Imagine strolling along South Butler Street and listening to the bright, lively notes of Cuban music that used to come from Guantanamera. Walk down the steps into the restaurant. Yolanda will welcome you from behind the counter. She’ll probably speak to you in Spanish. Listen for customers speaking Spanish too as they enjoy their meals. Enjoy the pungent aromas of good Cuban food as you order your meal. ¡Buen provecho!
Yolanda and Mario would start work very early in the morning. They began by preparing meats, plantains and beans. They would get the fresh ingredients for salads ready. They would make large amounts of flavored rice that they serve with every meal.
Before they opened for lunch, Mario would get the food cart ready to take to Library Mall at State Street. He would bring the prepared food to the cart and use special heating pans and warming ovens to keep it fresh and hot for customers. Yolanda stayed at the restaurant to serve the customers who went there.
Traditional Cuban Foods
The meals that Yolanda and Mario prepared were based on Cuban food traditions. One key to understanding a traditional Cuban meal is to look at the most common ingredients: meat, fish, vegetables, rice and beans. Favorite meats are roasted, fried or shredded chicken, roasted or shredded beef, and roasted pork. Boiled or breaded fish is popular—remember, Cuba is surrounded by ocean! Beans are mixed with rice to make congri (white rice and red beans) or moros y cristianos (white rice and black beans).
Traditional Cuban cooks flavor their rice with cumin, garlic and peppers. They make many different rice mixtures too. Some add more spices like bay leaf and oregano. Some add tropical fruits like plantains or mangos, or vegetables.
A vegetable that is very common in Cuban cooking is yucca, sometimes called manioc or cassava. It is a root that is grown in the tropics that can be used in many ways. Usually, when it is called yucca, it is boiled and served like potatoes. Another common vegetable is plantain. These often are fried in oil and served with the rest of the ingredients for a very traditional Caribbean flavor. Garbanzo beans or lentils are legumes that you might find mixed with the rice too.
In Cuban markets, cooks choose from a variety of locally grown fruits and vegetables. These include: plantains, bananas, malanga, potato, mango, pineapples, watermelon, cantaloupe, pumpkin, cucumber, cabbage and squash. What they use in the rice mixtures or as a side dish depends on what they find in the market!
Traditional Cuban cooks like Yolanda and Mario take these basic ingredients and arrange them differently every day. These foods reflect a Cuban philosophy of eating things that are grown locally—on the island of Cuba. Eating local foods means that people do not need to depend on outside places for their foods.
Now we know which foods are typically Cuban, but let’s find out what else goes into making a traditional Cuban meal.