The evolution of Cuban cuisine by Franca Iuele.
It breaks our hearts when we hear Canadians complain about the blandness of the food in the hotels in Cuba. The island has one of the most diverse culinary traditions in the Caribbean. Yet, modern day Cuba has little to celebrate when it comes to food. Perhaps it’s the lack of ingredients or the belief that tourists are only interested in international food. Whatever the reasons, they contributed to the well-deserved negative reputation they have earned.
You may be surprised to know that Cuba actually has a history that created a cuisine that was mostly Spanish in traditions, but with strong influences from all of the cultures that make up Cuba.
Thankfully, there is a generation of Cuban chefs – including our own Pedro Quintanilla – that left the island and brought with them the knowledge and passion passed on from generation to generation.
Let’s go back in years to see where it all started.
Cuba was the last of the new world colonies to get their independence from Spain. From 1492 to 1898 Spanish conquistadors populated and ruled Cuba. When Christopher Columbus and the Spanish arrived in Cuba they found various indigenous tribes. The best known and most developed were the Tainos, one of the largest indigenous peoples of the Caribbean. They were a peaceful nation who occupied the middle part of the island and were the first to farm crops on the island. Their primary crops were yuca/cassava and batata (sweet potato).
In the 15th century after the arrival of Christopher Columbus, Spain sets to conquer Cuba. The first Spanish settlers were peasants from the Canary Islands. They brought with them their traditional dishes including mojo, black beans & rice and ropa vieja.
Mojo, which is the base of most Cuban meat dishes, is made from sautéing onions and garlic in olive oil with a splash of bitter orange or lime juice. Although beans were part of the diet of many of the indigenous peoples of the America’s, the black bean was introduced in Cuba by the Canarians. They also brought rice and the Moros y Cristianos recipe, a dish that dates back to the Moors occupation of Spain. It is believed that the Spaniards considered themselves the white rice and they referred to that Moors as black beans. Well, that’s not very politically correct, but the dish itself survived and thrived and became a main staple of the Cuban table.
Another famous Spanish dish is the ropa vieja. Legend has it that the ropa vieja, which translated means ‘shredded clothes’, was a dish created by the Sephardic Jews who lived in the Iberian Peninsula. In order to respect the Sabbath the Sephardi would prepare this slow cooked dish the night before and enjoy it as a Sabbath meal. These wonderful traditions were incorporated into Spanish cuisine and were eventually brought to the new world.
The slave trade brought Africans from the Congo Region, mostly Nigeria, to work in the sugar cane fields. They too had an incredible influence on Cuba. They introduced the Yoruba religion, taro root and plantains that were picked green and fried as tostones.
By the 1850 with the abolition of slavery a new pool of sugar field workers arrived from China. Records show that in 1870 there were more than 40,000 Chinese in Cuba. Many of these intermarried and settled on the island, in fact in Havana a small China town was born. Although the Chinese did not introduce rice to Cuba, they did introduce new cooking techniques such as fried rice and the use soya sauce which is still added to many local dishes.
Lastly, between 1791 and 1804 the French fleeing revolution and turmoil in Haiti, arrived on the Cuba’s eastern shores. They started to plant potatoes and introduced the stuffed potatoes or croquettes, as well as their delicious desserts. It is believed that the much loved Pastelito Cubano started as a mille feuille, the cream was replaced by an abundance of local fruits such as guava and coconut. Other popular desserts such as the flan also owes its origin to the French.
By the early 20th century a new wave of immigrants from Galicia and Asturia in Northern Spain, who were escaping forced military service and poverty, began to arrive and move into the Western provinces of Cuba. These new arrivals brought with them new ingredients such as cod arrived and new dishes such as Fabada, Arroz con Pollo and Paella. And these too became staples of the Cuban table.
In the 1990 a group of Cuban Chefs in Miami wanted to elevate Cuban cuisine to international standards and created Nuevo Latino cuisine. This new concept based on Cuban traditions also incorporated dishes and ingredients from Peru and other Latin countries. Bloom restaurant is a Nuevo Latino restaurant. Our menu brings forth fusion of dishes based on Cuban traditions intertwined with Peruvian, Argentinian and Spanish influences. Cuban born Chef Pedro Quintanilla started cooking at a very early age as he followed his grandmother around the kitchen and learned the secret of turning simple ingredients into delicious meals. He completed his culinary education in the Culinary Institute. He worked in some of the best restaurants in the city. and spent 4 years as Chef for the French Embassy in Havana, It is his personal goal and passion to preserve the rich traditions developed from generation to generation that incorporate a mix of rich cultures that created Cuba and its cuisine.