A delicious serving of Moros y Cristianos

Anthropology: Cuban Gastronomy as a Marker for Socio-Political Conditions in Cuba’s History

The Historical Context of Cuban Cuisine

Christopher Columbus setting foot on Cuba in 1492
Before the Spanish settled in Cuba in 1511, Christopher Columbus first discovered the island in 1492 and named it Isla Juana (One World Nations Online, n.d.).

Cuba, a country 90 miles south of Florida, is a Caribbean island that was a Spanish colony until the year 1898 (The Foreign Fork, n.d.). Not only is the island a prime center for ecological diversity and biodiversity due to its tropical climate and its geographic isolation, but it is also culturally and culinarily diverse due to the advent of colonialism in the Caribbean and subsequent globalization that took place, which created the context in which the intercultural mingling of foods, ideas, music, and religions would take place (Convention on Biological Diversity).

When the Spanish first settled in Cuba in 1511, they brought sugar cane to the tropical island and converted Cuba into one of the world’s leading sugar producers, which necessitated the importation of African slaves (Hernandez, n.d.). During the colonial era, the Spanish also brought several crops to the island of Cuba, which included produce like oranges, lemons, and other vegetables. In addition, the Spanish brought non-native cattle such as pigs and cows, which would go on to become staples in the Cuban diet.

Surprisingly, rice was unheard of in Cuba until Chinese indentured servants came to the island in the 19th century to work in sugar cane fields after slavery was outlawed (Rodriguez 2020; Casa Sensei 2019). The mass immigration of Chinese workers established rice as a staple food in Cuban cuisine and led to mass cultivation of rice crops in Cuba. Not only that, but Chinese immigrants also popularized la caja china, which translates to “the Chinese box”. La caja china allows for a method of cooking meals by using a wooden box that places heat on top of the box (Rodriguez 2020). This method was adopted by Cubans to roast pork and is now used at Cuban celebrations and gatherings.  

La Caja China (the Chinese Box)
Source: Andrew Gatilao / Flickr

Undoubtedly, the development of traditional Cuban cuisine was propelled by Spanish colonization, the subsequent inhabitation of African slaves, the immigration of Chinese indentured servants to the island in the 19th century, and the influence of the indigenous taínos who lived on the island previously. Yet, Cuban food is predominantly influenced by Spanish cuisine from cities such as Galicia, Andalusia, and Asturia (Paponnet-Cantat 2003 pp.16). Essentially, Cuban food is a conglomeration of various cultures that had contact with the island and reflects the diverse cultural identity of Cuba. While the United States had contact with Cuba when it took control of Cuba’s sugar cane production, it has had no culinary influence on Cuban cuisine given the strained relations between Cuba and the United States that has rid any influence of American culture in Cuban life (Rodriguez 2020).

After the revolution to obtain independence from Spain in the late 19th century, Cuba’s assets fell victim to U.S. control, with 63 percent of US firms controlling sugar production on the island and rendering the Cuban economy dependent on the U.S. (Deere, Perez, and Gonzales 1994). In spite of this, Cuba became a wealthy, thriving nation with the bustling, prosperous capital of Havana. Yet, in spite of Havana’s development, a deprived rural countryside grew frustrated with subpar social conditions. With this glaring social inequality widening in the country and corruption in the U.S.-backed Cuban government, Fidel Castro took to the spotlight and advocated for rural civilians, gaining massive support for his campaign with his charismatic rhetoric and ultimately overthrowing the governing dictator Fulgencio Batista and replacing him with the Communist Party of Cuba in 1959 (History.com Editors 2020).

From there, Castro allied himself with the Soviet Union, much to American opposition, leading to the cessation of Cuban American ties shortly after. This cessation manifested itself in an economic embargo cutting off all US imports from Cuba in 1960 and the end of diplomatic ties between the United States and Cuba in 1961 (NationsOnline.org, n.d.).

Close-up photo of Fidel Castro sitting at a desk with Cuban flag behind him
Source: Time Magazine

Traditional Cuban recipes

A table with 4 Cuban dishes consisting of rice, beans, beef, chicken, pork, and fried yuca and fried squashed plantains.
Source: Asaree Thaitrakulpanich / Khaosod English

Staple foods of the Cuban diet include rice, beans, and viandas (root/tuber vegetables like yuca, boniato, potatoes, and malanga). A typical Cuban meal accommodates a good serving of white rice and black beans with an optional serving of plantains, yuca, or boniato. Cuban food is also made up of meats and starchy foods, making it very filling. Root vegetables are typically seasoned with a combination of olive oil, lime juice, onions, garlic, and cumin called mojo or mojito (Heidelberger 2015). Despite being islanders, Cubans do not usually eat seafood, and prefer to eat meat instead. This preference is rooted in the indoctrination by early European colonizers that inserted the belief that a diet without meat would result in brain death (Paponnet-Cantat 2003, pp.16).

Moros y Cristianos (Moors and Christians)

A bowl of Moros y Cristianos (black beans and white rice).
Source: Goya.com

“Moros y Cristianos” translates to Moors and Christians in English. The recipe uses white rice and black beans, with white rice supposedly representing lighter-skinned Christians and darker-skinned Moors. This dish is symbolic of 8th century African Muslim rule in the Iberian Peninsula and the subsequent Reconquista in the 15th century that pushed African Muslims (Moors) into Africa (Ragoonanan, n.d.). Essentially, this dish encompasses the preparation of the rice and beans together, with the rice adopting a darker color and the beans becoming softer.

Ajíes rellenos (Stuffed Green Peppers)

A plate of green peppers stuffed with seasoned beef served with a side of white rice and avocado.
Source: Cary y Su Sazón (Youtube)

Another famous Cuban dish is green peppers stuffed with seasoned ground beef, called picadillo in Cuba. The dish is first made by cutting off the tops of the green peppers and taking out the seeds inside of the green peppers. Then, the ground beef is seasoned and cooked with tomato paste, oregano, garlic, onion, cumin, cooking oil, and vinegar, and vino seco (cooking wine). It is safe to say that a dish like this is packed with flavor!

Fufu (Mashed Plantains)

A good serving of mashed plantains seasoned with garlic, onion, and lemon juice.
Source: TheSpruceEats

Fufú, which means “mash” in the Twi language of West Africa, is a dish that is reminiscent of the strong African influence on Cuban Cuisine (Rodriguez 2021). Cuban Fufú, which is a mashed plantain dish, is a recipe that was developed by West African slaves who were brought to Cuba during the slave trade. It was adapted to be made with plantains since it was the only naturally occurring starchy vegetable available on the tropical island. To make fufú, ripe plantains are boiled in a pot of water with salt to soften and then mash and are then seasoned with onion and garlic. Sometimes, bacon or lemon juice is added.

Arroz con pollo

A close-up of a pot with Arroz con Pollo (Chicken with rice), whihc features yellow rice, green peas, red peppers, and chicken.
Source: Sedano’s

Another classic Cuban dish is Arroz con Pollo, which is a dish featuring yellow rice, chicken, green peas, and sometimes red bell pepper. The meal is cooked by first browning the chicken thighs, which are marinated in olive oil and red wine vinegar, in a pot. Then, other seasonings like onion, cumin, oregano, bell pepper, tomato sauce, and bay leaves are added into the pot, along with white rice (Sedano’s, n.d.). The lid is left on throughout the whole process to ensure the rice comes out soft.

Ropa Vieja

Source: ThePetitGourmet

Cuba’s national dish, which translates to “old clothes”, is a delicious and hearty shredded beef meal simmered with tomato paste, cooking wine, onion, garlic, and bell peppers. Ropa Vieja is typically served with white rice. The meal has historical roots in the Iberian peninsula of Spain, and the recipe is over 500 years old! (RevolucionDeCuba.com 2015).

Cuban coffee

A colada (Cuban coffee with espresso foam) with accompanying espresso shot cups
Source: photographereddie (Getty Images)

Coffee is an integral part of Cuban culture and coffee consumption in Cuban culture is a social activity. Drinking a cafecito in Cuban culture encompasses conversations and connections with friends, family, and strangers (Kaniah 2020). Cuban coffee is typically made by making the espresso coffee and the espumita (foam on top) separately. During the process of brewing the coffee, a few drops of espresso coffee are put into a cup containing 2-3 tablespoons of white sugar, and the mixture is stirred vigorously into it becomes white and foamy. The white, sugary foam is then mixed into the fresh espresso coffee (Silva 2020).

Adaptation following the Revolution

With Fidel Castro spearheading the Cuban revolution in 1959, the lives of Cubans changed considerably. Cuban food was profoundly impacted by the decayed relations Cuba had with the US. With Cuba cut off from US food imports, Cuba sought imports from the Soviet Union to sustain the economy. Additionally, a food rationing system was adopted in 1962 by the Communist Party to abide by Castro’s ideals of provisioning basic needs to all Cuban citizens (Deere, Perez, and Gonzales, 1994). The libreta, the name given to a household’s food ration allowance, subsidized all food and household needs to ensure every family got fed. This ration booklet is loved and hated, with there being criticisms about how rations have reduced and how it is not enough for a household while also guaranteeing that no one goes without food (Tan 2015). Castro’s new rule also changed traditional Cuban recipes to accommodate new foods like wheat, pasta, pizza, yogurt, chicken, and fish (Rodriguez 2020). With these changes came a shift in Cuban cuisine and consumption behaviors to accommodate the agricultural and diet change that came with a new governing system.

A picture of Fidel Castro and Nikita Khrushchev raising hands together with the Cuban flag behind Castro and the Soviet Union flag behind Khrushchev showing Cuban-Russian friendship. The lettering translates to "Long live the eternal, indestructible friendship and cooperation between the Soviet and Cuban peoples."
Source: Kiezers / Wikimedia Commons

Improvisation during the Special period

The downfall of the Soviet Union in the years 1989-1990 sent shockwaves to the Soviet-supported island of Cuba, drastically reducing essential imports like fossil fuels and agricultural chemical fertilizers to Cuba and sparking a period of mass starvation and economic downturn called the Special Period in Peacetime (Deere, Perez, and Gonzales, 1994). These occurrences led to the average Cuban losing around 8 to 11 pounds between the years of 1991 and 1995 and the average caloric intake reducing from 2899 kcal to 1863 kcal.  Traditional recipes were impossible to make due to the unavailability of foodstuffs like meat, bread, cooking oil, butter, and eggs (Franco et al. 2008; CubaNews, 2020). The disappearance of these staple food items inevitably forced Cuba to diversify its agricultural production by converting sugar cane fields into farms that produced other fruits and vegetables, leading to 25,000 allotments of produce production by the year 1995. (History of Cuban Nation, n.d.; Rapid Transition Alliance 2019).

A graph showing the implications of the fall of the Soviet Union for Cuba in the 1990s.
Source: Cuba Platform

With there being a shortage of necessities and staple foods, the Special Period sparked waves of creativity and ingenuity among Cuban citizens to improvise with the available products they had to feed themselves and their families. Moreover, a disparity in available produce and food products widened between government-supported produce markets and free produce commercial markets. While government-supported markets are cheaper, they do not offer as much variety as a free market and are very limited in what they offer. Free commercial markets, on the other hand, host slightly more variety in produce and other food products, but at a higher price. Ironically enough, the different price points between these two markets create inequality in access to fruits and vegetables and make it difficult for families to have the freedom to obtain a variety of fruits and vegetables with the average monthly government pension only being the equivalent of 20 US dollars.

According to economists, the average Cuban family needs 112 US dollars to cover basic nutritional needs (Gonzalez 2019). In addition, available produce changes every day, making Cuban citizens incognizant of available products until they visit produce markets. This further necessitates creativity and ingenuity regarding improvising traditional recipes on a whim. Of course, this necessary creativity regarding food preparation creates stressful situations when it comes to feeding families. The difficulty in obtaining desired food and ongoing food insecurity on the island enables a limited notion of food due to lack of options and repetitive ingredients (Alfonso 2012, pp. 190). This perception of food that causes stress, anxiety, and sadness also promotes a view that food only has nutritional value rather than cultural and social value.

However, even with uncertainty and scarcity surrounding food in Cuba, a new gastronomic boom is occurring in Cuba in the face of rampant hunger, with many making small businesses serving the needs of not only tourists but their communities as well. In recent years, businesses that feed communities like paladares are encouraged in Cuba’s economy to fulfill a nutritional demand and they are even subsidized as well. These paladares are run out of people’s homes and are kept running by government support (Tan 2015).

Another interesting phenomenon is the existence of state-controlled beef. Yes, you read that right. Beef in Cuba is unavailable for citizens to purchase and cows are state-controlled property. If one is caught obtaining beef illegally, they will face the harsh punishment of incarceration, which many commit suicide to avoid (Gollner 2014). This inaccessibility to beef, a vital meat in traditional Cuban recipes, makes meals like ropa vieja impossible to make. Instead, Cubans opt to make it with pork or lamb, as beef is only imported to tourist hotels (Severson 2016).

Given that the current food supply insecurity persists in Cuba, promoting “essentialist” views on consuming food and creating a stressful culinary and nutritional environment for Cubans, the way Cubans perceive and consume food has considerably changed. Instead of meal consumption being a unifying and sacred action, meal consumption has now become a stressful part of Cubans lives. With barriers like beef bans, food supply insecurity, and small government pensions, could it be possible that Cuba’s culinary culture fades away?

Cuban diaspora

A Freedom Flight arrives in Miami from Varadero, Cuba · UM Libraries  Digital Exhibits
Source: UM Libraries Digital Exhibits

Mass Cuban immigration to the United States began after Castro’s coup d’état in 1959 that destroyed American relations with Cuba, with most Cuban exiles settling in Miami, Florida. Essentially, Cubans were offered a chance to immigrate to the United States before socio-economic conditions worsened. The implementation of the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 opened the door to around 1 million Cubans to integrate into the United States by offering them permanent residency and resources to adjust to life in the United States in the 1960s (Immigration and Ethnic History Society 2019). Later on, more Cuban immigrants moved to the United States in the Freedom Flights of the 1970s, the Mariel Boatlift of the 1980s, and in the Special Period of the 1990s that pushed many Cubans to America in hopes of opportunities and better socioeconomic conditions (PBS American Experience, n.d.).

While the future of Cuban gastronomy seems bleak in the geographically and socio-politically isolated vacuum of Cuba, Cuban gastronomy has found its roots elsewhere. In the Cuban colony of Miami, Florida, Cuban gastronomy is revitalized by Cuban restaurants like the famous Versailles Restaurant in Miami.

With no existing food shortages or government-controlled food items, Cuban immigrants were able to express and reinforce their national identity by making traditional recipes without the need to adapt or improvise with different ingredients. From this, attitudes and behaviors surrounding the process of making Cuban cuisine shifted previously held notions of national food, with the process of food production and consumption becoming enjoyable, sacred, and bond-strengthening. Cooking and sharing traditional Cuban meals in this sense promotes a sense of national belonging and identity formation, reflecting the cultural uniformity and collectiveness of Cuban culture (Paponnet-Cantat 2003 pp. 11; Alfonso 2012, pp.193).

An interesting case study of a successful revitalization of Cuban cuisine can be found at 3555 SW Eighth St., Miami, Florida, in the cozy, little Cuban metropolis called Little Havana. This place houses the famous Versailles restaurant, home of the most famous Cuban restaurant in America. Since its creation in 1971, the restaurant and many others alike have promoted a culture of coming together to enjoy Cuban traditions like enjoying a cafecito with friends and family at a table or la ventanita (coffee shop with a walk-up ordering window) (Santiago 2011). Versailles has also been a meeting point for political candidates and Cuban exiles to discuss pressing socio-political issues. Versailles is a crucial element of the Cuban American community and is a source of cultural and social capital in Miami, representing and embracing the abundance of pre-Revolution Cuban culture and the successful enterprise of hard-working, innovative Cubans (Versailles, n.d.).

Conclusion

It can be said that food is vital in communicating a culture’s history, values, and politics. Now that we have traced Cuba’s food history, we can see that Cuba’s gastronomy has stood the test of time, and despite the challenges Cuban citizens have faced in trying to recreate traditional recipes, improvisation and ingenuity have led to gastronomic innovation. In Cuban American communities like Miami, Florida, Cuban restaurants not only leave an imprint on local cuisine but look to their precedents to recreate culturally significant recipes.

A picture of a street in Havana, Cuba
Source: GloboTreks

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