Cuba is often left out of the discussion of Latin American foods, especially in the US where Mexican food reigns supreme. Cuban cuisine shares many of the same characteristics as cookery from elsewhere in the Spanish-speaking Americas, including the creation of complex flavors from a range of spices. Here is a look at the most popular spices used in Cuban cooking:
Popular all over the world, the leaves of the bay laurel tree are popular for dishes that have a long braising time. Like many other spices in Cuban cuisine, the bay leaf is a legacy of Spanish colonists who brought their favorite spices with them from Europe. The woody, slightly bitter bay leaf notes add a strong savory element to various Cuban dishes. You will see them used in the Cuban okra dish known as quimbombo, the Cuban version of carne guisada and in the classic ropa vieja.
Garlic is one of the world’s most popular seasonings after salt and pepper. It is considered one of the essential spices in Cuban cuisine and shows up in virtually all meat and bean dishes. You will get the savory, sulfurous notes of garlic in black beans as well as in chuletas de puerco (pork chops). The garlic used is typically fresh rather than dried and powdered, but the latter can work in most Cuban dishes in a pinch.
If you are unfamiliar with Cuban cooking, you may be surprised to learn that oregano plays a major role in it. While it is a part of the Spanish tradition that informs all Latin American cookery, oregano is especially important to Cuban cuisine.
Also important is the fact that Cuba’s isolation from the rest of the world caused it to become a pioneer in farming techniques for the pungent herb. Oregano gives Cuban cooking its intense woody, minty and camphoraceous notes. You will detect the flavors of oregano in classic Cuban dishes such as black beans, Cuban asopao de pollo (chicken and rice) and vaca frita (fried cow).
Nowhere in Latin America is vinegar more prized as a cooking ingredient than in Cuba. Its acidity enhances a range of dishes including the ubiquitous black beans that accompany a vast number of meals from the largest Caribbean island.
In addition to black beans, vinegar shows up in recipes for the traditional Cuban beef dish known as ropa vieja and in Cuba’s version of beef picadillo. Typically, white distilled vinegar made from sugar cane is used but Americanized versions of Cuban recipes often substitute other vinegar such as those made from wine and cider. Each of these types of vinegar will provide a similar general effect but add new, subtle differences to classic recipes.
The earthy, nutty, and slightly bitter notes of cumin are to be found throughout Latin American cooking and Cuba is no exception despite its cultural isolation. An essential seasoning for Cuban black beans, cumin also shows up in picadillo recipes. Some variations of picadillo are made with Jamaican curry powder, which contains cumin.
While technically not a seasoning, olive oil does play a major rule in the distinctive flavor of Cuban food. Handed down from Spanish cooking tradition, olive oil is used to make picadillo and mojo along with a range of other Cuban preparations. It should be noted that it is often used more for pure flavoring than for serious frying, which is usually done in vegetable oil.