Love that Latin Cuisine

Cuban and Puerto Rican flavors spice up the melting pot.

By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed by Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD

It's time to think outside the burrito! There is much more to Latin cuisine than our favorite Mexican food items -- not that there's anything wrong with loving Mexican cuisine!

Depending on where in the United States you live, you might think of a different country when you hear the term "Latin cuisine." That might mean Mexican food for a resident of the West Coast, Cuban cuisine for a Miamian, or Puerto Rican fare for someone from New York or Chicago.

"Latin America" comprises countries developed from colonies of European powers that used languages derived from Latin -- namely Spanish, Portuguese, and French, according to the Encarta encyclopedia. But the Latin cultures that have had perhaps the biggest presence in the U.S. to date are Mexico, Cuba, and Puerto Rico. Since Mexican cuisine is fairly well known, let's take a moment to explore the other two.

Cuban Cuisine

The Indians living on the island now called Cuba lived on fish, cassava (a starchy tuber), corn, beans, sweet potatoes, yuca (a potato-like vegetable), tomatoes, and pineapples. The year 1492 brought Christopher Columbus to Cuba. He claimed the island for Spain, and Cuba was a Spanish territory for several centuries. By the 17th century Cuba began importing Africans to the island to work as slaves.

Foods from the regions of Spain (Canarian, Galician, and Asturian) that helped populate Cuba, along with those of the Indians and African and Chinese slaves, helped shape today's Cuban cuisine.

"Cuban cooking combines the tastes of Spain with the tropical flavors of the Caribbean," Glenn Lindgren, co-author of Three Guys from Miami Celebrate Cuban, says in an email interview. "Throw in some New World spices and ingredients and a strong African influence, and you have the essence of Cuban cookery."

One thing Cuban food is not is spicy hot, adds Jorge Castillo, another co-author of Three Guys From Miami Celebrate Cuban: "We Cubans just don't use the hot peppers that are such an integral part of many Latin American cuisines."

That's not to say Cuban food is not highly spiced.

"The heart and soul of Cuban cuisine is the "sofrito," a saute of onions, green peppers, and garlic in olive oil," Lindgren says.

Cuban cuisine is also based on the flavor of citrus, according to Raul Musibay, the third co-author of the Guys from Miami Cuban cookbook.

"We use tangy orange juice with crushed garlic, black pepper, and oregano to create mojo, a garlic/citrus marinade that adds a distinctive Cuban flavor to many meats -- especially roasted pork, which is probably the most popular meat for Cuban-Americans," says Musibay.

Everyone knows a Cuban party is not complete without roast pork, black beans, white rice, fried plantains and yuca with oil and garlic, Lindgren says.

"You don't find many vegetable dishes in Cuban cuisine, at least not the nonstarchy ones," adds Castillo. "Instead, the Cuban diet includes plenty of root vegetables, such as yuca, boniato, and malanga."

And what's on the Cuban dessert cart?

"On an island where sugarcane is king, it's no surprise that Cubans love sweet desserts," Lindgren says. "Cuban flan, arroz con leche, and warm flaky pastries stuffed with fruit filling feature an abundance of sugar."

Tropical fruit flavors are popular in ice creams, milkshakes, and as filling for cakes and pastries, Lindgren says: "Guava paste and guava jelly are big favorites and find their way into just about everything."

Cuisine of Puerto Rico

Puerto Rican cuisine also reflects the influence of Spaniards, along with that of Africans and Native Americans.

The original inhabitants of the island now known as Puerto Rico were the Arawaks and Tainos. Their diet was thought to include corn, sweet potatoes, cassava, tropical fruit, and seafood, according to the Encarta encyclopedia.

Spanish explorers arrived in 1493, adding beef, pork, rice, wheat, and olive oil to the island cuisine. When African slaves arrived on the island, they contributed their cuisine as well.

The flavors from combinations of rice, beans, spices and different meats are what make Puerto Rican cuisine unique, says Adelinna Fargas, chef and owner of a Casa Adela, a Puerto Rican restaurant in Manhattan. Although Puerto Rican food is often well seasoned, it also is not overly spicy.

Foods indigenous to the island include coriander, papaya, plantains, and yampee (a tuber). A spice blend called adobo is used as a base for many dishes, and is rubbed into meats before being roasted. It's made by crushing together peppercorns, oregano, garlic, salt, olive oil, and lime juice or vinegar, says Ana Maria Mendez, an attorney of Puerto Rican descent who has studied Puerto Rican cuisine.