26. Cuba

Cuba is an island in the north of the Caribbean. The nation is perhaps most famous for the communist dictatorship led by Fidel Castro and the subsequent poor relations and trade embargoes with the USA. The cuisine is influenced by Native American, Spanish, African, USA, and other Caribbean foods. The tropical climate has played a large role in traditional recipes, with ingredients such as bananas being integrated in many savoury dishes. Similarly, being an island nation, seafood is a staple of the cuisine, with notable ingredients such as conch, that I didn’t cook (because I had no hope of sourcing it), but will surely try if I ever have the chance. I’ve long had a yen to visit the Caribbean, especially Cuba, which seems like an amazing time-capsule into the past. Its unique circumstances over the past decades have also resulted in it being the only country in the world to meet the WWF’s criteria for sustainable development. Apparently the highly communist ethos of Cuba has resulted in most restaurants offering two pricing schemes for meals. The first, for locals, can be hundreds of times less than that charged for tourists. Given that isolated communism relies somewhat on a closed-system economy, this seems fair enough, and purportedly the food is still extraordinarily cheap compared to Australia, and very delicious.

Pernil relleno con moros y cristianos

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Pernil relleno is a traditional dish that means “filled pork leg”. I hear you ask with barely-controlled anticipation “but what? What is it filled with?”. That answer is slightly more complicated. Moros y Cristianos means “Moors and Christians”, but of course there aren’t any people cut up inside. “Moors and Christians” actually refers to a combination of black beans and rice, and likely takes its name from a now politically incorrect comparison of skin colour in reference to the Islamic invasion of Spain in the early 8th century. However, as distasteful as the name may be, its subject is very delicious. I cooked them together with bacon, cumin, garlic, green capsicum, onion, oregano and red wine vinegar. No wonder rice and beans is a staple in so many parts of the world – it is so much more than the sum of its parts, and extremely economical! I stuffed the mixture inside a pork leg, which had previously been marinated in an orange, garlic and oregano mixture, and then roasted it. I reduced the leftover marinade into a sauce, even though it wasn’t specified by the recipe, but it was delicious so I have no regrets…

Ropa vieja

ropa vieja and pataconesRopa vieja is a dish that literally means “old clothes”. Appetising, no? Apparently the reference comes from stewing beef until it falls apart into long strings. I was actually surprised when I cooked it by how much it does look like fabric – as if tightly knitted strands of wool have come undone and look very kinked. Ropa vieja is made by stewing beef flank steak, tomatoes, onions, capsicum, garlic, cumin, coriander, paprika, green olives and white vinegar together for many hours (ideally in a slow-cooker). I served my ropa vieja with white rice cooked the Latin way, by frying it in oil with some garlic and onion to separate the grains then adding stock to make it very flavoursome. I also served patacones, which are squashed fried plantain bananas.

Cuban sandwich, corn fritters and sweet potato and coriander salad

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The Cuban sandwich has become internationally renowned, and no wonder. It’s essentially a toasted sandwich on thick white bread, filled with roast pork, Serrano ham, Dijon mustard, Swiss cheese and dill pickles. I would modestly call myself a sandwich connoisseur after eight years of poor University student life, and can therefore say with some degree of expertise that sandwich fillings don’t get much better than this. The Cuban sandwich originated as a lunch meal for cigar and sugar mill workers travelling between Cuba and Florida in the late 1800s. Fritters are fairly common throughout The Caribbean, be they seafood- or vegetable-based, but corn fritters are a particular favourite in Cuba. They are made with a sofrito of garlic, onion and capsicum stirred into a mixture of creamed corn and/or fresh corn kernels, polenta or flour, baking powder, cumin and eggs to make a sloppy batter, which is then deep fried in vegetable oil. In general, fritters are hard not to like, but the sweetness of these made them especially tasty. I made the sweet potato salad by baking sweet potato segments and then drizzling them in lime juice, garlic, oil and lots of coriander, which are some of my favourite flavours, so it was definitely a hit.

Arroz con pollo

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Arroz con pollo literally means “chicken with rice”, and is a staple in many Latin and Mediterranean countries. One of the major distinctions of Latin American arroz con pollo is that the yellow colouring is achieved with annatto seeds, as opposed to saffron in Europe. I made my arroz con pollo with peas, red capsicum, garlic, onion, bay leaf, oregano, cumin and chicken thigh and breast pieces. Apparently Cuban legislature declared this meal the national dish of Cuba in the 1930s, and I can understand why: it’s simple yet effective, and anybody could make it. Very communist. I loved this dish; chicken and rice is an international classic for a reason – none of the flavours are too rich or overpowering, and it tastes complete and wholesome.