In the Spanish-speaking Caribbean—the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Cuba—the influence of Africa is visible in most aspects of culture. Talk about the United States as a melting pot all you want, but these island nations were melting pots–a combination of indigenous, Spanish, and African cultures– before the United States was even a blink in a pilgrim's eye. You can see these influences in the faces of people in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean. Listen carefully, and you can hear them in their music. Pull up a chair at the table, and you can taste them.
Throughout the Americas, these three cultural influences combined to create what we now refer to as comida criolla. We’ve come to think of certain preparations of asopados and arroces, platanos and potajes as distinctly Caribbean—and they are. But we often forget–or never knew in the first place–the specific contributions of each of the Spanish-speaking Caribbean’s three roots to la comida criolla.
African influences in the kitchens of the Spanish-speaking Caribbean remain prominent today, more than 400 years after the height of the region’s slave trade. Visit the predominantly Afro-Puerto Rican town of Loíza and you’ll notice, for example, how coconut milk forms the base for many soups and sauces, as opposed to tomato or poultry-based broths typical in other parts of the island. Pay attention to the differences in ingredients and preparation, and you’ll notice–perhaps for the first time–how the cultural legacies of Africa inform 21st-century Caribbean cooking.
Nowhere in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean are those legacies more prominent and accessible, though, than in Cuba. According to cultural historians Natalia Bolivar Aróstegui and Carmen González Díaz de Villegas in their book Mitos y Leyendas de la Comida Afrocubana, by 1600 nearly 50% of Cuba’s population was African, and the ingredients, recipes, and techniques brought with them have left an indelible mark on the Cuban kitchen, even (perhaps especially) in the era of the Revolution and the ration book.
Among the ingredients Africans contributed to the Cuban and Caribbean table are the root vegetables ñame and malanga, the plantain, and the vegetable so many people love to hate: okra. In Cuba, okra is called quimbombó, its very name an obvious reference to its African origins. And African contributions to Cuban cooking are also notable for the ingredients that are absent from most recipes, most notably milk and eggs.
Of course, it was the Africans who arrived in Cuba as slaves who cultivated fruits and vegetables and prepared meals for the slaveholders and for themselves. There was plenty of natural bounty to be foraged, too, including papaya (called fruta de bomba in Cuba) and other tropical fruits. And meat was not absent from the Afro-Cuban kitchen; both bacalao (salt cod) and tasajo (thinly sliced, typically smoked meat) were staples of their diet.
Slavery began in Cuba in the early 1500s and was abolished there in the 1880s, nearly 400 years after it had begun. By the time slavery ended, African influence in the kitchen had become deeply rooted, intertwined with the other culinary and cultural traditions to create a range of dishes that were distinctly Cuban and which persist to this this day.
For a delicious example of the hybridity of Cuban cuisine, try out this great Quimbombo!