The Tastes of Cuba

By: Denny Phillips

Although Cuba and Mexico are both Spanish speaking countries, Cuban cuisine has virtually nothing in common with Mexican cuisine. It is also very different from other Latin American countries, such as Panama or Brazil. Cuban cuisine is actually a fusion of Spanish, African and Caribbean cuisines, but has also been influenced by the French, Arabic, Chinese and Portuguese cultures.

When Columbus landed on Cuba he and his countrymen for the first time tasted corn, cassava, peanuts, sweet potatoes, pumpkins, peppers, and vautia (a kind of wild malanga). They were exposed to new fruits such as custard apples, sour sops, pineapples, star apples, mammees, anonas, icaco plums, guavas, and cashews. Some of the aboriginal cuisine that Columbus encountered still is part of the Cuban cuisine today.

The Cuban population initially had African slaves who worked in the sugar cane plantations, but in the cities Africans were in the minority. Spanish peasants, mostly from the Canary Islands, inhabited the tobacco plantations. The eastern part of the island was inhabited by the French, Haitian and Caribbean immigrants, who came mainly during the Haitian Revolution and as seasonal workers to work in the sugar cane harvest. The western part of Cuba received the European (mostly Spanish) immigrants. A small Chinese influence inhabited the area mostly in Havana. Thus the Cuban cuisine developed locally from the influences of the peoples who inhabited the specific areas of the country.

Before the Spaniards arrived in Cuba, the Cuban Indians fished and hunted for their food. They ate from the variety of fish and seafood in the lagoons and rivers. They didn't need to store food because of the abundance that was available to them, and also because the heat and climate did not allow the food to store well. Any stored grain was quickly spoiled.

The arrival of the Spanish brought domestic poultry, cattle pigs and horses to the island, all of which thrived here. Pork became popular and the meat of choice for the Cuban landlords who also obtained the pork fat. The Spaniards also brought with them the love of fried foods.

Yams, malangas, bananas, plantains and okra were brought in to feed the African slaves. The Africans contributed dishes such a fufÃ? (mashed plantains) and tostones (green plantains smashed and twice fried). Africa, as well as the Spanish, contributed to the islands preference for white rice eaten with all other foods, fritters and many sauces.

Haitians brought the red kidney bean to Cuba and with that came a very traditional Cuban dish of black beans and rice, which is found all over the island. Beans are a foundation ingredient in Cuban cuisine, with many dishes like bean stews and bean soups. Almost every Cuban dish features the traditional main ingredient of 'sofrito', which is a saute of onions, green peppers, garlic, oregano and bay leaves.

The Cuban way of cooking tends to be very natural and made with very specific ingredients, such as the sofrito mentioned above. They like using spices such as oregano and cumin instead of the hotter spices like hot peppers. What is really significant in Cuban cooking is the fried foods, such as fried plantains. Cuban foods also like many sauces that soak up the rice they serve with them. There fare includes many rice based dishes.

Cuba also offers many of the fruits that are famous in the Caribbean, such as pineapple, mangoes, and papayas, as well as many citrus fruits. They also like to incorporate seafood from the seas around them into their cuisine. For dessert, a favorite is the Cuban flan.

Cuba is also famous for its sugar cane and coffee. Today sugar cane accounts for 70% of Cuba's export earnings. Cuban coffee is sought-after the world over.

Cuban cuisine is essentially known to be simple and down-to-earth home cooking, with each part of the island contributing its own special flavor.

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