The Cuban Kitchen

Most people who haven't tasted Cuban cuisine (such an elegant word) think our food is typically spicy. Wrong! We sure are spicy -- as a culture -- but when cooking we leave the tongue-stinging peppers to those flirting with gastrointestinal problems of astronomical proportions. Leave the hole in the stomach lining for other cultures, thank you very much. We'll stick to the artery clogging fried plantains, dense meat dishes with salsita, and overabundant plates of rich frijoles negros con arroz.


The main ingredient for almost every traditional Cuban dish is "sofrito," a sauté of onions, green peppers, garlic, oregano and bay leaves. I'm surprised we don't use sofrito in our desserts, but hey, we must keep some things sacred!


Cuban cooking is influenced by Indigenous, African, Arabic, Chinese, Portuguese, and Spanish cultures. Our comida criolla, Creole food, is influenced by African and Spanish cultures. We Cubans don't concern ourselves with measuring anything, much like our Taino and Afro-Cuban ancestors. We seem to have been born knowing how much salt, water, or cumin to add to food. And as for timing, who cares? Who can't tell when a fricase de pollo is done, anyway? When you sniff the air and it smells exquisite, jam your finger into a piece of chicken, puncture it to the core, rip out a piece, taste it and make sure it's not pink inside. If it needs more salt, add it. Cubans hardly deep fry food, except for tostones/deep fried mashed plantains, croquetas, vaca frita/fried cow, pescado frito/fried fish, masitas de puerco fritas/tender fried pork rinds, yuca frita, empanaditas, frituritas de bacalao/cod fish fritters, etc. Normally, as you can clearly see, we sauté and slow-cook almost everything.


Much like los Griegos -- the Greeks -- we use olive oil for all our saucing. A Cuban household without olive oil is like a bath without water. Olive oil and sofrito are our secret ingredients used for cooking black beans, stews, meats, fish, and anything, really. Meats and poultry are marinated in lime or naranja agria juices (sour oranges) and salt. We know how to cook slowly till the meat melts in your mouth.


As for typical vegetables, I never knew they existed, except for tomatoes and potatoes. But tomato is a fruit, the savvy reader is saying to her/himself. Yes. Now that I know, I realize that growing up I only had one vegetable: potato! Luckily, I loved stocky meals with potatoes and lots of salsita, 'cause I hate baked potatoes. They taste like dirty air. Cubans devour root vegetables in every meal, such as boniato, malanga and yuca. Yuca con mojo is a popular Cuban dish served during holidays that I, and every Cuban, love. It's made with mojito: olive oil, lemon juice, sliced raw onions and garlic. Yuca is exquisite if left marinating a while before serving, and is a typical Cuban food.


Malta and leche condensada. Malta with condensed milk is a typical Cuban beverage. I always thought you added leche condensada (condensed milk) to all soft drinks. Then there's Materva, Ironbeer, Cawy and all those wonderful flavors. A Cuban float would be Coca-Cola, condensed milk and "mantecado" ice cream. Try it!


Now comes the brow-raising part: Cuban Children are raised on espresso. You heard right. Perhaps this is why we are such a hyperactive, happy-go-lucky bunch. I'm surprised we haven't invented flying cars yet or used our neuro energy for the benefit of the planet. I guess we've spent all that caffeine energy that could light up Miami for dancing and drumming. It is common for Cubans to drink café cubano first thing in the morning, after meals and sometimes as a social and cultural activity. Whether someone comes to visit your home, or a chance meeting on the street, following the initial "hello," an offer is always extended to have a "café."


Being Cuban is having tostada con cafe con leche every morning for breakfast. The smells of Cuban bread and butter filled the house with the aroma of sugar cane fields and visuals of swaying palms. Take a bite of the tostada and daydream about going back to Cuba, beautiful Cuba, the Pearl of the Antilles, until yuu are handed the cafe con leche cup. The first sip, and you are zooming! Cafe con leche is made with espresso, boiling milk, six truckloads of sugar and a pinch of salt. You're not Cuban if you don't dunk the bread into the cafe con leche and eat it soggy. The cafe con leche cup will eventually have a ring of melted butter, which will dissolve in your mouth for a delicious last sip. Break time for every Cuban on earth -- I don't care if you live in a cave or in the North Pole -- is the time for a cafecito Cubano. This is how Cubans built Miami... on speed.


Lunches for Cubans are simple, not a time for cooking. We normally have Cuban sandwiches. The media noche replete with slices of ham, pork, cheese, pickles, mustard, globs of mayonnaise on sweet egg bread is our most common merienda. The pan con bistec has thin palomilla steak, tomato slices and potato sticks. Ironber or Malta are the sodas of choice. Mariquitas -- thinly sliced plantain chips -- always accompany our sandwiches. And after lunch, of course, it's siesta time!


Cubans don't miss a snack. Pastelitos (pastries filled with guava, cheese or meat), croqueticas, or papa rellena (stuffed potatoes) are our daily snacks followed with a shot of cafecito. CUBAN DINNERS Dinners consist of a stocky meats, chicken, or fish dishes accompanied by white rice, black beans, and sweet fried plantains. Our family never went a day without a side dish of sliced tomato and onion salad. Avocados and sliced onions are eaten sometimes, instead of the tomato salad. A typical desser is a flan with a cafecito. CUBAN CAFECITOS As you can see, we drink lots of cafecitos. Cafe is in our blood and bones. We are nothing, absolutely nothing, without cafe!


During the holidays, Cubans love cooking special food. They roast a pig marinated in salt, garlic, and sour orange juice over an open fire. Congri -- white rice and black bean mix -- yucca con mojo, avocado, tomato and onion salad and maduros are our staples, along with walnuts, almonds and turrones. Materva soda is our favorite pop. So now that you know a bit about Cuban food and cooking history, I hope you enjoy cooking some Cuban food. You won't be sorry. Make your first Cuban meal a cultural feast to remember and don't have it any other way but traditional.



Tamale Casserole Cuban Style- Tamal en Cazuela
Tamal en Cazuela