When I was a kid, the Luis Muñoz Marin airport in San Juan, Puerto Rico, was a madhouse. I’d walk off the air-conditioned plane into a sweaty, tropical inferno that punched me in the face like a closed fist. Once I navigated the chaotic baggage claim, I walked out into a corral of hundreds of adoring family members. My grandmother was always there, frantically waving, with a fresh loaf of pan sobao (the best bread on the planet) in her hand. It’s among my favorite memories of the island: a tropical family frenzy.
Many moons later, while on a college research trip in summer 2001, I landed in Havana for the first time. I found the same heat, same salt-laden air, same beautiful brown families half-clawing their way toward their loved ones, hollering in the same clipped, rapid Spanish that my parents spoke. I had prepared for the differences I would see because of Cuban politics, but I wasn’t ready for how similar our cultures were.
I haven’t been back to Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria struck last fall. Like so many others in the diaspora, I’ve watched in horror as the power continues to sputter, as demonstrations against austerity measures are violently squashed, as assistance from the U.S. government continues to fall far short of what you’d expect for an island that has been a part of our country for more than a century.
But I visited Cuba in May, not long after Raúl Castro’s retirement as president. As with Puerto Rico’s devastation, I wondered how such a significant moment in the island’s history could pass without more coverage. Politics aside, as I walked down the vastly changed Havana streets, I was reminded of one of the aspects of Cuban culture that fascinated me and inspired me to study it so closely: the food.
I write a lot about Puerto Rican food. My first cookbook, “Coconuts & Collards,” is an exploration that extends from my island to the American South and back again. But when I see Puerto Rican food I also see Cuban food, and Dominican food. We share sazón, and we love plantains, heavy garlic, tropical fruits and dark rum.
Despite these similarities, our cuisines aren’t often discussed together. Arguably, because of history and politics, Cuban food is much better known than Puerto Rican. But if we begin to see these as sister cuisines, part of a larger family of indigenous, African- and European-influenced Caribbean foodways, we gain a greater appreciation of our shared history. We can start to see the links that persist despite political fissures — and better understand how food can be a marker of resilience and creativity.
Puerto Rican poet Lola Rodríguez de Tió famously said Puerto Rico and Cuba are “de un pájaro las dos alas” — two wings of the same bird.
That sentiment has been reaffirmed for me on each trip to Cuba, and the strongest evidence of our shared culture is our sazón. I don’t mean the bright red Goya spice blend. For many of us across Latin American, having sazón means that your food is well seasoned, and it means that you’re a damn good cook with a knack for the Caribbean’s bright, aromatic flavors.
On my first trips to Cuba, the smells and flavors of La Habana transported me to my grandmother’s kitchen counter (though with a tad more exhaust). Rice and beans (though Puerto Ricans tend to prefer red or pink beans to Cuba’s black beans, the iconic frijoles negros), sweet plantains, pernil (roast pork shoulder), pressed-ham-and-swiss sandwiches, flan, guava paste, tostones (fried green plantains), dark rum cocktails, sliced tomatoes with olive oil, arroz con pollo (chicken and rice) — literally dozens of nearly identical recipes, though with some notable differences.
“I think of Cuban food as very sharp, with vinegar, and citrus flavors,” says Ana Sofía Peláez, author of the “The Cuban Table.” “With Puerto Rican food, there’s a sweetness and roundness of flavors. There’s a warmth to Puerto Rican food.”
Peláez’s cookbook explores her Cuban heritage through food, and, like me, she’s as interested in food on the island as in the diaspora. She calls Miami home, and, unlike me, she grew up surrounded by fellow Cuban Americans, as well as Puerto Ricans. She sees a fundamental similarity in our cuisines.
“The food seems relatively simple, but I think it’s exactly what you want when you’re living in that climate,” she says. “You want fried fish and cold beer, and mariscos [seafood]. And then there’s the other extreme: heavy soups and bean stews that take hours to make. It’s hearty, soulful cooking that’s not covered up in a ton of sauces. It is what it is. And that’s its strength.”
I couldn’t agree with her more. And so I wasn’t surprised when several Cuban recipes made it onto the pages of my Puerto Rican cookbook, including boliche (chorizo-stuffed beef roast) and a pineapple-scented variation on a mojito. But throughout, I share recipes for dishes that I’ve eaten on both islands, as well as the key building block of so many Puerto Rican and Cuban dishes: sofrito, a fragrant blend of vegetables and spices.
Sweet plantains were a staple in my grandmother’s house, a side dish I missed growing up in Georgia, where plantains were hard to find. When we did have them, my mom would prepare them on the stove-top with butter and honey, adding a sprinkle of cinnamon at the end. For me, it was the pinnacle of the sweet-savory flavor combo that Puerto Rico shares with Caribbean neighbors.
On recent trips to Cuba, the island has felt like a mirror of my home. But while food can provide so much joy, and such a deep sense of belonging, it also reveals so much about lack. Puerto Rican and Cuban food share the scars of African and indigenous slavery, including a reliance on heavy, filling foods intended to sustain workers, food grown on islands cultivated for sugar cane, not kale. On both islands, I’ve observed how government policies have shaped what is produced and consumed. In Cuba, there is la libreta, or government ration system; in Puerto Rico, trade policies hurt local farmers. And here on the U.S. mainland, the best-known foods from both these islands aren’t those with vibrant, tropical flavors. They’re meaty, heavy dishes and deep-fried snacks that reveal much about access to healthful food.
Traveling to Cuba underscored things about Cuban and Puerto Rican cuisine that help tell a larger story about the Caribbean. Each island, seen independently, has signature dishes that become synonymous with its culture. Fiery Jamaican jerk, curry-laced Trinidadian roti, soulful Haitian pepper pot, decadent pernil-stuffed Puerto Rican mofongo, effervescent Cuban mojitos, and the plantain grits that are Dominican mangú. These dishes are part of the legacy of slavery, of the global spice trade, of a time when sugar was king.
It’s incredibly painful to see the people on my island continue to suffer. “Se fue la luz” — the electricity went out — again, across the island in mid-April, making many residents anxious about what might happen as we enter another hurricane season. My friend Berto — a resident of Yabucoa, which took a direct hit from the hurricane — says he pays $25 a day to keep his home and restaurant running with a generator. A group of Puertorriqueños led protests against austerity measures May 1, and they were met with a tough police response, including tear gas. It’s been a long time since I heard of anything but struggle from my people.
While chaos was racking my island, Raúl Castro stepped down as Cuba’s president, and for the first time in 59 years, Cuba wasn’t being led by a Castro. But the Trump administration has rolled back President Barack Obama’s historic easing of restrictions on travel to and commerce with Cuba. Not to mention that Cuba was struck hard by Hurricane Irma just weeks before Maria rampaged through Puerto Rico.
I will always see these islands, just 762 miles apart, as two wings of the same bird. I keep them close in my kitchen, sometimes choosing black beans instead of red or adding an extra sprinkle of cilantro and splash of lemon juice to my dishes. And I hope we’ll keep them both in our hearts as they chart new courses through uncertain waters.
Diaz is a writer and radio producer based in New York.
12 servings (makes 2 ½ to 3 cups)
Sometimes called recaito, this is thought to be the backbone of Puerto Rican cooking, and is found in the freezer of a typical Puerto Rican kitchen.
The original recipe called for aji dulce peppers, a sweet-spicy variety that looks like a habanero pepper and is native to Latin America and the Caribbean. We used aji amarillo peppers; see below.
Culantro, also called saw-tooth herb or wild coriander, has long leaves with jagged edges and a flavor that is more assertive than cilantro. It is available in the produce section in Latino markets; we found it at Panam International on 14th Street NW in the District. Aji amarillo peppers are more often available in the freezer case at such markets and at some Shoppers Food stores.
MAKE AHEAD:It can be refrigerated for up to 1 week, or frozen for up to 6 months.
Adapted from “Coconuts and Collards: Recipes and Stories from Puerto Rico to the Deep South,” by Von Diaz (University Press of Florida, 2018).
1 medium red bell pepper, seeded and cut into quarters
3 aji dulce peppers, seeded and coarsely chopped (see headnote; may substitute aji amarillo peppers)
6 large cloves garlic
1 large yellow onion, coarsely chopped
6 fresh culantro leaves (see headnote)
6 stems cilantro, coarsely chopped (leaves plus tender stems)
Combine the bell pepper, ají chiles and garlic in a food processor; puree until fairly smooth, stopping to scrape down the sides halfway through.
Add the onion; pulse five to seven times, until the mixture is again blended into a smooth puree.
Add the culantro and cilantro; pulse five or six more times to form a loose paste.
Transfer to a container for serving or storing.
This is a refreshing take on the classic mojito cocktail, incorporating pineapple, vanilla and the fresh herb culantro instead of mint.
Culantro, also called saw-tooth herb or wild coriander, has long leaves with jagged edges and a flavor that is more assertive than cilantro. It is available in the produce section in Latino markets; we found it at Panam International on 14th Street NW in the District.
Created by Marisa Cadena, of the now-closed Lucky Luna restaurant in Brooklyn; adapted from “Coconuts and Collards: Recipes and Stories from Puerto Rico to the Deep South,” by Von Diaz (University Press of Florida, 2018).
1 teaspoon turbinado sugar
¾ lime, cut into thin slices
2 fresh culantro leaves, plus 1 for garnish (see headnote)
1 to 2 small drops vanilla extract
1 ounce fresh pineapple juice
2 ounces white rum
Muddle the sugar, lime slices and 2 culantro leaves in a tall glass, until the sugar has mostly dissolved. Add the vanilla extract (to taste), the pineapple juice and rum, stirring to incorporate.
Add enough ice so that it rises above the level of the mixture, then top with club soda. Garnish with a culantro leaf.
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