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Cuban Food

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by Mayra L. Dole

Most people who haven't tasted Cuban cuisine (such an elegant word) think our food is typically spicy. Wrong! We sure are spicy -- as a culture -- but when cooking we leave the tongue-stinging peppers to those flirting with gastrointestinal problems of astronomical proportions. Leave the hole in the stomach lining for other cultures, thank you very much. We'll stick to the artery clogging fried plantains, dense meat dishes with salsita, and overabundant plates of rich frijoles negros con arroz.


The main ingredient for almost every traditional Cuban dish is "sofrito," a sauté of onions, green peppers, garlic, oregano and bay leaves. I'm surprised we don't use sofrito in our deserts, but hey, we must keep some things sacred!



Cuban cooking is influenced by Indigenous, African, Arabic, Chinese, Portuguese, and Spanish cultures. Our comida criolla, Creole food, is influenced by African and Spanish cultures. We Cubans don't concern ourselves with measuring anything, much like our Taino and Afro-Cuban ancestors. We seem to have been born knowing how much salt, water, or cumin to add to food. And as for timing, who cares? Who can't tell when a fricase de pollo is done, anyway? When you sniff the air and it smells exquisite, jam your finger into a piece of chicken, puncture it to the core, rip out a piece, taste it and make sure it's not pink inside. If it needs more salt, add it. This is the cooking method/skill I learned from Mami. She's the best Cuban cook in town!

Cubans hardly deep fry food, except for tostones/deep fried mashed plantains, croquetas, vaca frita/fried cow, pescado frito/fried fish, masitas de puerco fritas/tender fried pork rinds, yuca frita, empanaditas, frituritas de bacalao/cod fish fritters, etc. Normally, as you can clearly see, we sauté and slow-cook almost everything. Our family only had fried food once a year, when Mami would bring us a bucket of Kentucky Fried chicken. She worked three factory jobs and we didn't have the means to eat out. I never had Mcdonalds or Burger King until I was a teen.

After home cooked meals, fast food tasted like chemicals; it took a while getting used to, and still, I don't like it.


Unlike Italians, I never once remember eating pasta or heavy cream sauces. Real Cubans never have pizza, either. Bread and tomato sauce isn't our idea of a feast. Cuban dinners are a feast in it's own. They are huge portions of highly seasoned foods with the infamous "sofrito" and lots of salsita (drippings) on our rice. Mami did make coditos (little elbows), though, with scrumptious refugee cheese. Yellow refugee cheese was exquisite, really. My mouth is watering just thinking about it. I'd wrap silky slices of cheese around bananas and munch away.

I'd also cut the refugee cheese into tiny squares and throw them into my banana baby food. (To this day I wonder if this habit was a "Cuban" thing, or something I invented.) Bananas are big with Cubans; it must come from when we were monkeys. OK, OK. Just kidding. I don't want fellow Cubans throwing banana peels at me!

Anyhow, the moral of the story is: Forget cooking pasta when you can have bananas and refugee cheese! Refugee cheese is where it's at!

One of the perks about having been a refugee is getting all the powdered milk we wanted. Powdered milk mixed with tap water tasted yummy. No kidding. I'm just surprised I'm still alive. We also received large containers of peanut butter which we traded for Spam and canned ham with neighbors. Powdered eggs tasted too weird and nuclear, to describe, so I won't recommend it. That was our diet for a while when we arrived from Cuba. So, if you're interested in something spankin' new, try Cuban refugee food. I'm sure somewhere in a black market there must be someone selling it! Go for it! It's really something to remember!


Much like los Griegos -- the Greeks -- we use olive oil for all our saucing. A Cuban household without olive oil is like a bath without water. Olive oil and sofrito are our secret ingredients used for cooking black beans, stews, meats, fish, and anything, really. Meats and poultry are marinated in lime or naranja agria juices (sour oranges) and salt. We know how to cook slowly till the meat melts in your mouth. Mami would put a pot on the stove while she bathed, bathed us and cleaned the house. If you've never had your clothes reek of sofrito due to slow cooking carne con papas Cuban style, you're not a true blue Cuban.


As for typical vegetables, I never knew they existed, except for tomatoes and potatoes. But tomato is a fruit, the savvy reader is saying to her/himself. Yes. Now that I know, I realize that growing up I only had one vegetable: potato! Luckily, I loved stocky meals with potatoes and lots of salsita, 'cause I hate baked potatoes. They taste like dirty air. Cubans devour root vegetables in every meal, such as boniato, malanga and yuca. Yuca con mojo is a popular Cuban dish served during holidays that I, and every Cuban, love. It's made with mojito: olive oil, lemon juice, sliced raw onions and garlic. Yuca is exquisite if left marinating a while before serving, and is a typical Cuban food.


My big brother was fat and round like a beach ball. He'd eat my food when I wasn't looking. I liked that. The little fool didn't know that I wasn't looking on purpose. He kept inflating while I continued to stay thin. Yes, I was a skinny Cuban kid. Mami couldn't take it. She'd make me shakes with chocolate ice cream, liver (yes, you heard right) raw eggs (we were raking in the money and able to buy a carton of eggs per week), Malta and leche condensada. Malta with condensed milk is a typical Cuban beverage. I always thought it tasted bloody weird (British pun intended) and I never did acquire much of a taste for it until I was older. A dear friend handed me a real Malta con leche condensada and I refused it, but she forced me to drink it because there was nothing else in the house and we were starving. Boy, Malta without liver is paradise! Liverless Malta is nectar for the Goddesses!


Cuban kids must be fed at all times so that they grow to be robust and healthy. A skinny Cuban child is seen as sickly. Gossip will abound about the skinny child not eating enough. I was born thin and small until Mami overfed me. She'd stuff my face, I'd throw up, she'd clean me up and feed me again. Girls had to grow up to be curvaceous women, otherwise, Cuban men would not look at us and we would end up wretched spinsters like some old aunt in Cuba. Well... I never did gain too much. Luckily, I came out like Papi's side of the family: Flacos Raquiticos!!! Skinny scrawny rails!


Now comes the brow-raising part of my article: Cuban Children are raised on espresso. You heard right. Perhaps this is why we are such a hyperactive, happy-go-lucky bunch. I'm surprised we haven't invented flying cars yet or used our neuro energy for the benefit of the planet. I guess we've spent all that caffeine energy that could light up Miami for dancing and drumming. We are all like Ricky Ricardo and Chiquita Banana (I can't recall who she was, but I'm sure she was Cuban)... just a bunch of raucous wild savages. The women in my culture are very hot, wear heels, neon orange lipstick, lots of tight spandex miniskirts with boobs spilling all over the place. Well ... maybe just some of us. You know, the civilized ones aren't like that. The pseudo intellectual Cuban women are conservative. I guess they're not into perpetual dancing in the streets and shaking their bootie to the rhythm of the Rumba...


The Mambo and Salsa was probably invented due to coffee spells. Who wouldn't spin round and round and swing from chandeliers on that kind of rush?

Back to the Cuban food and cooking topic. See how carried away I get just from talking about espresso?


As a kid, I remember having tostada con cafe con leche every morning for breakfast. The smells of Cuban bread and butter filled the house with the aroma of sugar cane fields and visuals of swaying palms. I'd take a bite of my tostada and daydream about going back to Cuba, my beautiful Cuba, the Pearl of the Antilles, until Mami handed me the cafe con leche cup. My first sip, and I was zooming! Forget Cuba. I'm out the door! Cafe con leche is made with espresso, boiling milk, six truckloads of sugar and a pinch of salt. You're not Cuban if you don't dunk the bread into the cafe con leche and eat it soggy. The cafe con leche cup will eventually have a ring of melted butter, which will dissolve in your mouth for a delicious last sip.

Break time for every Cuban on earth -- I don't care if you live in a cave or in the North Pole -- is the time for a cafecito Cubano. This is how Cubans built Miami... on speed.


Lunches for Cubans are simple, not a time for cooking. We normally have Cuban sandwiches. The media noche -- midnight -- replete with slices of ham, pork, cheese, pickles, mustard, globs of mayonnaise on sweet egg bread is our most common merienda. The pan con bistec has thin palomilla steak, tomato slices and potato sticks. Ironber or Malta are the sodas of choice. Mariquitas -- thinly sliced plantain chips -- always accompany our sandwiches. And after lunch, of course, it's siesta time!


Cubans don't miss a snack. Pastelitos (pastries filled with guava, cheese or meat), croqueticas, or papa rellena (stuffed potatoes) are our daily snacks followed with a shot of cafecito.


Dinners consist of a stocky meats, chicken, or fish dishes accompanied by white rice, black beans, and sweet fried plantains. Our family never went a day without a side dish of sliced tomato and onion salad. Avocados and sliced onions are eaten sometimes, instead of the tomato salad. A typical dessert is a flan with a cafecito.


As you can see, we drink lots of cafecitos. Cafe is in our blood and bones. We are nothing, absolutely nothing, without cafe!


During the holidays, Cubans love cooking special food. They roast a pig marinated in salt, garlic, and sour orange juice over an open fire. Congri -- white rice and black bean mix -- yucca con mojo, avocado, tomato and onion salad and maduros are our staples, along with walnuts, almonds and turrones. Materva soda is our favorite pop.

So now that you know a bit about Cuban food and cooking history, I hope you enjoy cooking some Cuban food. You won't be sorry. But you aren't allowed to do what one of my closest friend does. She was born in the United States and replaces meat dishes with tofu. I mean, who's ever heard of tofu picadillo? She's not even a vegetarian for crying out loud! Salt isn't supposed to be replaced with soy sauce and no, please, don't throw cayenne pepper into the congri! Make your first Cuban meal a cultural feast to remember and don't have it any other way but traditional. Enjoy!

Mayra L. Dole


About Mayra L. Dole:  Mayra L. Dole was born in Marianao, Cuba, raised in Hialeah, Florida, and lived in New York, New Jersey, and Boston. Dole is the author of two critically acclaimed bilingual children's books, Drum, Chavi, Drum! / Toca, Chavi, Toca! and Birthday in the Barrio / Cumpleaños en el Barrio--currently in the making into becoming a children's film. Dole's novel, Down to the Bone, will be published by Harper Collins in winter '08. Her two bilingual poems, Mi Negra Chambelona and Sotolongo Mofongo, have been published by Cipher Journal, a literary translation journal. The author translates environmentalist brochures from English to Spanish. You can learn more about these books and try more of Mayra's recipes by visiting her website: www.mayraldole.com

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