Talking Cuban food and history with Señor Castellanos

Cuba: a country with a complex history and many different cultural influences, is by no surprise a place with a wide array of cultural practices. These different influences present themselves in a variety of ways, one of which is the traditional cuisine.
Historically Cuba has been under the power of Spanish and American powers while also holding its own cultural value, which is a combination of Caribbean, African, and Indigenous Taino traditions. The migration of Chinese workers to Cuba also integrated Chinese culture into the Cuban lifestyle. This meticulous blend of cultures expresses itself in one notable way: food.

Cuba’s soil is naturally ideal for an agricultural economy which was largely denominated by the sugarcane industry as well as other foods like rice, fruits, potatoes, tomatoes and corn and avocados. The dominant livestock in Cuba are pigs, chicken and cattle; however, beef was virtually nonexistent as the government made the slaughter of cattle illegal without state permission in 1963.

Fishing is another industry that is popular in Cuba, making seafood prominent. This access to food made its impact as prominent meals feature mainly pork, rice and potatoes. “Roasting an entire pig with a stick through the middle is very popular. It can also be cooked in a machine called a Caja China,” said upper school Spanish teacher Rolando Castellanos.

Castellanos was born and raised in Cuba and immigrated to the US in 1978. “The pig is spiced with lime juice, lots of garlic, cumin, pepper,” he continued.

Furthering Cuba’s complexity within its cuisine was the Cold War and Cuba’s communist history, which largely cut off major food supplies and forced a dietary change upon the population. This major change brought more carbs into the Cuban diet, as well as a distancing from meat as it became much less accessible.

“Cuban food has a lot of flavors, but it’s not as spicy,” said Castellanos.“One dish that is very representative of Cuban food is called picadillo.” Picadillo consists of ground beef, tomato sauce or fresh tomatoes, garlic, peppers, onions, olives and sometimes raisins or a fried egg. The dish is typically served with sweet plantains, white rice and black beans.

For Castellanos, ropa vieja with white rice, black beans and sweet fried plantains is his favorite meal. “It uses the same base as picadillo, but it is made with shredded beef. It can be eaten with many of the same things, including yuca,” he explained.

Ropa vieja translates to “old clothes” and originates from an urban legend. “We also eat chicharrón, which is the fried skin of a pig or chunks of pork meat made to be crunchy,” he said.

“We eat a lot of fruit—lots of plantains, either in soup or as chips which they call chicharitas. Chicharitas are very thin green plantains deep fried with garlic salt,” Castellanos said.

Staying consistent with the high amount of fruit in the Cuban diet, many Cuban desserts are based around fruit.

“There are lots of marmalades and preserves with mango and guava and papayas and more. We also drink a lot of smoothies,” he said. Flan de Naranja, or flan with oranges, is a typical dessert as well as chocolate cake and flan cooked together.

Today, staples of the Cuban diet are presented in many different styles. Tostones, for example, are flattened and fried green plantains, a traditional Cuban snack with African inspirations. The Cuban sandwich is a popular item for lunch. The sandwich includes Cuban bread, pork, ham, swiss cheese, pickles and yellow mustard. Another meal would be Arroz a la Cubana which features rice, a fried egg, tomato sauce and a plantain.

Castellanos’s favorite Cuban restaurant is Guavas Cuban Cafe, located near Lake Nokomis. “I highly recommend the tamales. They’re the best I have found in the Twin Cities in the 40 some years I have lived here,” he said. In the Twin Cities, some other popular and top-rated restaurants include El Cubano, located in West St. Paul and Victor’s 1959 Cafe, located in Southwest Minneapolis.

Using traditional bases like rice, pork and fruit, Cuban food has managed to bring something different to the table and should not be overlooked as just another form of Mexican food.