Cuban cuisine began with an indigenous population whose food systems were changed by 16th-century Spanish colonists (they brought livestock, bean soups, and spices), was influenced by African slaves who cooked in the plantation kitchens (okra, plantains, taro root), Haitians who came after their revolution in 1791 (coffee, cocoa), and Chinese who became indentured servants in the mid-19th century (they popularized rice, which was already grown on the island).
In “Cuba, the Cookbook” (Phaidon, $49.95), Madelaine Vazquez Galvez and Imogene Tondre explain the layers that make Cuban food such a mishmash of cultures. And there’s more: When the Soviets came to Cuba and thousands of Cuban students were sent to study in the USSR, they grew fond of borscht and beef Stroganoff.
“Cuba, the Cookbook” covers it all: Moros y Christianos (Moors and Christians), a dish of black beans and rice (Moors ruled medieval Spain); corn arepas, made with fresh ground corn, which the Soviets turned into a mix; Cubano sandwiches, which were not invented in Florida as is commonly thought; Cuban fried rice, courtesy of the Chinese residents; “eggs in their beds,” in which taro root, onions, and bok choy become a hash; salsa criolla, an everyday tomato sauce with peppers and cumin; yuca flan, which is a popular party dessert; and fresh pineapple juice with cucumbers and mint (pictured). Every single page is interesting.