Cuba, a land of sandy beaches, hills, and rugged mountains lies 100 miles south of Florida. It is the largest island in the Caribbean and is affectionately called “El Cocodrilo” (the crocodile) because of its shape. Its tropical climate allows for a diverse flora and fauna and the cultivation of multiple agricultural products. Given its geographical position, Cuba is truly a mixture of races and cultures. There are African, French, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, and Portuguese influences.
Before the arrival of the Spaniards Cuba was populated by indigenous tribes from South America who had occupied the territory since 3500 B.C. By about 1200 B.C the Taino ( a seafaring tribe related to the Arawak) had successfully begun to oust the previously established tribes. The Taino adhered to a strict division of social classes (3 in total). They formed successful agricultural communities where they grew yam, peanuts, tobacco, made pottery, and baskets.
Christopher Columbus discovered Cuba during his first voyage to the Americas. It was later claimed for the Spanish crown by Diego Velazquez, and in 1514 multiple settlements throughout the island were established under the Spanish crown.
The Spanish brought pigs, horses, and cattle, which had never been seen before in the Americas. When the Spanish arrived, they formed large agricultural estates where Indians were used for hard labor. Unfortunately for the Indians, the Spanish also brought smallpox, a disease to which the indigenous populations were not immune to, and as a result the majority of them (about 90%) died. This situation created a labor problem for the Spanish land owners who needed extensive manpower to work the land. Thus began the import of African slaves into Cuba and the cultural influx of a new ethnic group.
In 1512 sugar was introduced as a crop and in the 1700’s tobacco became the major crop. The arrival of the French in neighboring Haiti at the end of the 1700’s ushered in the era of the coffee plantations which brought Cuba to occupy a powerful position in the coffee trade. If you’ve never had a cup of Cuban coffee, you must. As my son would say, “it will change your life.”
Cuba’s multiple ethnic influences are reflected in its food. The predominant seasonings in Cuban food are: oregano, cumin, cilantro and bay leaves. Meats are usually marinated in citrus juices which impart a zesty flavor on the food, as well as act as a tenderizer. Cuban food is heavy, peasant food, slow cooked (very important) and bursting with flavor. It is amazing. A symphony for the taste buds. The absence of heavy sauces is intriguing given the French influence. Cuban food is simple, and genuine; it is comfort food at its best.
The base for most Cuban foods and stews is something called “sofrito” ; a tomato based concentrate consisting of tomatoes, onions, garlic, cilantro, cumin, salt and pepper. It is this rich concoction that gives Cuban food its fabulous flavors. Root vegetables are also present in Cuban cuisine. Among these we find yuca, malanga and boniato which are usually accompanied by mojo-a citrus based dressing consisting of olive oil, lemon juice, raw onion, garlic, and cumin; it is normally served warm.
I love the diversity and deep flavors of Cuban foods, not to mention the interesting names some of them have: Moros y Ctistianos, Vaca Frita, Medianoche just to name a few. Below I have created a small glossary of the most common Cuban foods including some of my favorites. I also want to give credit to my friend Laura for allowing me the use of these photos she took during her recent trip to Cuba.
Boliche– A slow roasted pork stuffed with chorizo.
Boniato- A variety of a sweet potato with a creamy white flesh.
Yuca- a root vegetable with a brown skin. It is often dubbed the Latin American potato. Mild flavor.
Malanga-a root vegetable with a shaggy, brown, and thin skin. Its flavor is slightly nutty. It can be boiled, or fried (as chips).
Congri– seasoned black beans and white rice.
Croquetas– a creamy fritter in the shape of an oval. It can be made with ham, chicken or fish. They make a great appetizer or light meal.
Flan- A custard dessert flavored with vanilla, served with a caramel sauce.
Mariquitas– These are green plantain chips that are thinly cut on a bias. They are salted and often served as an appetizer.
Medianoche– A delicious sandwich consisting of roast pork, ham, cheese and pickles on a sweet egg dough bread.
Ropa Vieja– a roast slow cooked in sofrito. It is then shredded to resemble rags, hence its quirky name.
Maduros– Ripe plantain cut on a bias and fried. They have a sweet taste. Often served as an accompaniment to a main meal.
Moros y Cristianos– A typical dish of seasoned black beans and rice. Also called congri.
Vaca Frita– literally means fried cow. This is usually a flank steak that is slow cooked, pounded and then pan fried with onions and peppers.