In Puerto Rico and Cuba, food is a marker of resilience, creativity

Featured In Puerto Rico and Cuba, food is a marker of resilience, creativity

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 is 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.

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