There is nothing like eating pastelitos and croquetas at Abuela’s house and dipping your tostada in café con leche.
Cuban food, like the culture, is an accidental blend of native Taino, European (mostly Spanish with a splash of French and Portuguese) African, and Caribbean food, with a hint of Chinese.
Whether you like ropa vieja or vaca frita, it doesn’t matter. Classic Cuban cuisine fills the mouth with saliva and anticipation.
Because of Cuba’s climate, tropical fruits and root vegetables are used a lot. And many dishes incorporate seafood as it is readily abundant on the island.
Cuba has had immigrants from all over the world, yet one of the most impactful additions was made by African slaves, who invented the most beloved of Cuban foods – tostones! They reinvented the banana and plantain, eventually flattening and cooking the plantains.
The natives on the island cultivated corn and cassava, as well as a variety of other fruits and vegetables, and introduced them to the Spanish colonizers, who had brought over cattle and pigs from Spain.
China’s influence was significant as they were the first to bring in rice. It wasn’t until the Indian and Chinese in the late 1800s that rice began being cultivated, since no one else knew how. It is one of the biggest staple foods not just of Cuba, but of all Latin America. Rice was actually considered an “exotic” food for many years, as it was not native to Cuba or Spain.
Beans on the other hand, were native to the island, and arroz con frijoles have been married ever since. When the two foods are mixed together, they are called moros, (or moros y cristianos) meaning the Moors and Christians; the black beans representing the dark Muslim Moors, the white rice the Christians. (This reference was probably created by the Spanish settlers who opposed the 8th century Islamic conquest of Spain that lasted until the Reconquista in the 15th century.)
The Chinese immigrants made yet another impact on Cuban food – la caja china. This came from Cubans watching Chinese indentured laborers in Chinatown cooking their meals on makeshift wooden boxes with unorthodox fires that placed the heat at the top of the box. Their creation was extremely efficient and left the traditional pig soft and tender, solidifying la caja china as a staple of Cuban festivities.
Another Cuban staple, and perhaps, addiction, is coffee. Cortaditos can feel very strong if you’re not used to it. This potent shot of coffee is not only required for sleepy eyes and afternoon lulls in Cuba, but in Miami as well, where ventanitas, or little windows, of Cuban diners dole out tiny plastic cups filled with steaming shots of electricity.
And of course, every cafecito goes well with a pastelito, like the famous pastel de guayaba. Its origins are unknown, but one version is that this invention came from a Lebanese man in Cuba who wanted to replicate the bak-lava from back home. He couldn’t find the Mediterranean ingredients, so he modified them to include guava, cheese, and coconut. Another theory proposes it was the slaves working in Spanish and Cuban sugar mills who invented it; and yet another believes it is native to Cuban households who served it as an appetizer or dessert.
Food was never a problem on this plentiful island until Castro made food sources sparse and the quality low. The chefs and restaurant owners of 1950s luxurious Cuba fled the country, and the nationalization of farms and mills deteriorated crop production and quality, exporting all the good harvests.
Cuban restaurants became government owned, and notorious for their slow service and bland meals. The few privately run paladares were under strict guidelines and affected by the unavailability of menu items since food became government property and food shortages a part of daily life.
In Miami, however, Cuban food has become the city’s food – serving Cubans and non-Cubans alike. Unlike most big cities, Miami’s coffee culture doesn’t revolve around low lights and indie music, rather through loud little windows playing Latin radio boasting laughter and “mi vida” and “mi cielo”.
Little Havana, a distinctly Cuban district near Miami’s Downtown, has Cuban restaurants popular for Cubans and gringos alike. And croquetas and pasteles can be found in dozens of gas stations.
Cuban food has had its evolutions, but the distinct Cubanness always remains. Cuban sushi? Put a platano on it. Ice cream? Mix it with mamey.
WE WANT TO HEAR FROM YOU
The culinary section of Cuban Heritage aims to highlight memories of your favorite foods. How do you like your cafecito, and what did it feel like the first time you experienced a spoonful of flan? We will curate recipes and guide you through the best Cuban restaurants. We want your abuelita’s recipe for meringues. We want to know your favorite spot for a cortadito. And we want to watch your family gathered around their own caja china. This section is for you to globally share your mom’s arroz con pollo, even if she won’t share how she manages to make it so moist.