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 colonizers, 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 congrí–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. Everyone somehow finds room for traditional Cuban puddings so sweet as to defy credibility, including custards and baked desserts and fruits such as guava, pineapple, mango, grapefruit, oranges, papaya and grated coconut poached in sugar syrup.
For a Cuban, a meal without rice is simply not complete usually eaten boiled with salt and mixed at the table with soup or stew. It may also be prepared with fish, pork, chicken, vegetables or ham, or a combination, seasoned with spices and herbs and cooked stock 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, 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 as are crisp green or mixed salads of lettuce, cabbage, green beans, cucumber, watercress, tomato, avocados and beetroot. Enjoy!