What do you know about Cubans? Mojitos and Scarface, old cars and Castro? That there are a ton of them in Florida, and they make a pretty good sandwich? Cool…and then?
While those associations are grounded in some element of truth, they represent only a tiny sliver of what Cubans—and Cuban food—are about.
Part of the problem is that most Cuban communities are either so insular that they’re impenetrable—like the massive swaths around Miami, also known as “Little Cuba”—or they’re impossible to spot, rolled up in the mix-n-match “Spanish” restaurants of Corona, Queens, which could be run by any number of Caribbean immigrants. There’s also the fact that Cubans have been here for a long time at this point, the majority of them having come over in the period directly following Fidel Castro’s rise to power in 1959. Now pushing third-generation American status, many Cuban-Americans pick and choose which parts of their heritage they want to flaunt.
Some of the stereotypes are true: Cubans love to party, and they can eat.
It wasn’t until I was adopted into an enormous Cuban-American family, thanks to my fiancé, that I learned how to spot the Cubans—and now that I can, I see them everywhere. In three years, my extremely white self has gone from not being able to pronounce dulce de leche (don’t match those ch sounds—that’s a basic move) to knowing that I like my arroz con pollo asopao (a soupier preparation that ends up almost risotto-like).
Some of the stereotypes are true: Cubans love to party, and they can eat. Backyard pig roasts are the traditional way to celebrate pretty much any special occasion—this is a country whose two greatest exports (if they could export them) are cigars and sugar.
Bottom line: If you find some real Cubans, it’s in your best interest to make friends, fast. Here’s what you need to know to keep up without looking like a chump.
Coffee comes pre-sweetened.
Cuban coffee culture is big, and you’re likely to get offered a shot of the strong stuff as soon as you sit down just about anywhere. But don’t reach for the sugar until you’ve tasted it—it’s already going to be sweet enough to give a seven-year-old the shakes. Stovetop espresso (Café Bustelo, natch) is the Cuban drug of choice, day or night, and it’s almost never served up plain. The lazy will just throw a heaping spoonful of sugar right in with the coffee grounds before it brews, but more ambitious caffeine fiends will whip a small amount of the finished coffee with enough sugar to fuel a small army before pouring in the rest of the pot. The extra touch gives the finished brew the rich, creamy head that gives it the name cafe con espumita. (Photo: Robert Koltun/Miami.com)
Empanadas are always fried.
Nearly every Latin American culture has some version of wheat dough folded around a meat filling for a quick handheld snack. Cuban empanadas are no different, and they’re usually filled with ground beef, chicken, or—for the sweet-toothed—guava paste and cream cheese. Cuba’s most important contribution to empanada culture is its stubborn unwillingness to acknowledge the misguided urge to put anything in the oven when it could be deep-fried. The mark of a quality empanada is measured by the oil blisters on the dough’s surface, plus maximum greasy crunch at the folded corners where the filling doesn’t reach. It’s perfection found in the sweet sound of the Fryolater. (Photo: Foodista)
Bacardi is from Cuba, not Puerto Rico.
Sure, that’s where it’s made now, but any Cuban with an ounce of pride will make it very clear that the legendary rum brand originated in Cuba, where it was founded in 1862 near Santiago de Cuba by the Spaniard Facundo Bacardi Masso. The distillers were even early supporters of Castro’s revolutionaries, and they only left the country when private property—and private corporations—were banned in the ’60s. Don’t make my mistake and assume that all the bottles are named for Mr. Bacardi—the “Ron” on the label is just Spanish for rum. (Photo: oceandrive.com)
There will be garlic.
Mojo sauce is one of the main Cuban condiments, used to liven up heavy starches like boiled yucca or fried green plantains. While the Food Network will try to tell you that mojo is a tangy, well-balanced combination of minced garlic, sour orange juice, olive oil, and cumin, that’s a lie. Any Cuban restaurant or home cook will serve you a mojo that could shatter mirrors with its pungency—it’s basically just a massive dose of minced garlic lightly cooked in olive oil. It’s intense stuff, and unless you’ve been in training or were raised Italian, it should not be attempted full-strength. Take the tiniest of baby spoonfuls of the stuff and ration it out across your meal, and accept that you’ll still have satanic breath for the rest of the day. (Photo: Food52)
Those beans and rice are racist.
One of the most common sides in a Cuban restaurant is usually called moro rice, or just plain moros—a combination of black beans and white rice cooked together. Its full name, though, is moros y cristianos, which means “moors and Christians.” Like most Caribbean countries, Cuba has a large population of African descent, a legacy of the slave trade. Those Cubans of Spanish heritage remembered the Moors, the black Islamic population driven out of the county during the Spanish Inquisition, and put two and two together into one racially insensitive but delicious dish. At least the two get to live together in harmony on your plate. (Photo: Nina’s Gourmet)
Don’t talk politics at the dinner table.
It’s pretty safe to assume that any Cubans you’ll meet in the U.S. today are people who left the country in the past 50 years, at some point after Castro took office, and that their departure was in reaction to the bearded strongman—and even if that’s not the case, their lives have almost certainly been affected by his regime. You may be tempted to try to talk to them about it—after all, how many chances are you ever going get to hear about a dictatorship first-hand? But take it from me: Keep your mouth shut. Most Cuban-Americans have an incredibly complicated relationship with the motherland, and only they’re allowed to bring it up. Even something as innocent as mentioning how cool all those old cars driving around Havana look can trigger strong opinions about the embargo, or sad stories about the deprivation people there are living with. Better to leave the whole mess alone, and focus on topics everyone can participate in—like that delicious roast pork.
Cubans make better sandwiches than the Cubano.
Look, Cubanos are delightful. Any sandwich that combines multiple pork products is automatically okay in my book—banh mi, muffulettas, it’s all welcome. But when it comes to the Cuban sandwich-making arts, Cubanos don’t wind up on top. For starters, there’s also the media noche (“midnight,” because that’s when you’re most likely to need one of these in your world), which takes all the same ingredients as a Cubano but puts them on a sweeter, eggy bread, almost brioche-like, massively upping the deliciousness factor. Then there’s the fact that pretty much every other sandwich they make, from steak to chicken to roast pork, comes topped with those shoestring-fried potatoes that come in the can. It’s a genius textural contrast that adds salt, crunch, and a little extra hit of starch to the overall package. (Photo: Flickr/tomcensani)
Nobody drinks mojitos.
Though you’ll get a lot of talk about how mojitos are a traditional Cuban cocktail invented a hundred years ago by sugarcane farmers who needed to cover up the taste of their nasty, cheap rum, the only people who actually drink the damn things anymore are tourists in South Beach clubs looking to turn up “authentically.” If you’re going to drink with Cubans, order daiquiris or, better yet, learn to appreciate aged rums on their own, like you would a bourbon—they’ve got lots of the same flavor notes and are just a little bit sweeter. (Photo: Complex)
Dominican food is basically the same thing.
Every Caribbean nation has its own unique history of colonization, struggles for independence, and migration patterns, but sometimes they can look almost identical. Case in point: Cuba and the Dominican Republic. The two largest of the region’s countries, both were home to the Taino Indians, were conquered by the Spanish, and have a large African influence. Both underwent serious political upheaval at the end of the ‘50s, though one went Left and the other went Right. As a result, a lot of their food is almost identical—if you can’t find the real Cuban versions of lechon, tostones, mondongo (a tripe soup), or flan, hit up the Dominicans instead. I promise you won’t be able to tell the difference—it’s what most Cubans in New York do, anyway. (Photo: vainitacontostones.com)
Chicharrónes are an essential appetizer.
You might think fried pork rinds are a special-occasion thing, a reward after running a marathon or getting a perfect cholesterol screening from your doctor. Wrong. Every Cuban meal out starts with a plate of these greasy, meaty slabs of skin-on pork belly—nothing like those sad, Styrofoam-tasting “pork rinds” you get at the bodega. Even better: The word chicharrón is used to signify any deep-fried meat chunk, so if you happen to spot chicharrones de pollo on a menu, you’re basically looking at the world’s best popcorn chicken. (Photo: thecubanrecipes.com)