As the Communist regime of Fidel Castro comes to its inevitable conclusion, in the near future, Cubans will be faced with a change in government for the first time since the 1950s. For the latter half of the 20th century, the politics, finances and cuisine of Cuba have been stifled by regulation and repressive ideology. As that era comes to an end, there may well be a newfound national interest in “all things Cuban.”
The coming media windfall dovetails nicely with what is already a red-hot trend. Cuban cuisine is Hispanic cuisine. A recent consumer study commissioned by direct mail media company ADVO Inc. found that Hispanic-Americans spend 20% more per week dining out at casual/family, fast-food and pizza restaurants than the general market. Hispanics, specially acculturated Latinos—defined as having adapted to mainstream U.S. culture while maintaining the values of their native culture—also outspent non-Hispanics when it came to having food delivered at home or office and are twice as likely to choose a restaurant based upon the availability or receipt of coupons.
“Despite a traditional agricultural economy in which food crops have been neglected in favor of export sugar cane cash crops, Cubans have inventively combined Spanish, African and Caribbean traditions and ingredients into a unique and characteristic cuisine. Chicken, pork, lobster, fish and, to a lesser degree, beef and lamb are the meat staples. Black beans, rice, yuca (cassava), malanga (sweet potato), boniato (yam) and plátanos (plantains) are the leading legumes and starches.
“Though Cuba’s political and financial difficulties have truly handicapped its culinary artists even before Castro’s recent fade from power, the legalization of the dollar and the opening of privately owned restaurants known as paladares (literally, “palates” from a Brazilian television series in which the heroine opens a restaurant called Paladar) have sparked a renaissance of authentic criollo cuisine, or traditional Cuban home cooking,” says George Semler. Semler has recently returned from an extended trip to Cuba. A Marine officer in a former life, Semler has studied the cuisines in Madrid and Barcelona and lived in the Spanish capital, the Basque country and Catalonia.
According to Semler, “Cuban cooking enobles lowly ingredients.” The plantain, for example, or el plátano, has “a thousand and one lives in a Cuban kitchen.” They can be cut and fried when ripe, or sliced into thin wafers and fried when green. They are often pounded and refried as tostones or plátanos a punetazos (punched plantains). Boiled, mashed, dressed with olive oil or filled with ground meat and melted cheese for a tropical sheperd’s pie, the plantain is most definitely not just a banana, as it is often wrongly identified. At the mercado agropecuario, or farmers’ market, one can find plantains, boniato, ají cacho, peppers, squash, tomatoes, garlic, frijoles, malanga, mamey, guayaba, corn and corn flour. However, the market is no “overflowing cornucopia,” says George. “The essentials are there: viandas (tubers), vegetables and fruit. Prices reflect areas of scarcity: a head of garlic costs 10 times more than an onion; a pound of malanga is half as expensive as a pound of frijoles negros [black beans].” For a cuisine to move from fad to trend, it must be accepted by average Americans and become popular among average restaurants.
Such a restaurant is Bongos Cuban Café in Miami. Superstars Gloria and Emilio Estefan have partnered in opening a wonderful theme concept in one of the city’s tourist areas. Serving pure authentic Cuban cuisine, Bongos also serves up the nostalgia of Havana during 1950s glory days. Every item on the menu is authentic. Speaking from personal experience, this author can say that every item is delicious. The huge success of this restaurant is proof that middle America loves Cuban cuisine.
What Makes it Cuban?Every marketing professional agrees that Hispanic products are on trend and still growing in popularity. What sets Cuban menu items apart from Mexican, South American or even other Caribbean cuisines? Two primary influences have created the foundation of Cuban cuisine. This base was then tempered by political forces that “set the cuisine in stone,” preventing the culinary drift that occurred with other Caribbean island cuisines.
First, Spain’s heroic explorers discovered Cuba in the search for a direct sea route to India’s spice trade. A permanent colony soon flourished. The new rulers of Cuba imported the culinary traditions and techniques of mother Spain to the New World. The modern-day foods of Cuba are founded on the traditional menus of Imperial Spain. However, these fabulous recipes and flavors were then impacted by an unintended catalyst. That modifying factor was the foodways and flavor preferences of generations of African slaves. The vast majority of manual labor and household chores done in Cuba during the first few hundred years of its existence as a Spanish colony were performed by enslaved African laborers.
Just as the Cajun recipes made famous by Chef Emeril Laggasse are a blend of French/Arcadian techniques and African/Dixieland soul food, today’s traditional Cuban recipes are a true chimera. The tried and true gourmet foods of Spain were modified by the African slaves working as household cooks. These recipes were then modified to include locally available ingredients. The result is wonderful—a robustly bright and flavorful cuisine hinting of Spain’s past—yet somehow cutting edge. It is quite different from other, nearby Caribbean islands’ recipes. Why is that? It may be because Cuba’s cuisine has been “protected” from culinary drift.
The slow change of food preferences, recipes and techniques is known as culinary drift. No nation’s foodways remain completely unchanged as time goes by. Societal influences, either internal or external, cause slow, continuous change. However, Cuba was taken over by Fidel Castro nearly half a century ago. The rigid communist rules preventing free trade, free exchange of ideas, information and travel did have one positive effect. Cuba’s traditional cuisine was locked in place! The culinary traditions, flavors and recipes of Cuba may be the most “pure” Caribbean cuisine left in the world today.
There is no doubt that the regime of Castro is about end. Soon, Cuba may become a far more open and free nation. All things Cuban will indeed be in the news and on the menus of America’s restaurants. Cuisine Cubano is clearly not Mexican. It is just as clearly not classically Spanish. It is an amazingly flavorful, intense yet not spicy-hot style of cooking that appeals to many Americans. No one doubts that the “Latino” trend will continue. Many older customers who find Mexican food a bit too spicy may find Cuban recipes just right. Understanding the unique flavors of Cuban cuisine, and the differences that set it apart from other Hispanic foods, will give successful culinary developers the “chef’s edge.”
Sidebar: Stats at a Glance$71 — The average amount spent per week by [U.S.] Hispanics
on eating out and having food delivered, as compared to $59 for the general market.
$108 — The average amount spent per week by acculturated Hispanics on eating out and having food delivered—83% more than the general market.
53% – The share of Hispanics taking advantage of take-out and delivery dining options (versus 44% general market).
2.2 – The number of meals eaten or taken out by Hispanics from
fast-food restaurants in the week prior to the survey. Latinos also reported an average of 1.5 meals eaten per week at casual dining restaurants with table service and less than one meal per week at
a pizza restaurant.
Source: Hispanic Trends Online, www.hispaniconline.com