Loved by many around the world, Cuban cuisine is an amazing amalgamation of the ingredients and foods that comes from its Spanish roots, the rich and diverse fruits, vegetables and legumes indigenous to the Caribbean and Latin America, as well the foods from Africa brought through the slave trade. This could be said of most Latin American cuisines of course, but Cuban food is unique in that Spanish culture was absorbed more deeply on the island, in part, because Cuba was the last Spanish stronghold and colony of Spain. In trying to hold on to Cuba, the Spanish encouraged travel and commerce between the two countries, and that influenced the cuisine dramatically. This was seen most clearly in the Spaniard’s love for pork and pork products, all of which play a central role in Cuban cuisine, from all sorts of hams, Spanish sausages like chorizo, Cantimpalo and morcilla, smoked meats and chicharrons (pork rinds). However, this also includes an array of other foods, including citrus, olive oil, olives, spices such as saffron, cumin and bay leaf, cod, octopus and a general love of food from the ocean.
A beautiful aspect of Cuban cuisine is the amazing juxtaposition of the foods that reflect its deep indigenous roots alongside foods with a clear European character. On a typical Cuban table or restaurant menu, you see many indigenous foods such corn tamales, yuca, plantains and black beans alongside caldo gallego – a hearty white bean soup cooked with chorizo, ham hocks, collards and potatoes – that comes from the north of Spain. For appetizers, you may have ham or cod croquettes – a ubiquitous food item in both Spain and Cuban culture, as seen in virtually every venue, small or large, that sells food in Miami. For dessert, you can go with a dessert made from one of Cuba’s most beloved fruits, guava, or one of Spain’s contributions, flan, a type of egg custard.
At the heart of Cuban cuisine is, of course, rice (which made its way from Asia via Spain), black beans and all forms of plantain preparations (both indigenous foods). Bacalao, salt cod, octopus and sardines are all a reflection of Spanish tastes. The love for fried food also has Spanish roots. Once a novelty, now fried food is a favored way to prepare snack foods like empanadas, papa rellenas (fried mashed potato balls stuffed with Cuban style beef hash – “picadillo” and croquettes. Finally, there’s an array of indigenous root vegetables – yuca, malanga (taro root), boniato (a type of sweet potato), pumpkin and all types of beans and legumes (black beans) and whole slew of Caribbean fruits – pineapple, guava, mamey, guanabana or sour soup, just to name a few.
Further enriching the character of how Cubans eat are the foods and food preparations that come from Africa, most notably seen in dishes like quimbobo, a stewed okra dish, and fu fu de platano, a mashed plantain dish flavored with garlic, olive, oil, lime and often chicharrons. All these influences result in a vibrant and diverse cuisine. Cuban food is much more than pork and much more than rice and beans, although these do play a central role. It’s the Caribbean, Latin American, Spanish culture and a hint of Africa, all rolled into one. Finally, I can’t omit the constant influence of Cuba’s northern neighbor on Cuban cuisine, as seen in their love for hamburgers (the Cuban “frita” or chorizo burger) and the famous Cuban sandwich, which was actually created in Florida.