The most important thing I ever learned from my Cuban family is that food is powerful. I learned how to cook Cuban food with my mother in law. She prepares many dishes for me, and I took the time while in a vacation to learn from her. Here is a little bit of history of Cuban food and tradition which inspires me very much. Every time I go to Cuba, I always take the opportunity to learn and taste something new.
Cuban cuisine is simple but robust. One of its most popular home-cooking styles is called ‘criollo’ in reference to its Spanish origins. The main ingredients in criollo are chicken, beef, pork, eggs, beans, rice and vegetables like tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers, cassava (yucca) and plantain (a starchy fruit similar to a banana). This is peasant food at its best when spiced with the king and queen of Cuban seasonings: ajo (garlic) and onion.
Criollo has a European influenced offshoot, too, thanks to the contributions made by international travelers visiting Havana, Cuba’s capital. They collectively helped to develop Cuban-fusion cuisine back when blending food cultures was just called creative experimentation. Western criollo adds a few ingredients like flour, raisins, capers and olives, and uses them in new or expanded ways. There are also Asian influences in sweet and sour and rice dishes. In the 1800s, Cuba had a small influx of Chinese laborers whose descendants make up about one percent of the population.
For a relatively small country, Cuba has lots of culinary abundances, even with food rationing the state-run restaurants can obscure its dynamic potential. A good example is the cuisine of Eastern Cuba, which borrows generously from the Caribbean and African culinary traditions in its use of coconut, chocolate, honey, annatto seeds, and other spices.
Cuban food uses fresh ingredients prepared simply, often in stews, soups, and sandwiches. Meats are slowly roasted until they’re falling-off-the-bone tender. Beyond the ever-popular garlic and onions, other common spices used in Cuban cooking are bay laurel, oregano, coriander, cumin, and pepper. Many sauces have a tomato base. Sofrito is one example. Think of it as a flavor roux made without flour. Instead, it combines aromatic ingredients like tomatoes, garlic, green bell pepper, chorizo and onion with olive oil over low heat. Sofrito is often used to add depth and complexity to rice and bean dishes, soups and stews.
Here are some other traditional Cuban favorites:
Empanadas (empanadillas) and Pastelitos: meat-stuffed, fried or baked turnovers similar to Italian calzones.
Arroz con pollo – chicken and rice
Boliche – stuffed pot roast
Boniato con mojo – sweet potatoes in a garlic citrus sauce
Cocido de garbanzos – chickpea stew
Congri – red beans and rice
Dulce de leche – caramel sauce from sweet milk used to flavor cookies, cakes and candy
Flan – a pie or tart, often with a custard base, used as both a sweet and savory dish
Huevos habaneros – eggs Havana-style with tomatoes, peppers and cumin
La Caldosa – Chicken soup
Maduros – fried sweet plantains
Moros y cristianos – black beans and rice
Pan con bistec – a steak sandwich on pressed cuban bread
Pan con lechón – a roasted pork sandwich on pressed cuban bread
Pulpeta – meatloaf
Rabo encendido – oxtail stew
Ropa vieja – shredded flank steak or other meat in a rich sauce.
Cuba is culture, nature, history, magic and traditions