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!
AFRO-CUBAN CUISINE: COMIDA CRIOLLA
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.
OLIVE OIL AND SOFRITO
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.
CUBAN TUBER VEGETABLES: YUCA, MALANGA AND BONIATO
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.
CUBAN BEVERAGES: MALTA, IRONBER, AND MATERVA
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.