Cuba is the Caribbean’s largest, most diverse and most beautiful island. So beautiful in fact, that Christopher Columbus thought that he had discovered the Garden of Eden when he first landed. What he found was a geographically diverse land of rich mountains, fertile valleys, flowing rivers and clear springs. Along with all its land resources, he found an ocean full of fish, and trade winds that caressed and protected the island's bounty.
Cuba's original settlers, the Taìno-Arawack Indians, introduced these Spanish explorers to what was to become the New World's two most important crops: corn and tobacco. The Taìno-Arawacks were so agriculturally advanced by the late 1400s that they had even developed aquacultural techniques. Taking advantage of the warm water species of the fertile Caribbean Ocean, they built corrals and fisheries to gather grouper, red snapper, tuna and shrimp. These fish were typically cooked on the “barbacoa”, or what we call today, barbecue grilling.
Along with fish, they served other land cultivated items: boniatos (white fleshed sweet potatoes), malanga (a beige to pink colored type of yam), hot chilis, yucca, avocadoes, papaya, coconut, pineapple and guava. In return for their kindness and all the treasures that they shared with Columbus and the wave of Spaniards that came after him, the Taìno-Arawack Indians were mercilessly enslaved and slaughtered.
In the years that followed, Cuba became one of the most important African slave trade depots. It was here from the 1500s through the 1800s that hundreds of thousands of slaves from the African west coast were brought in to be traded for money, ships, guns and other treasures. Many considered themselves fortunate to have even made it that far as so many were lost in the voyage itself. Along with them, new labor intensive crops were introduced into Cuba’s fertile growing regions to take advantage of the new found slave labor. These included many crops which were to become integrated into Cuban cuisine: beans, rice, various citrus fruits, mangos, coffee and most importantly, sugarcane.
Today, in Cuba’s rich heartland, the sugarcane crops sway to the rhythm of the trade winds. Accounting for 70% of its export earnings, sugarcane has become its economic nemesis. Cuba's dependency on sugarcane has left it vulnerable to low production yields and fluctuating world market prices. In recent years, these factors have had near catastrophic effects on Cuba’s people. On the western part of the island however, in the province of Pinar del Rio and Viñales, they have perpetuated the Taìno-Arawack tradition of tobacco production and cultivated it to make the world’s most sought after cigars.
Cuba’s cuisine has been laterally influenced by its culture. From the Afro-Caribe influenced eastern region of Santiago de Cuba to the Spanish influenced western region of Havana, its people are as diverse as its food. A truly culturally and racially integrated society, its cuisine draws upon its regionally abundant crops and resources. It is a cuisine reflective of the Cubans themselves: simple and straightforward yet vibrant and diverse with the flavors of life.