The Traditional Diet of Cuba
Here’s lookin’ at you, Kid. Photo courtesy of Pasqualinonet
Today, we move along to the Caribbean, specifically the island of Cuba. We’re actually going to be spending our next few posts exploring South and Central America and the Caribbean rather than globe hopping. There is a method to my madness.
History of Cuban Cooking:
Cuban cuisine is another example of one that has been highly influenced by flavors from the outside. The island was settled by the Taino and Ciboney tribes, but in the early 1500s was conquered by the Spanish, like most of the rest of the Americas. Later, slavery introduced Africans, while trade brought French, British, Portugese, and Dutch influences. These influences lend a flavor quite different from that found throughout the rest of the Caribbean, as well as in South America.
I don’t think there are many myths surrounding Cuban cuisine, given the relative difficulty of US citizens traveling there. It’s only been in recent years that Cuban restaurants have really started popping into prominence in this country. My hometown of Louisville has only had it’s one Cuban restaurant, Havana Rumba, for about six years. From discussions with people, they expect Cuban cuisine to be “spicy” in the same sense as is Mexican cuisine, but that is a myth. Chili peppers are not used as a main flavor. In fact, Cuban cuisine is quite different from Mexican cooking across the board.
According to one Cuban chef, the food is not difficult to cook as the island’s poverty makes the food quite basic.(1) Here’s a quick rundown of a typical day’s eating:(2)
A typical Cuban breakfast consists of a tostada [toasted bread] and cafe con leche….Additionally, some may eat ham croquetas, smoky creamed ham shaped in finger rolls, lightly breaded, and then fried.
Lunch consists of empanadas, chicken or meat turnovers, or cuban sandwiches. The sandwich could be a media noche (midnight sandwich), consisting of a slice of pork, ham, and swiss cheese and then topped with pickles and mustard on sweetened egg bread. The pan con bistec is a thin slice of palomilla steak on Cuban bread garnished with lettuce, tomatoes, and fried potato sticks. One may also order a side of mariquitas, thinly sliced plantain chips, to accompany their hearty sandwich.
For snack time, Cuban bakeries are famous for their finger foods, such as pastelitos [flaky turnovers], croquetas, bocaditos [finger sandwiches], and empanadas.
Dinner will usually consist of a meat, chicken, or fish dish as the entree accompanied by white rice, black beans, and maduros, sweet fried plantains. At times, a small salad of sliced tomatos and onions or avocados might be added to the meal. The meal is followed by dessert, such as the typical flan, a Cuban caramel-flavored custard, and another shot of cafe cubano.
So we can see what we’re working with here. Lots of bread, rice, beans, and other carbalicious ingredients. Though I do have to say that the midnight sandwich sounds delightful. Luckily, Cubans know how to do it up at the holidays.(2)
For holidays or special occasions, the one dish that typifies Cuban cuisine would be a small pig, marinated with salt, garlic, and sour orange juice, and then roasted over an open fire, and slowly cooked for several hours.
Sofrito is a base for…well, pretty much everything. This sauce consists mainly of onions, garlic, peppers, and tomatoes, but often also includes flavors such as cumin, oregano, bay leaf, cilantro, and culantro.(3) It’s added to everything from rice to stews to picadillo. Olive oil is also widely used on the island.
Cuban cuisine features a great deal of slow cooking, featuring lots of slow cooked meats, soups, and stews.(4) The soups and stews usually make use of the prodigious quantities of beans that Cubans are able to purchase through their Libreta de Abastecimiento food rationing system. These dishes are usually combined with rice. Meats are usually cooked to “fall off the bone” status, often chicken or pork, with beef and lamb being more rare. The rarity of beef comes from the fact that all cows are government owned and rationed. The coastal areas also feature a good bit of seafood, mostly fish, but occasionally lobster.
Going back to the simplicity of Cuban meals, we get a wide variety of sandwiches. There’s the medianoche mentioned above, along with the sandwich found in many US cities, usually called a Cubano. Both of these grilled sandwiches are typically made with roast pork, sliced ham, swiss cheese, pickles, and mustard, the medianoche arriving on egg loaf rather than Cuban bread. Other sandwiches are made with pork or beef and onions; turkey, cream cheese, and marmalade; or chorizo sausage.
And we all know about the cocktails that are closely associated with Cuba: mojito, daquiri, cubalibre, and pina colada. All of these feature Cuba’s major distilled spirit, rum. One that sounds tasty is the Telegrama, made of rum and mint liquor.
The main dish at the evening meal is usually a meat dish, so that’s a good starting point for including this delicious cuisine into our lives. Beyond that, we have the main spices of onion and garlic, both healthful inclusions in your diet. The problem is that quite a few of the meat dishes also feature some type of starch, often in the form of soup or stew, hearkening back to the qualification of Cuban cuisine as typical peasant food. Luckily there are plenty of dishes that are solely meat, usually marinated and slow-cooked, which is always an enjoyable treat.
Another good note is that lard features, or rather used to feature, prominently in Cuban cooking. Unfortunately, it has been unseated by vegetable oil. Avoid the vegetable oils and don’t be afraid of using real lard in your cooking.
While many Cuban recipes feature nightshades, especially those using sofrito as their base, many make use of onion, garlic, and citrus juices as their main flavorings. There are a few nightshades used throughout Cuban cooking, though the cuisine is not especially spicy. It is noteworthy that the Habanero pepper, probably the hottest pepper any of us have ever tasted, is named for Havana, Cuba. But alas, it is pretty easy to find Cuban recipes that don’t use any nightshades if you are trying to avoid them.
First of all, we have to cut way back on the starch. Cubans love their starchy vegetables, roots forming the bulk of their vegetable intake. One writer, a Cuban refugee, remarks: “Now that I know, I realize that growing up I only had one vegetable: potato!”(4) Course, she also tells us to try some refugee cheese and powdered milk. Other root vegetables of note are yuca, malanga, and boniato. Let’s not forget the plantain, a banana relative, that is also a staple at the Cuban table. Other than the potato, there is no reason to completely exclude any of these foods from your diet, but portion sizes and perhaps timing of consumption is going to be important. For instance, I would consider one of these to be either a cheat or use it after a strenuous workout.
And there’s also the prodigious grain and bean intake. Bean soups served with rice, rice and beans cooked together, corn soups, sandwiches, empanadas, the list goes on. Make no mistake, this is a very high carb cuisine. The heavy emphasis on starch comes at the expense of ingredients that are central to any healthful diet, vegetables. As the writer above said, potato was the only vegetable she had growing up. There are few vegetarian dishes to speak of that aren’t rice and/or beans based. Cubans do use some lettuce, tomatoes, onions, peppers, and avocado to make salads, but these also do not appear to be a feature of their meals
The other staple of Cuban life, at least if you live in the United States and have been unexposed to the island, is the Cuban cigar. I probably don’t need to tell you to avoid those. There’s word that smoking is bad for your health.
Here are a few of the less well-known items in Cuban cuisine that you may be able to find in your local Hispanic market.
- Yuca – Also known as cassava and manioc. An extremely starchy root, giving “the highest yield of food energy per cultivated area per day among crop plants, except possibly for sugarcane.” As important to Cuba as the potato is to Ireland.
- Malanga – A vegetable closely related to taro root.
- Boniato – A tropical sweet potato, often considered a cross between a baking potato and a sweet potato in flavor and color
- Recao – Also known as culantro, a stronger version of cilantro
A Few Recipes:
Meat and such
- Lechon Asado – Roast pork, typically made with the whole pig (like the freakish picture at the top…sorry bout that), but how many of us have enough eaters to cook a whole pig? This one uses a ham, Recipe
- Pavo Rellano – Stuffed turkey. Ditch the beans and rice and it’s downright Paleo, though not authentic Cuban, Recipe
- Picadillo – A ground beef dish, Recipe
- Boliche – A chorizo stuffed roast, Recipe
Sides, Appetizers, and Salads
- Mariquitas – Not to be confused with margaritas, these are thinly sliced plantain chips. Probably shouldn’t be included very often as it’s fried starch, Recipe
- Yuca con mojo – Yuca with garlic sauce, Recipe
- Sofrito – The base of many Cuban dishes, Recipe
- Mojo criollo – Traditional garlic sauce, Recipe
- Alcaparrado – A mixture of olives, capers, and pimiento, Recipe
One source for purchasing some of the ingredients that you may not see in your local grocery is The Cuban Food Market. And there we have it, a trip through Cuba with perhaps a bit of background on the country’s roots. I don’t think we have as many foods, especially in the vegetable department, for inclusion in our lifestyles, but we have definitely picked up how to create the Cuban taste with sofrito, mojo crilollo, and alcaparrado. These sauces can easily be used as a base for other non-Cuban meals to create a Cuban-American infusion. Feliz el comer! (Not sure if that is how a Spanish-speaking person would say that, but I’m not Spanish-speaking…work with me here!)