-run café chains serve fried chicken, rice and beans, fries, hot dogs, burgers, Cuban-style pizzas and sandwiches. Hotel restaurants serve simple continental fare (roast beef with potatoes, paella and casseroles), Chinese dishes and Italian pastas and pizzas. Havana's Chinatown offers simple Cantonese-style dishes.

Tourism has led to the emergence of family-owned, neighborhood eateries called paladares. Legalized in 1995, they serve traditional foods (or cocina Criolla). Their seating is limited to 12 people and they officially can serve chicken, roast pork, fish and rice and beans, but not beef, lobster and shrimp as they are very expensive or are illegal to catch. Menus have more home-cooked appeal at paladares than in state-run establishments.

To promote better health, the government has opened state-run vegetarian restaurants in many provinces that promote the consumption of less viandes and more vegetables and soy products. Carmelo de Calzada in Havana offers fresh vegetables, fruits, bean dishes, soy patties and meatballs. Nutritional information is posted to educate Cubans. Tito Nunez, a pioneer vegan/vegetarian chef, author and founder of the first vegetarian restaurant in Cuba, appears every morning on radio to talk about vegetarian cooking. According to Nunez, "this is a new tradition, and we are getting Cubans to eat healthier, using greens, soy products and gluten."

Cubans today also focus on soy products to enhance nutrition. The Food Industry Research Institute (FIRI) in Cuba developed soy yogurt, a soy-yogurt drink (for schoolchildren), soy ice cream and soy cream cheese. Because of milk shortages, soy-based milk and powdered soymilk have been developed. They also use soy derivatives as extenders in picadillos and hamburgers, which typically contain 70% texturized soy protein.

Cuban food in America

In the late '50s and '60s, and then again in the '90s, many Cubans emigrated to the United States, where the Cuban population now makes up about 4% of the total Hispanic population. About 80% live in the South, especially Florida.

Many Cuban enclaves, such as Little Havana in Miami, as well as neighborhoods in Key West, FL; New York; and Union City, NJ, have incorporated North American, Caribbean and other Latino ingredients in their diets. They generally use vegetable oils instead of lard. They eat less starchy vegetables and stews, while eating more salads, seafood and beef. Salsas often include nontraditional ingredients, such as corn, jicama and a variety of fruits.

"I grew up with Cuban food and lechon asado with white rice and black beans are my favorites," says Pete de la Teja, east coast sales manager, Wright Group, Crowley, LA, whose family migrated to New Jersey and then to Miami. "Cuban food, contrary to popular belief, is not spicy-hot like Mexican or Korean food. Cubans like complex flavors, herbal and seasoned, but not spicy. Garlic, onions, cumin, oregano, bay leaf, saffron and black pepper are commonly used. Arroz con pollo, boliche, ropa vieja, vaca frita, paella and harina con cangrejo are some Cuban favorites in Miami restaurants."

Latin American Café, White Plains, NY, run by Jose Rodriguez, was opened 15 years ago by his chef father, who came from a small seashore town of Caimito, near Havana. He serves many traditional Cuban foods, including roast pork (pernil), ropa vieja, tostones with mojo, stuffed potatoes with picadillo, oxtail stew (raba encendido) and pigs feet cooked in a tomato-based sauce (patitas de cerdo).

"As in Latin American menus, Cubans have similar themes, such as bistec salteado con cebollas (steak with onions) or bistec Milanesa (breaded steak with cheese)," says Rodriguez. He also offers some nuevo Cuban dishes, such as chicken and shrimp fra diablo Cuban style, with cilantro, garlic, bay leaf and soy sauce.

After the revolution, many Chinese Cubans came to the United States and opened up restaurants that targeted the Latin population, serving Cuban and Chinese dishes. Kenny Yee, whose father migrated from Cuba after 1969, operates La Chinita Linda in New York. It offers a unique menu of authentic Cuban and Chinese fare that attracts Latinos, Chinese and Americans. The menu includes tostones, pudding de pan, tamales, stewed beef, red and black beans, café con leche, egg rolls, egg foo yong, fried rice, lo mein, chicken in black-bean sauce and pepper steak.

Starters, snacks and salads

Cuban restaurants serve a wide array of starters and appetizers. Diced, cold vegetables are a favorite, as are croquetas (croquettes), chicharrones de puerco (pork cracklings), papas rellenas (stuffed potato balls), fruits with cheese, cheese balls, tasajo (jerky), chorizos, olives, cod fritters, stuffed avocados and tostones with mojo, green tomatoes in olive oil, and pizzas. And in Miami, local favorites include tamal Cubano (corn meal with seasoned pork wrapped in a corn husk), and empanadas and ham croqueta (breaded potato and cassava filled with ham and cheese).

Snacks (or bocaditos) are served at parrillada (street stalls), by vendors or at bars with cold beer or mojitos. Bocadillo (a sandwich with ham and cheese), masas de cerdo (morsels of pork) in mojo Criollo, fried duck, chicken wings, cangrejitos (crescent-shaped pastries with fillings), pizzas and tortillas (Spanish-style omelets) are enjoyed as snacks. Cubans also favor fried plantain chips, called chichachirritas or mariquitas, which they eat piping hot, sprinkled with salt or mojo seasoning. Also popular in Cuba are bunuelos, fried donuts, shaped like the number eight, made from yuca and sweet potato, flavored with aniseed, cinnamon and grated orange rind, and coated with sugar or served with syrup.

Simple salads that feature fresh vegetables include ensalada mixta, a mixture of diced bell peppers, chayote, cucumber and tomatoes; diced cabbage with beets, cucumber, tomatoes and onion; corn kernels and bell peppers with onions, green tomatoes, avocado and onion; and cold, diced potatoes with beets and French beans, peas and carrots. Flavorful dressings, whether a simple oil and vinegar with salt, mojo with onions, garlic and olive oil, or a drizzle of lime juice and chopped cilantro, accompany most salads.

Soups, stews and sweets

Cubans enjoy a variety of soups, often prepared with black beans, chicken, fufu, lentils, garbanzo beans with pig's feet, callaloo (leaves of taro plant), sweet potato, black olives, yuca, garlic and avocado. Creamed soups have also become popular. Stews, a heritage from both the Amerindians and the Spanish, are traditional midday meals in Cuba, served with bread, rice and roasted corn meal. "Ajiaco is a traditional Creole stew, made by women in plantations who used all kinds of leftover meats, vegetables and sweet ajis to feed the workers," says Josefina Alvarez, a Cuban cookbook author who has settled in Culver City, CA. "Other popular stews are carne guisada (chicken, ham, plantain, squash, carrots and malanga), okra stew with pork and fufu, caldo Gallego (beans, chorizos, ham, collard greens and potatoes), and congri Santiago (red beans, pork, sausages and habaneros)."

Cubans prefer white rice (long grain) or rice tinged with saffron, annatto or tomatoes, accompanied by a bowl of black beans. Rice also is prepared with red kidney beans, chickpeas, chicken, chorizo or ham, and as paella Cubano (using Valencia rice) and fried rice. About 50% of rice consumed in Cuba is called "popular rice," which is grown locally by family-run establishments, small-scale producers and small cooperatives using sustainable methods of farming that require very little energy input. The rest is produced by state-run farms or imported from China, Vietnam and Korea.

Cubans favor sugar-rich desserts, like natilla (crème caramels flavored with vanilla or rum), churros (long curls or bite-sized rolls of fried batter), pan dulce (sweet rolls) and guayaba con queso (guava and cheese). Cuba's favorite ice creams, flavored with local fruits, like guava, pineapple, coconut, passion fruit or pomegranate, are sold in nationwide Coppelia ice cream parlors. Other desserts include coco quemado (sweet coconut pudding), cucurucho (made of shredded coconut, fruits, nuts and sugar) and mermelada de mango con queso, a salty, sweet-tart combination of mango marmalade with yellow cheese. A variety of fresh fruits also make good desserts, including guanabana (soursop), zapote, mango, guava, cherimoya, custard apple, pineapple and carambola.

Drink up

Before, during and after a meal, many Cubans might enjoy a flavorful drink. Batidos or milk-based fruit shakes with or without rum, local canned soft drinks, such as lemonade (cachito), orangeade (najita) and cola (tropicola), guarapo (freshly pressed sugar cane juice), pru (an Eastern favorite made with fermented spices) and malta (malt beverage). Americans also enjoy Cuban-inspired beverages, including the Cuba libre (rum, cola and lime) and mojito (sugar, rum, lime juice and mint). Popular, rum-based fruit punches include pinerito, with grapefruit juice; maragato, with orange juice; and ponche, with pineapple juice.

Cubans drink their coffee very hot, served in a small cup, with a lot of sugar and sometimes laced with chicory or rum. Many Cuban restaurants in the United States serve café con leche, Havana cappuccino (with Cuban coffee, chocolate syrup and steamed milk topped with whipped cream and cinnamon), chocolate caliente or leche con chocolate. Cuban Americans also enjoy processed beverages, such as lemon-lime, pineapple, herba maté, watermelon, cola/champagne soda and coco rico (coconut) soda.

Meat matters

Beef, poultry, pork and seafood are important parts of the Cuban diet. The most popular meats in Cuba (in order) are pork, chicken and beef. They also like exotic meats, such as wild boar, crocodile and turtle, as well as ducks, goat, partridge, quail and guinea fowl.

Chicken comes prepared in numerous ways: as roasted (asado), cooked in Criollo sauce; as ground or picadillo; grilled and topped with onions (palomilla); breaded and deep fried; topped with sauce, ham and cheese (a La Milanesa); cooked slowly in sofrito with potatoes and olives (fricassee); and added to Cuban sandwiches, salads and croquettes.

Beef, though scarce in Cuba, is popularly enjoyed as Criollo-style shredded beef (ropa vieja) and ground beef Cuban style (picadillo a la Cubana). Other favorite versions include roast beef (carne asada); meatballs (albondigas); salted, dried beef (tasajo); fried, seasoned flank steak (vaca frita); pot roast stuffed with ham (boliche); and breaded and deep-fried, topped with raw onions (bistec empanizado).

Pork, the most widely consumed meat in Cuba, has many methods of preparation, including seasoned and barbecued or grilled as filetes de cerdo; pork chunks marinated in garlic sauce, deep fried and topped with mojo (masitas de puerco fritas); and pork meatballs in hot sauce. But the tender lechon asado (pork marinated with garlic, oregano, cilantro and orange juice) is the Cuban favorite. Media noche, the hearty Cuban grilled sandwich with pork, ham and Swiss cheese, topped with pickles and mustard on a sweet egg-based bread, is a lunch favorite. Lamb is prepared in wine sauce and herbs, as kebabs, or as picadillo, and goat meat is favored in stews.

Cuba's surrounding sea provides abundant fish, crustaceans and mollusks, but for reasons of economy and ecology, seafood is generally not eaten except in paladares, where red snapper is commonly served. In Miami, seafood is often added to paellas; roasted, baked or grilled with mojo marinade; pickled with onions and capers in Criollo sauce; served as bacalao in tomato sauce; or served fra diablo style.

Versatile veggies and more

Viandes comprise a large part of Cuban meals. They are boiled, baked, fried or stewed and drizzled with mojo dressing. Yuca, a staple of the Arawak diet; malanga (taro), enjoyed by African slaves; and batatas (potatoes) from the Europeans, are mashed with hard-boiled eggs, stuffed with picadillo or boiled with chorizos. They are also made into breads, snacks and desserts including yuca bunuelo, boniato (sweet potato) flan or malanga fritters.

Plantains also are a favorite and people prepare them in numerous ways. Fufu (boiled, mashed and dressed with seasonings or with chicharrones), tostones (fried green plantains) and maduro (fried ripe plantains) are most popular. They also mash green plantains and mix them with picadillo and melted cheese for pastel de platano, or cut them into thin fried, salted wafers called mariquitas.

Black beans and red kidney beans are staples in the Cuban diet, cooked with rice, added to stews and salads, served as soups with pork or jerked meats, and snacked as fritters. Black-eyed beans, navy beans, garbanzo and split peas add bulk to stews that are flavored with pigs feet, calabaza, ham, chicken, flank steak, potatoes, chorizo, paprika, garlic and oregano.

Calaloo, an African/Cuban favorite, is made into a stew, while calabaza (Caribbean squash), from the Amerindians, is added to pork stews and soups. Avocado (aguacate), brought from Mexico by the Spanish, is added to salsas, soups, sauces and desserts. Fermented corn is mixed with sugar, cooked into a paste, then wrapped in banana leaves and served with meats. Tomaton (tomatilla) is eaten fresh or pickled for salads. Dried coconut meat is cooked with sugar for a sweet called cucurucho, and added to stews and soups in the eastern region.

Spicy or saucy

Cubans use a light hand with spices. Onions and garlic are the essential seasonings. Paprika is added to Spanish-influenced dishes, while habaneros heat up the African-inspired dishes. Also popular are oregano and cumin, particularly in chicken, meat and fish dishes. Allspice and marjoram are used for stews (ropa vieja) and soups, laurel or bay leaf combines with chiles and red beans for congri Santiago, while cinnamon is added to desserts, barbecued pork and carne asada (roast beef). Cubans also use parsley and cilantro in salads and as garnishes, while the ground seeds flavor bean dishes. Rosemary adds flavor to roast pork and lamb dishes while oregano and thyme season chicken, beef and vegetables.

Cuba promotes spices as natural medicines; they are even the subject of an ongoing research project with the country's Ministry of Health. Cubans use them in dried forms, tinctures, infusions and elixirs. They use garlic, the all-purpose seasoning, to improve circulation; spearmint, which flavors desserts and sauces for seafood and meat dishes, helps reduce flatulence; and they drink peppermint in teas to relax. Oregano, which flavors meat and tomato sauces, is taken as an expectorant while basil added to tomato-based sauces and soups clears headaches. Clove in coffee soothes an aching tooth.

You'll often find sauces and condiments on many Cuban meal tables. Mojo is Cuba's symbolic seasoning. It is a tart condiment that perks up everything on the meal table, from grilled seafood, meats and tostones, to boiled viandes and Cuban sandwiches. Traditional mojo includes olive oil, garlic, sour-orange juice, cumin, oregano and black pepper, but most restaurants have a simple version made with lemon juice, vinegar and sugar with sliced onions or chopped garlic.

Cuban sofrito, also a base for salsa Criolla, is a paste of finely chopped garlic, onions, tomato and bell peppers that is fried in lard or olive oil, flavored with black pepper, cilantro and paprika, and maybe colored with annatto. Sofrito is a basic cooking paste for fish and poultry, rice dishes, soups, and stews and is also used as a spread. Cubans rub meats and poultry generally with salt, oregano, cumin, black pepper, and lime or orange juice.

Annatto (achiote) powder with spices provides a reddish-orange tinge and a pungent taste to fish, stews, poultry and meats. Mixed with lime juice and olive oil, it makes a flavorful grilling or barbecue marinade. Others sauces and dressings (alinos) include cucumber salsa, aguacate salsa, salsa borracha (with tomatoes, rum and chiles), green-tomato salsa, and peanut sauce.

Bringing Cuban to the masses

Cuban flavors are mild, light and slightly tart. Formulators can easily incorporate popular flavors, like garlic, olive oil and lemon juice, into marinades, condiments, soups and salsas for Hispanic and American mainstream processed foods. Many Americans, as well as Cubans and other Hispanics, already enjoy sofrito, fruit salsas, bean soups, and rice and beans. Cuban stews, especially vegetarian, add a new dimension to mainstream stews. Mojo, with a variety of fruit flavors, offers new twists for pork, chicken, beef and fish marinades, as well as salad dressings. Plantain, boniata and yuca chips present new opportunities for additions to the snack aisle. Many new yogurt flavors or beverages blended with Cuban fruits might appeal to the mass market, which already enjoy tropical tastes. As de la Teja says: "Sauces for seafood, with olive oil and citrus notes, as well as salad dressings with cumin notes and oregano, and black bean soup with olive oil and bay leaves, are several products that are not currently found in the market, but would sell well."


Susheela Raghavan is president of Horizons Consulting, LLC, a New Rochelle, NY-based food-consulting firm, which provides product development services, specializing in ethnic and "new" food and beverage concepts, for the U.S and global markets. Ms. Raghavan can be reached via e-mail at [email protected], or by visiting www.SusheelaConsulting.com.

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