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Cuban Cuisine traditions and innovations

Cuban Cuisine traditions and innovations

Cuban cooking styles and ingredients are the result of the island?s rich cultural history

When Spaniards first arrived in Cuba in 1492 they encountered indigenous people who lived by hunting, fishing, gathering and the cultivation of cassava, yams, maize and black beans. As a result of the new illnesses and living conditions brought in by the colonisers, the original Cuban Indians eventually became all but extinct and crops that had been previously grown gave way to new ones brought from Spain. The only dish that has been handed down from that time is casabe, a round thin cake made from cassava which is grated, dried, pounded and cooked. The Spanish contribution to local cuisine included not only ingredients but also techniques and dishes that acquired their own idiosyncratic character once they took root in Cuba.

The second major influence was African, arriving with the slaves that were brought to the island to undertake the hardest physical labour. From Africa came foods such as okra, taro root and plantains. Another significant event was the arrival of Chinese immigrants during the mid 19th century. Their contribution includes soy sauce and Chinese-style rice.

Thick and thin bean soups are an important part of the Cuban diet; many of these have their basis in traditional Spanish cooking. White, black and kidney beans, dried peas and chickpeas are the most commonly used legumes. Stews and casseroles also play a dominant role in Cuban cookery. The sofrito—a mixture of lightly fried onion, garlic, green pepper and sometimes tomatoes—is the basis for seasoning Cuban dishes to which spices including cumin, oregano and serrated cilantro are often added.

Pork and chicken are favourite meats in Cuba. A leg of pork, marinated in the juice of bitter oranges, salt, crushed garlic and oregano before being roasted, always forms the centrepiece on special occasions. It is served with congr?—rice and black beans cooked together—fried plantains and cassava spread with a dressing made of garlic, lemon or bitter orange juice and oil. This is accompanied by a leafy or vegetable salad. After everyone has gorged themselves on these succulent delights they somehow find room for traditional Cuban puddings so sweet as to defy credibility, which include custards and baked desserts and fruits such as guava, pineapple, mango, grapefruit, oranges, papaya and grated coconut poached in sugar syrup.

It is still unclear as to how rice became central to Cuban cuisine, but for a Cuban a meal without rice is simply not complete. It is usually eaten boiled with salt and mixed, at the table, with soup or stew. It may also, however, be prepared with fish, pork, chicken, vegetables or ham, or a combination of these, seasoned with spices and herbs and cooked in meat or chicken stock. The latter concoction is usually referred to as ?yellow rice? because it acquires a yellow-orange colour from the annatto added to it.

Fried food is a constant feature of Cuban meals. The word vianda in Spanish means food, as in the slightly archaic English usage ?viands?, but in Cuba it has become the collective term for root vegetables such as potatoes, cassava, squash, sweet potatoes and a wide variety of yams, all of which are normally eaten fried or boiled. In some cases an oil-based dressing is added to them and they are served as a side dish. Crisp green or mixed salads are always seen on Cuban tables. Favourite salad vegetables are lettuce, cabbage, green beans, cucumber, watercress, tomato, avocados and beetroot.

For the inaugural issue of CUBA ABSOLUTELY I have devised a tasty menu which combines Cuban culinary tradition with new gourmet trends:

Chilled avocado soup, a ?new fusion? recipe.

The omnipresent rice, combined with pork meat and green plantains and spiked with grapefruit juice, constitutes a substantial main dish.

Pudding is a rich cream cheese ice cream accompanied by the traditional guava halves poached in syrup and garnished with mint.

4 servings

12 ounces peeled avocado
3 cups beef or chicken stock
1 teaspoon made mustard
2 teaspoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons chopped spring onions, green part only

Mix all the ingredients in a blender until creamy. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper. If the mixture is too thick, add more stock.

Serve very cold, sprinkled with chopped spring onions.

4 servings

1? cups short grain rice
1 pound lean pork meat (leg or shoulder)
3 cups fresh grapefruit juice
8 ounces green plantain, peeled and diced
1 cup tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
1 cup finely chopped onions
1 cup diced green pepper
4 tablespoons oil
? teaspoon ground cumin
5 cloves of garlic, crushed
1 teaspoon vinegar
3 tablespoons chopped spring onion
1 branch of fresh coriander
salt to taste

Dressing 1:
2 heaped tablespoons chopped coriander
1 tablespoon virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon cider or balsamic vinegar

Dressing 2:
2 heaped tablespoons chopped spring onion
1 tablespoon virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon cider or balsamic vinegar

Slice the meat into cubes of approx 1 square inch. In a heavy pan, heat the oil over a medium heat; add meat, cumin and a pinch of salt and fry 20-25 minutes until meat is brown, stirring occasionally. Add tomato, saut? 1 or 2 minutes and add 1 teaspoon of vinegar. Add pepper, onion, 2 tablespoons of spring onion and garlic. Raise heat and saut? 4-5 minutes stirring occasionally, taking care that the mixture does not stick to the pan. Finally, mix in the rice, plantain and coriander; saut? a few more minutes; add the grapefruit juice. Season to taste. Cover tightly and cook at a medium to low heat for approximately 20 minutes or until the rice is tender and all the liquid has been absorbed. Allow the mixture to rest for 5 minutes and then place it in an earthenware dish and garnish with the remaining chopped spring onion. Serve with either of the two dressings.

Mix ingredients for each dressing in separate bowls and season with a pinch of salt.

1.Peel plantains under running water to avoid staining your hands. If the plantain is not to be used immediately, after it has been peeled and cubed keep it in water with a few drops of lemon juice to maintain its colour.

2.Cuban grapefruit is not as acidic as other grapefruits. If your local grapefruit is very acidic, dilute the juice with stock or orange juice, taking care not to alter the proportions of rice and liquid.

6 servings

For guava in syrup:
3? lb ripe (but firm) guavas
2 cups water
2 cups granulated sugar

For ice cream:
1 lb cream cheese
1 cup granulated sugar
? cup milk

5 tablespoons fresh chopped mint leaves

Wash and peel guavas; cut into halves. Carefully scoop out the seeds leaving only the pulpy cups. Continue until you have approx 2 lb of fruit. Bring the water and sugar to a boil. Add the guavas and simmer for approx 40 minutes until the fruit is soft and the syrup has thickened. Allow to cool. If the syrup is too liquid, set aside the cooked guavas and boil the syrup until it reaches the desired consistency.

For the ice cream, mix all the ingredients in a blender and chill.

Serve the ice cream with the guavas and garnish with crushed mint leaves. March 2007

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