Take the iconic black beans. Some like to top it with chopped raw onions, but usually not. Some use just a touch of plain vinegar, some don’t. Some are much soupier than others. These are all variations are typical. However the Cuban black beans that I grew up with never had cilantro or sour cream on top. I strongly believe these substances alter the whole completion of black beans, which are supposed to be dark, one note, and rich, well- seasoned, but it´s all about the beans. Cilantro adds a completely new layer of herbaciousness and brightness (that in this case, I don’t want) and cream changes the texture completely. Besides, there’s enough fat in whatever meats adorned my plate and in my perfectly fried plantains. I don’t need more from the dairy. Nor does dairy belong on the plate. In fact, there’s very little dairy at all in Cuban food. It’s about how beans complement the rice, meats, and root vegetables on the plate.
As many Cubans, I could be a little militant about how a dish should be. In the constant exercise of understanding Cuban food outside of my own experience, I’ve tried hard to see how many other Cuban and Cuban descendants eat, about regional differences (which you don’t hear much about) and about class differences as well. Most importantly, and the topic of a completely different book, is the difference between Cuban food in Cuba and outside of the island, before the Castro revolution and in the decades following it. In the end, I would like to leave readers with a deeper understanding of the roots and history of Cuban food, and appreciation for traditional preparations, of why dishes came to be, of how they could be elevated and why certain foods are just fine the way they are.
Just make it with the best ingredients, with attention to detail, a solid recipe as a framework, with time and care, and with a respect for the flavors of the past. I first learned this lesson when I put black pepper in my black beans, and my grandmother scolded me: “frijoles negros nunca lleva pimienta,” or black beans never take black pepper. I’ve never used black pepper again in my beans.