Recipe: Cuban Pork Chops in Red Sauce

What you missed on shotofcafecubano: Recipe for Cuban-style pork chops in red sauce with congris and yucca con mojo. Easy, delicious and Authentically Cuban!!

shotofcafecubano

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Carne en salsa roja– meat in a tomato-based sauce, is a favorite among my Cuban family.  This recipe for pork chops is flavorful and easy.  You could prep in the pressure cooker rather than the stove top and cook for 10 minutes, ensuring a tender, juicy chop.


Ingredients :
  • Vegetable oil
  • 4 pork chops, do not trim fat
  • Salt & Pepper
  • 1/2 green pepper, diced small
  • 4-6 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/2 white onion, diced small
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • 1 tsp ground oregano
  • 1 tbsp tomato paste
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 1 cup water
  • 1-2 tsp white vinegar

Instructions:

  • Season chops with salt and pepper.
  • Heat oil in pot or large high sided skillet over medium-high heat.
  • Sear chops on both sides, do not cook all the way through!
  • Remove chops once seared and set aside.
  • Add a bit more oil if needed and sautee sofrito 2-3 minutes.

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Scarcity and the Myth of the Cuban Sandwich

What you missed on shotofcafecubano; Article on shortages under the revolutionary government and how this has redefined Cuban Cuisine for those on the island.

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My husband was born and raised in Cuba. He grew up in Granma and at the age of 17 he moved to Havana, where he lived until we left the island in 2012. It would surprise many readers to learn, I suspect, that the first time Rafael ate ropa vieja was when I treated him to dinner at a fancy Havana paladar in Fall 2011; the first time he drank a mojito was during my mother’s visit to Havana that January; and most surprisingly, that the first time he ever ate a “Cuban Sandwich” was at a baseball park in Chicago in 2012.

So how is it that a meat-eating Cuban lived 24 years on the island without ever eating a Cuban sandwich, an item that many assume is a staple of Cuban cuisine? The answer is simple, albeit surprising: Cuban sandwiches do not exist in Cuba today. Cuban families…

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Cafe Cubano

Article on Cuban coffee from my blog shotofcafecubano

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Taza for a shot of Cuban coffee Taza for a shot of Cuban coffee

More than a simple caffeinated beverage, coffee in Cuba is a tradition, a cultural right, part of the Cuban identity. Every region of Cuba has its own method of coffee preparation and characteristics that define “the perfect cup”. The quality of the beans also ranges, from “trafficked” beans fresh from harvest on the mountains roasted in country homes, to sub-par mixed beans rationed at the state-run bodegas and the highest quality Cubita and Serrano blends available in the specialty stores and tourist spots.  Regardless of the quality or preparation method, coffee is a staple in Cuban daily life, from the vital morning shot before work to the mid-day energizer or the sharing of café cubano with guests…always with a healthy dose of AZUCAR!

Cubita ground coffee sold in a Havana store Cubita ground coffee sold in a Havana store

What makes Cuban Coffee special?

Historically (read: before the Revolution), Cuba…

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New Site: shotofcafecubano

cuba blog

 

I started the katieincuba website in 2011 as a travel blog for my time in Cuba.  When my husband and I left Cuba in 2012 I had research for a dozen more articles on topics from daily Cuban life, culture and history, which I am saving for future publication.

I am currently publishing articles on food, family and Cuba on the website shotofcafecubano.com.  These articles focus primarily on Cuban-American culture and the process of incorporating Cuban values into a life in the United States.

Please visit the site!

Dominoes: A Cuban Tradition

“Young Cubans gathered around a domino table under the sole streetlight at midnight in Arroyo Naranjo.”

My father always warned me that if you are interested in buying or renting a new home you need to ask the neighbors what they think of the area, and then go back during the evening hours to see what the neighborhood is like when everyone is done working and has had a few cocktails.  And so it happened that I found myself walking down a dark street in Arroyo Naranjo—my neighborhood just outside Centro Habana— at nearly midnight back in September.  I was relieved to see the same tranquility the neighborhood had during the day.  We walked up the hill on San Leonardo, in the middle of the empty street.  I enjoyed the silence, the clean air and the cool night breeze…all things I had been missing while living in the middle of el Vedado right off the Malecon.  The only noise I heard was a slight clicking and shuffling of plastic that got louder as we approached the top of the hill.  There, under the sole streetlight, was a group of young Cubans playing dominoes on an old card table as the neighborhood slept around them.  They sat, silently and studiously examining their pieces and shuffling them around the board, occasionally grimacing, smiling or muttering some phrase that sounded like gibberish to me, a domino outsider.  There was something poetic about the sight… beautiful, romantic and undeniably Cuban.

Being from the United States, the only time I ever remember seeing someone playing dominoes when I was growing up was on t.v.  In recent years as I went to Miami on research trips, I would sit outside Máximo Gómez Domino Park and watch the little old Cuban men smoke cigars, sip Cuban coffee and sit for hours playing dominoes with their fellow Cuban-Americans.  The park has a distinct Cuban energy, even in comparison to the rest of Hialeah.  Standing among these men engaged in a game so clearly a part of their culture and tradition made me feel like I was in a park in Habana.  During a point in my life when I was so desperate to make it to the island, even if only for a day, this was my little piece of Cuba in the US.

Years later, dreams of making it to Cuba realized, I find myself walking through the streets of Habana and its surrounding neighborhoods daily.  I see the same faces of old Cuban men; strong, wise and wrinkled by years of struggle and hardship, just like the men in Miami.  They drink their cafecitos, smoke cigars, and play domino from dawn ‘til dusk.  But here in Cuba it is not just old men sitting around tables all day debating politics and baseball.  In Cuba, every Cuban is a part of the game, and the game is a part of every Cuban.  Of course, there are still tables of old men debating baseball (very loudly)… but in today’s Cuba their grandchildren or wives may be playing at the next table, or upstairs in their home.  Claudia Rodriguez Gustavan, 21-year-old Habana native, told me,

In all of Cuba they play domino on any corner.  Now it is part of the cubano.  Without domino, there is no cubano.  Without cubanos, there is no domino.  It is part of us.

“Cuban men of various ages sit outdoors playing domino beside a storefront in La Palma”

The History & Basic Elements of Domino in Cuba:

Originally an Ancient Chinese game, domino has been a part of Cuban culture for generations.  (An understandable cultural overlap considering the presence of Chinese culture—as well as Spanish, African, and to some extent Jamaican and Haitian— in Cuban history.)  Bruno Hourin, a 71-year-old cubano from Arroyo Naranjo, told me his grandfather taught him the game over 60 years ago, adding that the game has “an eternally historic value.”  Indeed, for Cubans, domino more than just a game.  Juan Manuel Rodriguez, a 61-year-old man from Villa Clara, explained that domino also “forms groups, creates teams, creates friendships and helps in moments when people are having personal problems.”  In addition, the game creates bonds between generations as the game is passed down to children and grandchildren and develops essential skills within Cuban children like mathematics and strategy.

Typically, domino is played with 4 players making up 2 teams of partners.  Yet describing the basics of the game beyond this is complicated, as there are various forms of domino played throughout the island.  In the Oriente, the eastern portion of the island famous for cane fields, beautiful landscapes and being the birthplace of the Cuban struggle for Independence, Cubans play a more basic version of domino.  In the traditional domino of the Oriente, the game is played with 28 pieces, from 0-0 to 6-6, and the game ends when one team reaches 20 points. In Habana, the game is played with 55 pieces, from 0-0 to 9-9, and the game ends when one team reaches 100 points.

For Cubans, who love arguing as much as cafecito and chicharron, the merits of either form of domino versus the other is as good a topic as any for debate.  A few days ago I sat in my own living room and watched as two Cubans from el campo, both now living in Habana, discussed rather heatedly whether their traditional form of domino was more or less difficult, or even deserved to be called domino.  The debate lasted for about 20 minutes, ending in a stalemate when they both agreed this was not worth getting upset over.  (If you want to see upset in a debate among Cubans, go to the Parque Central in Centro Habana to listen to the men debate baseball…which can end in screaming and street fights.)

In Habana, the game starts much like Scrabble.  The fichas (**if you see an italicized word that you do not recognize, scroll to the guide at the bottom for help) are all turned face down and shuffled around the table.  Then each player selects 10 fichas and places them in his or her fichero so no one else can see them.  The player with the highest double piece plays that piece to start the game (in the Oriente, this would be 6-6, in Habana, 9-9).  If none of the layers have the 6-6 or 9-9, the next highest piece starts.  And so the game goes on, playing by matching numbers to the pieces played at either extreme of the board (or cabeza) until someone runs out of pieces or no one has a move.  Several rounds of this sort are played until a pair will have sufficient points to win the entire game.

“Domino tables line the patio of a local retirement home, where elderly Cubans gather all afternoon socializing and enjoying the Cuban pastime.”

The Players & The Game in Action:

The energy and atmosphere of a game of dominoes in Cuba depends on the players involved in the game.  Some players take the game very seriously and can play for hours in complete silence, while other more recreational players will engage in conversation, gossip, jokes and lively domino banter, shouting the names of each number as they play a ficha.  (See guide for examples of the names.)

The men of the older generation are typically those serious players who prefer to play in silence.  (I learned this several weeks ago when I approached a table of old cigar-smoking cubanos playing domino on the street and attempted to engage them in domino conversation and was unceremoniously dismissed.)  Yet just as often, they men play socially with friends from the neighborhood as a way to unwind after work.  22-year-old teacher David Nieto from Arroyo Naranjo told me he plays practically every day on his block with a group of guys in the park.  A few blocks away from my house at the Casa de los Abuelos, Bruno and dozens of other elderly Cubans, both men and women, gather every day on the patio and play domino for hours while gossiping and asking about each others families.

Cuban women today are also enthusiastic domino players.  All of the women I spoke with about domino admitted to being regular players with groups of friends, family or neighbors.  Teresa Trujillo, a 49-year-old University of Habana Professor from Habana, called domino, “my favorite sport.”  Teresa told me how she had passed the game on to her daughter, adding, “It is also important to teach the children domino from a young age because it gives them agility and skills with mathematics.”

These Cuban children play the game regularly, as a means to have fun with their friends. However, the general consensus among my interviewees is that actual strategy and understanding of the technical aspects of the game do not develop until around age 15.  Hamin, Alexia and John Carlo, all 12 and under, told me they started playing domino at age 5 or 6.  When asked what their favorite domino memory was, all three told me about the first time they won a game.  Indeed, domino is a game for the entire family, and is often enjoyed by the entire family at once.  It is not uncommon to see an entire family gathered around a table during the evening hours, at a family party or all together at the beach, playing domino.

So if all Cubans everywhere play domino, why is it that we only ever see images or the old men with a cigar one hand and a domino in the other?  Why do the tourists walking through Habana Vieja rarely see tables of women or children playing domino in the streets?  The answer to this is access.  (Just because you do not see something, does not mean that it is not there.)  The children I spoke with talked about playing domino at birthday parties, family parties, or in the homes of cousins or friends.  Similarly, the women play domino with family or socially in the homes of friends during the day.  Often, if it the men who socialize outdoors, playing domino in the street for all the world to see.

“A group of young Cubans play domino while standing guard at the local grade school during a holiday in October.”

The Game Over Time:

In 1977, New York Times journalist George Volsky wrote an article on the “Cuban Refugees” in Miami and their favorite pastime, dominoes.  His interviews with a group of Cubans who left the island in the years (or in some cases days) following the Revolution mostly resulted in the same story of Cubans and domino that exists today on the island.  Men gathered in a park from 10 am until 11:30 pm when the park closes, many of them then taking the game indoors until the wee hours of the morning. [1] Only one thing was dramatically different between the dominoes of the older generations of upper and middle-class Cubans living in Miami in the 70’s and the game today: the role of women. Teresa Mendez, one of the women interviewed by Volsky, said, “A decent woman shouldn’t play the game.  If someone were to ask me whether I do, I would regard it as an insult.”  Yet Romamaria, wife of a local working-class Cuban and domino champ, said of her husbands skepticism towards playing with women, “He’s just afraid we’ll beat him!,” going on to brag about how well their daughter played the game.[2]  This indicates that the view of women in domino was as much class-based as due to generational traditions.

Though domino was once a game reserved for men in some circles in Cuba and Miami, this has certainly changed in society today.  Yet Maria Josefa Mariño Pi, 49-year-old cubana from Yara, speculates on reasons Cuban women may have been absent from the game in the past:

In the early years of the revolution those [women] who did not play—it was for lack of time because they were busy studying or working…and later, with the passing of time  with the conditions that have been created with the presence of equipment like the reina and rice cooker…the women have more time…and they have more access to all of society.  Now when they have time they play domino.

If class or generational restrictions once existed that limited the access women had to the game, they have now all but disappeared.  While there are still traditional housewives in areas of the Oriente (the Cuban countryside) whose schedules do not allow them time for domino, cubanas of all ages and economic backgrounds here in Habana are absolutely wild for the game.

Domino has played an additionally vital role as a means to maintain a strong sense of unity among the Cuban people, which many Cubans hail as the strongest aspect of their society.  In a society rich in culture and tradition, domino provides Cubans of all walks of life a chance to join together in friendly (or sometimes fierce) competition and preserve the Cuban tradition of domino.  Indeed, when asked about the social value of the game, many Cubans I interviewed touched on this very issue.  Clara Hernandez, a 62-year-old cubana from Regla, explained, “the social value [of domino] is that it unites people of different ages and economic backgrounds.”  David Nieto added that, “it brings together people from different zonas.”  This has ultimately strengthened the role of domino in Cuban society to the point that Juan Rodriguez stated,

Domino is part of la vida cubana; like congris and tostones.  It is a tradition.

Though the game of domino and its presence in Cuba has not changed over the decades, the world around it has.  So how does domino stay popular among young Cubans living in a PlayStation generation? Though Teresa Trujillo explained that it is easy to start children playing domino from an early age because “the rules are really simple,” developing a strategy and real knack for the game is not so simple.  In his article on domino, George Volsky explained, “While luck might influence the outcome of one hand, in the long run the ability to memorize all the moves and the understanding between partners makes the difference between average and good players.”  After speaking with some of the younger Cubans, it is clear that the strong societal value of education and intelligence plays a strong role in the continued popularity of domino among the children in Cuba, and that developing these skills to become one of the “good” players is something they aspire to.

The responses of these young Cubans when asked about the value of domino compared to PlayStation or poker really speaks to the societal values of relationships and education in Cuba.  10-year-old John Carlo told me he likes domino because “you need a lot of intelligence and agility…It is a tradition.  You can make friends and it makes you smart.”  12-year-old Alexis explained, “for me, I like [domino] more than cards or other games also because it is a complete game….you are looking at what you have to do, trying to darle pase the other person that is after you…and it is fun.”   While they admit the other games available are also fun, and they play those as well, these children recognize from a young age the value of the skills learned in domino.  I think it is safe to say that as long as Cuban children continue to hold these values and Cubans continue to pass the game on to their children and grandchildren, domino will remain a part of Cuban culture, and youth culture, regardless of the new technology available.

“A group of domino players and onlookers gather in Centro Habana on a Sunday afternoon in September.”

A US American’s Observations of el domino in Cuba:

While researching this article, I was unable to think of any comparable game in our culture as Cubans have with domino.  In many ways, I have found the game similar to Scrabble, both in the way the game is played and the strategy and skills it teaches…yet groups of kids in Chicago and Austin are not sitting around tables at parties playing Scrabble and reminiscing about their first game with their grandfather.  Instead, they are playing Call of Duty or Texas Hold ‘Em.

Groups of young Cuban men gather around card tables playing dominoes for hours every day with the same enthusiasm of the groups of our young men playing poker, yet they scoff at the thought of playing for money, maintaining that the benefit of winning is the intangible knowledge that you and your partner outwitted and out-strategized the other team.  They develop connections with their partners, form friendship, socialize, strategize, and perpetuate a valuable tradition.  Domino for Cubans is a transtemporal and transnational phenomenon; it has survived for generations, formed a part of the culture of the Cuban community in Miami and strengthened bonds between neighborhoods and families.  In Habana and Hialeah, el domino is and will remain a part of the cubano.

 

“The double fichas. In the Oriente, the game is played only to 6-6.”

Cubanisms, Cuban Dichos and el Domino:

While researching this article I had the opportunity to sit and quietly observe a few games in action, asking questions only between manos, and only when everyone was in a good mood.  Unfortunately, after watching these games I was even more confused about how things work as I was before I had really watched a game.  Domino in Cuba is like an entirely new language.  There are special phrases and expressions and gestures, and it is impossible to understand the game without understanding their meaning.  Now, thanks to the help of my neighbor Davis, who sat patiently with me for over an hour explaining the game from start to finish and helping me construct a domino dichos list for my katieincuba readers, I think I have it down!  The following is a handy guide to understanding Cuban domino and strategy:

Domino dichos

darle pase   Playing a piece that you know the next person can not play off of, so        they will have to pass.

tocar  The player taps or knocks on the tableto indicate that he has no move and is passing.

ficha   The name for the domino pieces

fichero  The name for the wooden piece used to holdthe fichas.

dar agua/mover The act of shuffling the pieces before the players choose their fichas.

zapatero / pollona  A shutout.  The name for a game when thelosing  team finishes with 0 points.

culillo   An epic turnaround.  For example, if one team has only one point to go before winning and the other pair has 0 and the losing team ends up winning the game.

mano  The name for each round of the game.  Often, many manos are played before a team has enough points to win.

matar cabeza  When one team catches on to the strategy of another and steals their next move from them by blocking a play.

cabeza The name for the extreme ends of the playing area where new fichas are placed to move the game forward.

tanto  The name of the points that go towards the score of the winning pair at the end of each mano.

Forro  If you make a mistake and accidentally place the ficha on the wrong cabeza.

Trancado   What is called when absolutely no one has a ficha they can play.  When this happens, the pair of the person who has the lowest number when adding the number on each of the fichas wins, and they take the points of the losing couple.

            Names for the domino pieces (fichas)

0          la blanca, la que le gusta al negro, blanquizal de haraco

1          el unicornio, el que saca al guey de fango, la uña, el solitario

2          el Duque (Hernandez)  –In honor of the Cuban-born Yankees Player

3          el triste, la tripa, el tribilin

4          cuaba, cuarenta y más murieron, cuatrero que roban vacas

5          sin comer no se puede vivir, sin queño pati plumo, quintin bandera

6          se hizo el loco, ceiba

7          el honor de un hombre, 7 mil y más murieron

8          Ochoa Mendieta

9          nuevecito, nuevita puerto el mar

6-6      pareja guey

9-9      la que más pesa

 

“The game expands as players place new fichas at one of the 2 cabezas of the playing area.

[Interviews]

*All interviews used in katieincuba are conducted and recorded in person by the author, or using distributed questionnaires filled out by Cuban interviewees.  Translations from Spanish done by author after interviews.

  • Teresa Trujillo, 49 year old University of Habana Professor from Habana.

Interview date: 29 September 2011.

  • Claudia Rodriguez Gustaván, 21 year old computer technician from Habana.

Interview date: 10 October 2011.

  • David Nieto Muñoz,  22 year old Computer teacher from Arroyo Naranjo.

Interview date: 10 October 2011.

  • Clara Hernandez Gomez, 62 year old retired civil engineer from Regla.

Interview date:  11 October 2011.

  • Juan Manuel Rodriguez, 61 year old civil engineer from Villa Clara.

Interview date:  11 October 2011.

  • Alexia Sanauria Menendez, 12 year old 7th grade student from Viborra Park.

Interview date: 10 November 2011.

  • Hamin Cebrian Velasquez 12 year old 7th grade student from Habana.

Interview date: 10 November 2011.

  • Maria Josefa Mariño Pi, 53 year old chemical engineer from Yara.

Interview date: 10 November 2011.

  • José Bruno Hourin Martín, 71 year old retired lawyer from Arroyo Naranjo.

Interview date: 10 November 2011.

  • John Carlo, 10 year old student from Habana.

Interview Date:  15 November 2011

  • Davis Hernandez Tus, 46 year old clinical lab tech from Punto de Maisi.

Interview Date:  15 November 2011

[Interview Questions]

1)   At what age did you buy or receive your first domino game?

2)   At what age did you start playing domino?

3)   At what age did your children start playing domino? (if applicable)

4)   Do you play with a regular group or with different people every time?

5)   Do you know if there are any domino clubs or groups in your neighborhood?  Tournaments?  Domino meeting places/parks? Famous players?

6)   What is your favorite memory or an interesting story about domino?

7)   What is your favorite thing about domino?  How would you compare domino to other games like cards of video games?

8)   In your opinion, what is the social value of domino? What is the role in domino in Cuban life?

9)   Have you played for money or prizes, or just for recreation?

10)         What is the longest round of domino you have heard of?

11)         * for elderly Cubans * As someone with more life experience than the others I have interviewed, can you comment on aspects of domino that may have changed over the years? (for example, the participation of women, playing for money, the popularity of the game in Cuban society…)

[Footnotes]

[1]Volsky, George, “Domino Games are Dominant Pastime for Many Cuban

Refugees in Miami,” 1 October 1977, New York Times, 39.

[2] ibid.

“The game starts with the person with the highest double, ideally 9-9 (or 6-6 in Oriente)”

La reina de la cocina Cubana

- “Electric pressure cooker: The Queen of the Cuban Kitchen”

Those of you who have been keeping up with the recipes these past few weeks have undoubtedly by now wondered how electric pressure cookers came to be so popular in Cuban kitchens that they are practically a necessary element in Cuban cooking, while a foreign concept to most US cooks.  In many ways, this can be attributed to the difference in food culture in Cuba, where families do not have cereal or stop at Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts for breakfast, pack lunchmeat sandwiches or go to Subway at lunchtime and order pizza or Chinese takeout for dinner.  (I am in no way suggesting that the US population in general follows this pattern, but rather pointing out that these are options that do exist in our daily lives.)  In Cuba, however, due to financial realities and values surrounding the family meal, as well as the perceived importance of a hot meal in general, most meals for average Cubans are prepared, and often eaten, in the home.

Compact, clean, quick and convenient, the electric pressure cooker, or reina, is truly the queen of the Cuban kitchen.  But “la reina de la cocina Cubana” has affected more than Cuban kitchens; it has changed the lives of Cuban women and Cuban society in general…while also having positive health, safety and environmental implications.  I talked to four cubanas, professional, working women who are also mothers, wives and housekeepers, on the value of the reina in their daily life and society.  They also shared their advice to busy working women everywhere who often find themselves without a spare moment in the day between working, taking care of a household, making sure your children have their homework done, spending time with your spouse and being sure your family has three balanced, healthy and delicious meals a day.

The Basics of the Reina

In appearance, the electric pressure cooker does not look very different from the rice cooker.  The cooking bowls for each are non-stick and hold similar quantities of food.  Additionally, Coralia Hernandez, 53-year-old licensed Professor of Psychology and mother from Palmo Soriano in Santiago de Cuba explains that the designs of the reina and rice cooker make them both practical kitchen utensils and fit for display in the household, calling the reina, “an object that is both useful and decorative.” The key difference between the electric pressure cooker and the rice cooker is in the tight seal made by the lid of the reina that allows the food to cook for a time specified by the timer in its own vapors, along with any desired seasonings, sauce or oils.  The devices come in large and small sizes, with models with 25, 45 and 90-minute timers.  At the end of the cooking process, you release a valve that emits hot steam for several minutes before releasing the seal.  Because of this airtight seal preventing the escape of heat or steam, Cuban women cooking with a reina are able to prepare meals in a fraction of the time.

Many of the benefits of this method of food preparation are obvious, saving the cook time, mess and gas use…and also enabling people who are not incredibly talented cooks, or who are preparing meals using new types of meats or vegetables, to make a tasty meal.  But cooking in the reina has health and safety benefits also. As opposed to the methods of the past which required cooking over open flame, using charcoal, kerosene or similar cooking lubricant, or gas flame, the risk of fires and inhaling excessive gasses and soot are eliminated when cooking with the electric pressure cooker.  Concerning the additional health benefits of the reina: as you do not need to use as much butter or oil in your cooking as you would when using a frying pan, and the tenderness of the meats comes from its own natural and flavorful juices and liquids that are not lost in the cooking process, your meals have more flavor and less added saturated fats.  In addition, you are inclined to prepare and eat more vegetables on a daily basis if all you have to do for potato or squash, for example, is chop them up and plop them in the pot and wait 20 or 30 minutes and serve your meal, complete with veggies.)  Carmen Mariño, 49-year-old economist and mother from Yara in Granma, commented “You don’t have to add even a drop of water or [oil].  With nothing more than the seasoning and a little bit of vinegar or vino seco or sauce, that’s it!  You top it and in 30 minutes you have a chicken…or any type of meat that is really tender.”

While stovetop pressure cookers have been a staple in Cuban kitchens for generations, electric pressure cookers became the prized possession of Cuban cooks only about 6 years ago during the Electricity Campaign.  In this campaign, the Cuban government announced the Energy Revolution, in which Cuban households and businesses would transition from gas and old energy-inefficient appliances to energy-efficient electric appliances.  This included the promotion of reinas, electric rice cookers and electric ranges in the kitchen along with the use of energy-efficient light bulbs and televised campaigns to warn against wasting energy and electricity by leaving lights on or leaving refrigerators open.

The reina was introduced into Cuban society when Fidel Castro, then president of Cuba, made a televised announcement to the women of Cuba that he believed electric pressure cookers could be the answer to a number of problems for Cuban woman and society, as well as to limit gas use and benefit the environment.  He implemented a program in which most Cuban families were given a credit towards the purchase of a reina in any of the Cuban stores, making them affordable for everyone.    Coralia recalled:

When the electricity campaign started for saving energy was when we received [the reinas] from all the CDR’s[1]… I think it was Fidel himself that gave her the name reina.  Because he said— when he presented her (because no one had one or had heard of one)— he said: ‘And here is the queen.  The queen because it will do everything.’   He told us all of her advantages for the Cuban woman in her work; guaranteeing her time to do her work in society as well as her work in the home.

This was a much-needed break for the women of Cuba.  After the triumph of the revolution in 1959, Cuban women had embraced opportunities to improve and advance themselves through study and entering the workforce as professionals in any field they chose; but this new life as professional women or students did not remove their responsibilities in the home or towards their families.  Many women during these early years sacrificed personal time and social activities as they pursued lives as full-time professionals as well as full-time housewives.  Over the years, these cubanas learned to juggle their responsibilities and used their famous Cuban innovations to make daily life more manageable, with all its problems.  Yet Davis Rodriguez Tus, 46-year-old clinical lab technician and mother from Punto de Maisi in Oriente, insists that now, “[the reina] has resolved the problems of the Cuban women.  It is really effective, really efficient, really fantastic…Fidel had a great vision wanting to give every Cuban woman a reina.”  Carmen added,  “It is the best gift they could have given Cuban society.  For the Cuban woman it is incredible.” Six years later, there is least one reina (and sometimes several) in most Cuban kitchens.

Value in Daily Life and Society

The primary value of the reina in the lives of most women is the time it saves them throughout their incredibly busy days.  Though born in the campo, Davis now lives in Habana.  She insists that the reina is especially helpful in places like the capital city, with a faster pace and higher level of stress:  “Life especially here in la Habana is really busy and sometimes crazy, and we can use all the help we can get making life easier.  With the reina, we have time to sit and rest.” Carmen agrees, adding, “It is the best…because we can work and leave her cooking.  We can do all other housework and she is cooking.  We can leave to buy something from one of the stores and leave her cooking and when we get home everything is ready.” This is a feature that is vital throughout the entire day since, as previously mentioned, cooking duties of Cuban women are often not simply preparing dinner, but also breakfast for the family and often lunch as well.

The time cubanas save in using an electric pressure cooker is not limited to cooking time, but also cleanup time, as you normally only need to wash the bowl of the reina and the cutting boards and utensils used for prep and serving.  Maria Josefa Marino, 53-year-old Chemical Engineer and mother (and older sister of Carmen), raved about the value of the reina in relation to cooking and cleanup time:

We have work and we have many responsibilities with our work and chores and it was really inconvenient when we got home after all that work, tired, to have to start working on cooking with all the utensils that we had…and in addition we had to get our hands dirty.  And now, in present day, everything is much quicker and cleaner, and we are happy.

Ultimately, the reina has saved Cuban women hours of their time every week, leaving them free to pursue other activities, complete other obligations, or simply sit and enjoy some much-deserved relaxation.

Additionally, among the benefits listed by Fidel Castro in his announcement on the incorporation of the reina in Cuban society were the environmental benefits of the electric gadget.  Cuban women have taken equal notice in the lack of smoke emissions and reduced gas use that occurred as they transitioned to the electric pressure cooker.  Carmen says, “It doesn’t emit any smoke, doesn’t contaminate the environment…it is everything cooked in its own steam so it doesn’t do anything against the environment.” Similarly, Davis told me, “There are Cuban homes that still cook with kerosene or with gas, and this results in a lot of contamination.  Not [when you cook] with electricity.” Maria adds that it does not even use excessive electricity, stating, “since it is automatic, she uses electricity only when necessary, alternating between cooking with steam, and then shuts herself off.”  Not only does the reina save the women time and stress, it also helps them Go Green in their kitchens.

Cuban Innovation and the Reina          

I am consistently awed by the ability of all Cubans to get by with flying colors when things go wrong.  As I have mentioned in previous articles, the standard Cuban phrase is “no es facil” (its not easy)… a blunt admission of the difficulties of daily life in a nation that has been under an economic blockade for over a half a century.  Yet they do not say “no es facil” and resign themselves to a life without. Instead, Cubans go out and make things work.

This is true also with the reina, as Cuban women have learned to use the electric pressure cooker as their saving grace in a kitchen without ovens or grills and sometimes without a gas range (a sad truth for my household in the past 2 weeks, as our tank is empty and the man who goes to get us the new one is lost…or hiding…or on vacation….anywhere but here bringing us gas so we can use our stove!)  Since the death of my gas range, and since we do not have an electric range in our house, I have used the reina for things I would have never imagined…And every time I try to sing my own praises to my neighbors or Cuba family about the crazy concoction I used the reina for last night they just shrug their shoulders and say, “no es facil.”

I discussed this phenomenon of Cuban innovations in the kitchen with Davis during our interview.  She explained, “When we lose electricity due to hurricanes or other problems, how are we supposed to cook when we don’t have electricity then?  We have to cook with gas.”  Similarly, when they do not have gas for whatever reason, they prepare everything in the reina or rice cooker.  According to Davis, this includes scrambling eggs, placing the stovetop coffee pot in the basin of the reina and leaving it to prepare your coffee, heating the water for your shower or tea, or anything else you can think of!

“The 3-valve pressure cooker, used in most Cuban kitchens until 2006”

Cuban Kitchens Over Time

Cuban kitchens, like so many aspects of Cuban life and culture, have endured hardships over the years, followed by periods of progress and sometimes stagnation.  The cubanas I interviewed, all four originally from the country, described the progression of Cuban cooking throughout the generations, beginning with cooking using charcoal of wood stoves, followed by a period using kerosene or similar lubricants and then gas and finally, the electric appliances in today’s Cuban kitchens.  Coralia listed the difficulties of these older methods; she explained that cooking using charcoal emitted a lot of smoke and a distinct smell that affected the taste of the food, lingered in your home and was dangerous for those with allergies or asthma.  Similarly, kerosene or other lubricants were difficult to find, emitted an even more noxious odor, had increased risk of fire and accidents and produced a great deal of soot, making cleanup difficult.  With gas, getting the new tanks to your home often proved difficult as most Cubans do not have cars, and the mess on the bottom of the pots continued.  Cooking with electricity, each of these problems has been resolved.

The pressure cooker has been a vital part of Cuban cooking for decades, starting with the use of the original, single-valve stove-top pressure cooker used by the mothers of the four cubanas interviewed for this article.  Davis mentioned, “We are from the country, but in my house there was ALWAYS a pressure cooker,” adding later that, “the old pressure cookers were good, but they took longer and you had to watch them more.” Coralia explained in detail the problems with the old one and three-valve pressure cookers:

The old ones did not regulate the internal liquid, so if they dried up they exploded.  The Cuban woman had to be constantly attentive with the old pressure cookers.  We had to stay there, a slave to her, the whole time she was cooking.  Now [the reina] does the work for us.  That is why we call her the queen.

Also from the Oriente, Carmen and Maria reminisced about their mother’s kitchen and her old-fashioned pressure cooker.  Carmen recalled, “There was always a pressure cooker in our house.  But reinas did not exist for my mother, the poor thing.”  She went on to describe life before pressure cookers:

It was really different in the kitchen.  Everything took a long time.  It took a really long time to prepare meals because cooking without pressure delays you a lot.  At times [women of the older generations] were in the kitchen all day to prepare a lunch or a meal for the whole family.  But not now, now in 30 minutes we can make an entire meal.

Looking at the Cuban kitchen over time, it is clear that the advent of pressure cookers in general, and later the reina, truly have been “a miracle in the daily life of Cuban women,” as Maria told me at the outset of our conversation.

While reinas were distributed by the government via the CDR’s throughout the majority of municipalities throughout the island beginning in early 2006, many neighborhoods that still receive gas from the street were not given the credit to purchase a reina.  While many in these areas chose to go out and buy one with their own funds, for others, this is not a financial possibility.  Coralia told me:

For example, I visited a friend on Saturday who does not have a reina.  She told me that there are times when her supply of gas from the street is limited because everyone is trying to use if at once.  So she has to prepare her meals early when the gas is strong using her old-fashioned equipment…For the people who have received [reinas], we really enjoy the advantages she offers us.

Juxtaposing the lives of the cubanas living with and without reinas in the same city, the benefits of the reina in the lives of these women and their families are undeniable.

The words of these women in support of the pressure cookers, speaking on their value in their homes and society, cannot begin to capture their level of enthusiasm they all shared during our interviews.  As these women have witnessed societal and technological advancements and changes over the years, they are uniquely qualified to comment on exactly how a single gadget can change the cultural course of a country.  Myself having used the reina only for 2 months now, I can understand and echo their enthusiasm, as I can not imagine the added stress to my day if, in addition to keeping my house clean for visitors (which is a daily if not hourly occurrence here in my neighborhood in the outskirts of Habana), re-researching my thesis, conducting interviews and looking into every part of Cuban culture I think my katieincuba readers might be interested in for my articles, I also had to prepare from scratch practically all of the meals during the week and still have time to sleep.  I am quite convinced it would be impossible.  Yet cubanas with careers families did it for decades, and for that I am even more in awe of their resolve and spirit.

Meals Prepared in the Reina

After two weeks of katieincuba Cuban recipes, I am sure you have all noticed the variety of meals— desserts included— that can be prepared in the reina.  I spoke a bit with these women about their favorite things to prepare in the reina, and whether there are things they may still prefer to prepare the old-fashioned way:

Carmen, a pure carnivore (and woman after my own heart), responded immediately to my query about her favorite thing to prepare in the reina, practically shouting “los carrrrrrnes” with a big, hungry grin.  However, as she went on and on about the things she enjoys preparing in the reina, practically rejecting the very suggestion that things can be prepared any other way, it appears to me that she enjoys preparing everything edible in the reina!  (And may I add, this woman is one of the most incredible cooks I have ever known.  Everything I have eaten that she has prepared is superb and I have yet to duplicate a single recipe in my own kitchen.  She is a Cuban culinary genius!)

Maria agrees that the reina is perfect for practically anything, adding that, “it preserves the flavors and scents of the food, resulting in dishes of the best quality.” However, I will speculate that her favorite things to prepare in the electric pressure cooker are sweets, as every time I visit she is offering me a new concoction with coconut or papaya or guava and raving about how it was just the fruit and some sugar in the reina without adding a drop of water!  Yet unlike her sister Carmen who currently lives only with her husband, Maria lives with her husband and two daughters and frequently has dinner guests including her daughter’s boyfriend or me and my boyfriend (who happens to be her nephew…).  Due to the high headcount at some of these dinners, Maria often does not have the ability to reject all kitchen gadgets besides the reina, and will sometimes be seen in her kitchen in the evening hours with a living room full of people with both the reina and rice cooker going while the old 3-valve pressure cooker and an additional frying pan are going on the electric ranges…all the while looking fabulous and keeping up with the conversation in the other room!

Coralia, who had her reina cooking potaje while we sat in her living room doing her interview, says she cooks all of her food now using one of the electric appliances from the energy campaign.  However, though she will use the reina or rice cooker to prepare arroz con pollo, she says she still prefers to cook most chicken recipes using the electric range and a frying pan.  While the reina makes pork so tender you can cut it with a fork, Coralia explains that it tends to make chicken too tender.  As for the potaje she was preparing for her family’s dinner that evening, she raved that in the past potaje, “which is what Cubans eat most”, took forever because you had to soak and prepare the beans first and then everything together.  But now, you can do it all in the reina in under 2 hours.

Davis, a culinary experimenter like myself, prides herself on her concoctions in the kitchen.  With ZERO Indian influence (Indians from India, Jane) in Cuban culture, her signature dish is chicken with curry and cream sauce.  This is something all but unheard of in Cuba, where the majority of the food prepared by cubanas is at the very least reminiscent of a traditional dish.  Also a garlic lover, Davis shared with me her garlic philosophy that contradicts the very basic preparation element of each Cuban meat dish: the sofrito.  As you have all read by now, the sofrito is a combination of garlic, onion and sweet pepper that you sauté or flash fry at the outset of most meals.   Davis insists, however, that the garlic loses its strong flavor with this method, and that you should instead add it raw after you have added all the other ingredients to the dish and before putting on the lid of the reina in order to preserve its flavor.  Yet with all of her progressive cooking theories, Davis remains a reina enthusiast.  (For example, one evening in my house she saw that I was boiling beets on the stove with the lonely, unused reina sitting in the corner, and actually scolded me for not preparing my remolacha in the reina.)

Bringing the Pressure Cookers to US Kitchens?

Speaking from my own experience as a US cook, there is a sort of pride (or arrogance) shared by many of us that may lead to the initial rejection of the idea of buying an electric pressure cooker.  For example, I have taken pride for years in the fact that my traditional Italian sausage and roasted Roma tomato lasagna is a 2 or 3-day process.  I have listened since I was a child to my father’s stories of his little Sicilian grandmother spending all day in the kitchen preparing meals for the entire family, at times recruiting him and my Uncle John to help her stuff Cannoli or drape pasta.  I watched my mother (one of those freaks of nature who was able to work a full day and then come home and make a gourmet meal and still look like a supermodel) simmer soups from sunup until suppertime, insisting that the flavors only truly come together if it is cooked loooooong and loooooow.  In the meanwhile, we have astronomical gas and electric bills, a disaster in our kitchens with piles of dirty dishes and marinara sauce on the kitchen walls (and sometimes ceiling), not to mention the key fact that many women do not have the luxury my great grandmother did of being in the home all day without other responsibilities outside of the family.

To respond to the doubts of many on food taste and quality, I will say right now as a snobby foodie that Cuban food prepared in the reina can be JUST AS DELICIOUS.  Ok…. you can not bake cupcakes in the pressure cooker, or slow roast a tenderloin, or get a nice charcoal grill sear on your chicken breast…but you can sure do a whole lot in a lot less time!!!  And we all have those days where 24 hours is not quite enough time to get all of our stuff taken care of, so for those days there is the reina.

I asked the Cuban women I spoke with if they had any advice to give US women in reference to adopting the reina for use in US pressure cookers, and they unanimously agreed that once you try one, you will not want to use anything else!

One should maybe know more about cultures of other countries.  For example, I would love to learn more about the culture of [the United States] because I do not understand what you use to prepare your meals [and have time for work].  If it is with gas or electricity?…A working woman, like you and I, can resolve many problems with a reina!

-Davis

Anyone who likes meats and rice and wants them to maintain their flavor and everything should use one because in addition it is much quicker and you can spend this saved time on other activities…There are American women who come to Cuba [on delegations] and are so excited about the reina that they buy them and bring them back to their country.

-Maria

Try [the reina] and use it to see that it is really a marvelous thing!  When they try it they will not want to cook with anything else…Those who do not have one or have not tried one, go buy one because it will be the best thing you have done for your kitchen.

-Carmen

[The reina is] a way to not serve pre-prepared food that maybe has chemicals in the food or things that may be harmful [to your health] as opposed to natural food.  [It is] one way to make time.  Since you are not in your homes for a lot of the time during the day, but the advantages of home-made food are clear, even though you have to maybe take care of other household responsibilities in addition to all the other work you have… one way to make more use of this short time [at home] is the reina.

-Coralia

If nothing else, I hope this has answered your questions as to how the electric pressure cooker came to be so popular in Cuban kitchens.  But is any of my readers do make the leap and add a pressure cooker to their kitchen gadgetry, please be sure to let me know!  I am sure my interviewees will be excited to learn that their prized kitchen gadget has made its way to la Yuma.

- “Old-fashioned, stove-top pressure cooker used by the mothers of my interviewees”

[Footnotes]

           

  1. For the sake of simplicity I will define the CDR’s (or Committees for the Defense of the Revolution) as a type of neighborhood watch / voice of the people/ representative group.  Implemented by current president of Cuba Raúl Castro in September 1960, these groups exist throughout the island, representing neighborhoods, streets, or apartment buildings, depending on their size.

 [Interviews]

*All interviews used in katieincuba are conducted and recorded in person by the author, or using distributed questionnaires filled out by Cuban interviewees.  Translations from Spanish done by author after interviews.

  •  Ana del Carmen Mariño Pi, 49 –year-old economist from Yara, Granma.

Interview Date: 13 November 2011.

  • Maria Josefa Mariño Pi, 53-year-old chemical engineer from Yara, Granma.

Interview Date: 15 November 2011.

  • Davis Hernández Tus, 46-year-old Clinical Lab Tech from Punto de Maisi.

Interview Date:  15 November 2011.

  • Coralia Hernández Estrada, 53-year-old Licenced Professor of Psychology

from Palma Soriano in Santiago de Cuba.

Interview Date:  19 November 2011.

[Interview Questions]

  1.  How many children do you have?
  2. How many people live in your household?
  3. When did you buy or receive your first electric pressure cooker?
  4. What value or role does the reina have in your daily life?
  5. What importance does the reina have in Cuban life?
  6. What environmental value does the reina have?
  7. What is your favorite recipe using the reina?
  8. What kind of people need a reina in their kitchen?
  9. Did your mother have a pressure cooker when you were growing up?
  10. Do you know how the pressure cooker changed the Cuban kitchen?
  11. Are there things you still prefer to cook without a pressure cooker?

 

“Recipe: Picadillo con Quimbombo

Picadillo con quimbombo over white rice

A great skillet dinner that does not require a pressure cooker!!!  Picadillo is quick and easy and a favorite in my house at the moment.  Okra goes great with this dish, and can be prepared separately, steamed or boiled with a splash of vinegar, or added with the meat while it is cooked.

“Picadillo con quimbombo”

Tools:

  • Frying Pan
  • Wooden spoon
  • Sharp Knife

Ingredients:

  • Ground pork or chicken
  • Okra
  • Sofrito
  • Tomato Puree
  • Water
  • Vino Seco
  • Salt
  • Lime

Preparation:

  • Over medium-high to high heat add a little oil and the sofrito.
  • Cook for appx 1 minute and then add meat and salt and squirt juice of 1 lime.
  • Cook for a few minutes until meat starts to brown and then add appx ¼ cup (or more as needed) of tomato puree.
  • Add ½ to 1 cup water and let cook on high for about 5 minutes or until liquid cooks out.
  • Add about 2 tsp vino seco (if desired) right after you remove from heat and before plating.

Sides/Accompaniments: -Serve with okra over white rice with sliced avocado or tomato.