Cuba's digital destination
by Margaret Atkins
Some say that Cubans live to eat. As with most generalizations this is an exaggeration and somewhat imprecise but it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t contain some truth to it. Cubans love food and they spend a large part of their time and resources to acquire and process it. I’ve always had the impression that the average Cuban suffers from the anxiety to ensure enough food and that this has ended up making him or her eat more than what they really need. Economic difficulties and product shortages in the markets may have conditioned that worry and it is quite common to hear the following phrase, especially among women who are almost always the ones in charge of the cooking: “Let me see what I’m going to invent tonight for supper.” That phrase encapsulates the entire process of buying, preparing and serving the evening meal that brings together the family around the table at about seven every evening.
The most basic Cuban menu includes rice along with either red or black beans. On occasion, they are prepared together in a recipe that possibly originated in Haiti known as “congrí” or “moros y cristianos,” depending on the type of beans used. This combination, acknowledged by food experts to have superb nutritional value, has sustained many Cubans through difficult times. A square meal must include a main course, which can take the form of a meat dish, like pork or poultry, eggs, croquettes, meat patties, or some processed foods like sausages or smoked pork. This gets accompanied by root vegetables such as sweet potatoes, yam, cassava, potatoes, squash, or green plantains, which can be boiled or fried. And of course, a salad is a must, which may include avocado, tomatoes, cabbage, lettuce, green beans, carrots or beets. There should always be something for dessert given the sugar industry heritage of the country which still exerts a considerable influence on the Island’s customs. People eat a lot of those home-made concoctions that may include fruits in their own syrup, cakes, flans and puddings.
Other possible menus include composite rice dishes (very common for family get-togethers and on Sundays); the most important of these include Cuban paella (mixture of rice, meats and seafood), “arroz con pollo a la chorrera” (a moist rice dish with chicken), Chinese-style fried rice, and rice combined with all sorts of other ingredients, including pork, fish or vegetables. Soups are immensely popular and most of them are made from chicken broth. Another widely popular dish throughout the entire country is the “ajiaco,” a traditional Cuban stew that contains large chunks of pork, beef, chorizo and a medley of vegetables. The term “ajiaco” was used by ethnologist Fernando Ortiz to describe the mixture of religions and customs that make up the Cuban identity.
The important holiday celebrations tend to be distinguished by the presence of roast pork, especially in the countryside and this is a symbol of festivities and “cubania,” or genuine Cuban spirit. On December 31, in cities throughout the provinces and in the courtyards and on sidewalks of Havana neighborhoods, you can always see whole pigs on spits over beds of burning coals.
The typical morning for a Cuban begins with a small cup of strong black coffee, usually taken with sugar, followed by a light breakfast that ideally includes café au lait and bread and butter. Many are off to work with just one or two small cups of strong, black coffee. It’s the de rigueur way to begin the day and it’s offered to all visitors as a gesture of hospitality. Watch out though: many housewives don’t appreciate the cup of coffee being refused, so when you arrive at a Cuban home, accept and thank your host for the little cup of coffee as it is the Cuban equivalent of Greeks offering bread and salt to their visitors. Lunch is at noon and very much like dinner. Before going to bed, many will have a light snack.
Another Cuban favorite is chocolate, which is grown in the eastern part of the island and can be made into a hot or cold drink sweetened with sugar. Sugar is an important ingredient in many Cuban dishes and it contributes a sweet note. Spicy foods are in the minority.
Sometimes you can hear someone saying that Cuban cooking is monotonous but what is certain is that we have a very unique tradition that is being salvaged and enriched under the impetus of the development of tourism both in the state and private sectors. In Havana, for example, there are now many good restaurants adapting traditional cooking to more sophisticated and international tastes without completely losing their autonomy. Yet another attractive feature of visiting Cuba, for those who would like to learn the truth about Cuban food, is accepting the kind invitation of eating in someone’s home. Your hosts will be delighted to put the best they have on the table and the warm hospitality surrounding the occasion will be something you can’t get anywhere else, no matter what delicacies might be served.