I was a child in Miami when the Cuban people started to immigrate into my city. I watched South Florida turn into a melting pot of cultures before I even hit puberty. It was pretty neat and being that kids are so adaptable I ate it up. My family is a bunch of blue and green eyed fair skinned WASPS. Exotic looking children with those gorgeous liquidy ink black eyes started to assimilate into my classrooms. They had a vibrant energy and foreign accents which I was a bit spellbound by. Up until my few short years on this earth, my food life had a whole lot of usual suspects found in the 1970's South Florida cuisine. Conch (fritters, ceviche, salad), key lime pie, stone crabs, ocean fish (grouper and mahi-mahi namely) and a barbecue place called Shorty's on Dixie Highway - which now has multiple locations (and I still remember the unique taste of it to this day). Additional non-exotic but delicious food catering to the Jewish crowd are some of the best delis around including the now closed ultra iconic Wolfie Cohen's Rascal House in Miami Beach on Collins Avenue. Those baskets of table rolls found their way not only into seniors' handbags, they ended up in mine too.
Enter in the food culture of my new South Florida cohabitants. About a million Cubans came to my city in a fairly short amount of time and the new exotic foods came swiftly along with them.
In my house, it was pretty old school coffee. There were no Starbucks, Keurig machines or in- home barista units. You had Taster's Choice, Chock full o' nuts, Sanka or my father's. He is Swedish which means boil grounds in a pot of water and toss in an eggshell. It keeps the luscious dark liquid clear. Cultures that enjoy coffee also have a type or style that is the hallmark and how it is enjoyed can vary. My observation of the Cuban ritual version came from Cuban coffee trucks set up in parking lots initially. I would see older Cuban gentleman sitting outside of these trucks on lawnchairs enjoying tiny cups of thick dark coffee along with fat cigars. Perhaps reading a paper, sharing stories with fellow countrymen or just solo enjoying the hot sun on their face. Cuban coffee is hyper sweet and the sugaring process makes it more viscous than regular espresso.
The yellow canisters of café Bustello were flooding the coffee and international food aisles in our Publix and Winn-Dixie stores. The day my dad brought some home it was downright exotic. No joke.
My young ears did not like the sound of this fruit. Guava paste, guava pastries, guava jam, etc was showing up in bakeries, grocery aisles and in the produce section. None of us in the family knew what to make of it. Formerly markets dominated by key limes and oranges saw this fruit was strong-arming its way in. Once I tried a guava pastry my mind changed and it changed fast. Pastelitos de Guayaba may or may not have the addition of cream cheese. I found I liked it either way. This is a traditional Cuban pastry as the guava tree thrives in the tropical climate Cuba enjoys.
Black beans and rice
Goya products lined grocery aisles and inside those blue labeled cans were things too mysterious and exotic for a south Florida child to understand. Namely all those beans!
Beans honestly were the first thing to catch me off guard. The only bean I knew as a kid was a fresh green string bean. Cuban food isn't exactly big on the green vegetables. What is a black or red bean? Here goes the exotic card again. After my mother told me the story of her childhood and playing with dried beans (toys for children of farmers) one of her cousins got one stuck in his nose. Grandmother wondered one day why his nose was so red and tender. Upon tilting his head up and fishing around with her crochet hook she pulled out a sprouting bean. I suppose this is why my brother and I never had dried beans around in our toy box.
I saw piles of black beans and rice on plates in cafes we passed by. A strange color but unforgettable and intriguing to my young curious eyes. It took about a year but as a family, we tried it. The flavor of cumin was entirely foreign to me. The concoction is a dietary staple in the Cuban food culture. It is laced with oregano, onions, olive oil, sometimes bell pepper and garlic-and cumin of course. Black beans make the rice a purple hue and stud the dish like delicious exotic jewels.
The Cuban Sandwich
To this day I am thankful for this mix of deliciously layered items between two bread halves. This was street food in carts on Calle Ocho, 8th street Little Havana area. They were popping up in deli's soon after. Delicious roasted pork sliced, boiled ham, pickles, mustard and swiss cheese pressed on a plancha or not. I like it either way. It's fatty sure but it always tastes light. I blame the mustard and its condiment trickery. Pickles are there for backup magic. Tricks you into thinking there are a few hundred less calories. You do not order a Sandwich Cubano with some customizations like leaving something off or extra something else. That throws off the whole balance. Just eat it as is in its sheer perfection.
Without question, this is my favorite item that found its way into my Publix produce area. I am thrilled to find them in my new state of residence. There is nothing quite like a plantain chip. I remember my first few years of eating them before several companies started to produce them. They were paper thin, sweet, starchy, crunchy, salty and oily. It was an instant addiction haunting me and I had to have a near constant supply. They have personality but it's unobtrusive. Exotic yet comforting. If you can find the right manufacturer of them today I promise they will have the same impact on you.
I am grateful for all the delicious delights I was introduced to by the vibrant Cuban people. For without them I could still be eating Pringles and drinking Sanka.