Cuban Food Basics You May Not Know
Carlos Miller is a reporter who operates Magic City Media and authors CarlosMiller.com, a blog about Media, Activism, and First Amendment issues. Carlos lives in Miami, Florida. In this article, he takes a look at some Cuban food basics you may not know.
As a Miami native, one of the things I missed during the ten years I lived away from the Magic City was Cuban food.
And I’m not even Cuban.
But I grew up in a Cuban neighborhood so I developed a deep appreciation for cafecito, pastelitos, croquetas, bistec empanizado and vaca frita.
And don’t even get me started on Cuban bread. When it’s fresh out the oven, no bread in the world compares to it. But better eat it fast because it will turn into a rock in a day or two.
Most visitors who arrive in Miami discover that advice on Cuban food can be found on practically any Miami street corner.
But considering that advice might be delivered in rapid fire Spanish, which to the untrained ear might come across as verbal assault, you’re better off getting your advice on Cuban food from Miami Beach 411.
For starters, Cuban food is nothing like Mexican food
“Mexican food has a lot more variety because there are a lot more regions in Mexico than there are in Cuba,” said Edward Millot, manager of Taqueria Mexico on Calle Ocho.
“Cuban food is basically centered around white rice and black beans,” he said.
But Millot, who is from Veracruz, Mexico, is obviously biased. So I asked Cuban-born Abieo Ballesteros, who had just finished off a Mexican meal at Taqueria Mexico.
“There is a big difference,” he said. “Mexicans use a lot more spice, a lot more cheese, a lot more sauces. And they start you off with chips and salsa instead of Cuban bread.”
So now that you know that Cuban food is going to be nothing like the taco joint from your hometown, you will treading in unfamiliar territory.
That is why we tracked down one of the most credible authorities on Cuban food: Jorge Castillo, one of the three men who run the “3 Guys from Miami” Website.
Jorge Castillo, along with Raúl Musibay and Glenn Lindgren, have been providing recipes, food descriptions and restaurant recommendations on the Internet for more than ten years.
They have even published two cookbooks on Cuban cuisine. And they have been featured several times on the Food Network and the Travel Channel.
“If you’ve never had Cuban food before, I recommend you start with a sandwich, maybe a Cuban sandwich or a pan con bistec,” he said.
A Cuban sandwich consists of ham, roasted pork, Swiss cheese and pickles between two slices of Cuban bread. The sandwich is then grilled in a Panini press, locally known as la plancha.
A pan con bistec translates to “bread with steak” and it is essentially a steak sandwich. It consists of a thin piece of steak, grilled onions, shredded lettuce, tomatoes and shoestring potatoes between two pieces of Cuban bread. The sandwich, of course, is grilled in la plancha.
Although the bread used for these sandwiches is Cuban bread, Castillo points out that it differs from the loaf you buy in the bakery or supermarket because it is not fully cooked until it gets pressed into a sandwich in la plancha.
And the reason Cuban bread has such a short lifespan is because it contains no preservatives, he said.
In most Cuban restaurants, you will be served a basket of warm buttered Cuban bread if you order a meal beyond the typical sandwich.
“Then after you’ve tried the sandwiches, I suggest trying picadillo with tostones or maduros and rice and black beans,” he said.
This is how picadillo is described on the 3 Guys from Miami Website:
Like many Cuban dishes, picadillo is based on what Castillo describes as the “Cuban trinity”.
“The Cuban trinity means that the meal is in the name of onion, garlic and green pepper, amen,” he said. “This is based on almost anything we eat.”
Castillo, who was born in Cuba, spent 18 years in Iowa, before moving to Miami with his Iowa-born wife, spends his free time trying out various Cuban restaurants throughout town.
He is usually not at a loss of words, but when asked what restaurant he would recommend on Miami Beach, he went silent.
Then he explained that to get the real taste of Cuban food, you must cross the bridge from Miami Beach into Miami.
“I prefer those hole-in-the-wall places,” he said.
One of these hole-in-the-wall places he recommends is on Bird Road and S.W. 114th Avenue called Ay Mama Inez.
“It is not only tiny, but it has an eclectic menu,” he said. “It’s the only place you will find rabbit.”
“I like Versailles late at night,” he said. “They have good chicharron de pollo (Cuban fried chicken).
The one thing Castillo insists that all tourists try when coming to Miami is Cuban coffee.
“That’s a moral obligation when you come to Miami,” he said. “It is similar to Italian espresso but darker and sweeter.”
It is also what fuels the conversation at various ventanas (café windows) throughout town, including David’s Café off Lincoln Road in Miami Beach.
One taste of that and you will understand why Cubans speak so fast.
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