Cuba: The Cookbook

Cuba: The Cookbook

Could there be a more timely cookbook to reflect the changing geopolitical realities of the real world? Well possibly, if there was one on the food of North Korea, but in lieu of this culinary pamphlet/manuscript, Phaidon’s Cuba: The Cookbook is certainly it, and what a world it reveals.

Since the beginning of normalisation with the U.S., Cuba has been opening up, with the Castros no longer in control and a limited number of private companies in certain industries being allowed to open. One such industry is food, with private restaurants and mini chains opening up as Cubans become increasingly able to afford to eat at them.

South America and the Caribbean have a long history of immigration from all over the world and Cuba has been such a melting pot of immigrants and their foods, that it has given rise to one of the most vibrant cuisines in the world.

Port of Prince Stew. Picture credit: photography by Sidney Bensimon (page 95)

Being an island, fish should be a key constituent of the Cuban diet but, as the book illustrates, the Spanish colonisers’ introduction of pork meant that fish was displaced as the main source of sustenance. They also brought robust dishes like bean soups and stews. Slaves arriving from Africa to be put to work on the plantations brought with them yams, taro root, okra and plantains, while the French fleeing revolution in Haiti founded coffee plantations. Chinese immigration into Cuba stretches back to 1847 (we all forget for how long  immigration from China to countries around the world has been going on). They came as indentured servants and brought rice, making it a staple of the Cuban diet.

No other nation has had its food so impacted by the ideological political squabbling of two world powers. Before the revolution swept the Castros and communists to power, Cuba imported and exported huge amounts of food to and from the U.S. The USSR replaced the U.S. as the major trading partner when the blockade was imposed and, as the Soviets collapsed, rationing of ingredients increased. Today, though, things have changed and this cookbook unveils and celebrates this.

Cuban Ground Beef. Picture credit: photography by Sidney Bensimon (page 207)

Cuba: The Cookbook unveils this unique melting pot of food cultures and styles via insightful introductions by the two authors and some 350 recipes, including the recipes of guest chefs. As is so often the case, one of the most interesting sections is the pantry. The Cuban Pantry lays bare the wide variety and depth of the ingredients to hand for Cubans and the ways they cook.

Recipes are broken down into 11 sections, including eggs, rice, appetizers and snacks, sauces and dressings, fish, poultry and meat. You’ll find recipes for ham croquettes, fried pork rinds and fried wontons up against one another. Dishes like peanut soup and ground beef with capers speak to the poverty of the majority of Cubans and at times scarceness of ingredients. Other dishes, like pork stew and roast pork leg, all speak to more expensive dishes that are becoming more affordable. But what all the recipes share is an earthiness. There is nothing overly complex; it is a cuisine of the earth and of a people that aren’t rich but form a vibrant culture with food that reflects this. It is hearty, nourishing and packed with flavour, bringing a central focus and enjoyment to the lives of a people that have had a tough history.

Cuba: The Cookbook is a fascinating insight into a food culture that has developed like no other and been hidden from the wider world.

Cuba: The Cookbook

By Madelaine Vázquez Gálvez and Imogene Tondre

Published by Phaidon

ISBN: 978 0714875767

Available here.