Written By: Jean Heimann
Cuban cuisine was created by a mix of the foods of the Native Tainos, Spanish Colonizers, West African Slaves, and the Canary Islanders who also had their own mix of Spanish, Portuguese, and African foods. The Taino tribe established the prevalence of a starchy root vegetable, originally yuca and malanga but now includes plantains too. The Spanish Colonizers brought sugarcane, citrus, coffee, pork, and olive oil among other things. West African Slaves brought plantains, yams and established the ubiquitous rice and beans dishes. The Canary Islands are responsible of garlic and citrus marinades and long stewed beef dishes. A small and waning Chinese population that first came as laborers in the 19th century and stayed means that you can still go out for Chinese food in Havana.
Cuban food is substantial. It’s fatty, salty and starchy; think long stewed beef, ropa vieja, and roasted pork, lechon asado, and twice-fried mashed plantains, tostones. All this heavy rich food is punctuated with bright notes of citrus, vinegar and with sweet notes like and raisins. Ropa vieja is cut with olives or capers and red wine vinegar, lechon asado with a garlic, lime and bitter orange mojo marinade.
The following foods represent the theme of flavors that can be found in Cuban Cuisine.
Sofrito — The flavor backbone of Cuba: a base of minced onion, garlic, tomatoes, green peppers with aromatics of cumin, bay, black oregano, black pepper slowly sautéed to condense flavor and used in soups, stews and rice and sauces
Cubanelle Pepper — Pale green pepper with a musky and herby flavor commonly used in sofrito
Moros y Cristianos — Black beans and rice cooked with onion, bacon, cumin, oregano, bay leaf and a touch of white vinegar
Mojo — Sauce that contains lots of garlic pounded to a paste blended with citrus juice or vinegar and olive oil then brushed over boiled starchy vegetable like yuca or plantains
Adobo — Garlicky paste of garlic, black pepper, cumin, allspice (optional), dried oregano, and bitter orange juice to
be used on roast meat, poultry and fish before and during roasting
Lechon Asado Adobo — Marinated roast pig
Ropa Viejo — Braised beef that is shredded then cooked in a tomato based sofrito with red wine
Enchilado — Seafood stew in a sofrito based tomato and beer sauce
Empanadillas — Crimped half-moon fried pies encasing a filling, a favorite is picadillo, or guava and cream cheese
Picadillo — Ground beef cooked in a sofrito base with a tomato puree, wine, raisins, olives and parsley
Fufú Cubano — Green plaintain mash mixed with garlic, olive oil, cracklings and lime juice
Tostones — Twice fried green plantains, sliced first and fried, then flattened and fried again
Planitos fritos — Fried ripe and sweet plantains