Chinese cooking is an underrated home-cooking option outside of its original home, and it’s not difficult for this Western-educated home cook to see why. With its different sensibilities about what kinds of cookware and tools are critical for a well-stocked kitchen, its reliance on ingredients that are likely unfamiliar to people used to food with other origins, and its characteristic sensibility about food pairings that can make it difficult to combine with food from other traditions, Chinese cooking often feels like a wholly separate discipline from other culinary affairs. It isn’t—all cooking is connected—but the feeling is hard to shake when every recipe calls for a wok and mentions spices that are rare in non-Chinese spice cabinets. Chinese-American cooking is what it is in part because of how Chinese foodways adapted to both American palates and American ingredients, creating a fusion cuisine as beautiful as any of its influences. It only takes a little ingenuity to make classic Chinese dishes work with the tools this Puerto Rican home cook has at her disposal in a kitchen that really doesn’t need one more pot or pan in it, and today’s success is the much-loved Sichuanese classic called mapo tofu.
Cuba, like every country, has distinctive street food, and one of the crowning achievements of that tradition is the frita cubana, a style of hamburger that has taken on a life of its own in the years since its invention. Supposedly invented in the 1920s and spread through Cuban food carts and hotel chains, the frita cubana is perhaps now best known as a signature offering of Miami’s Cuban-American restaurants, celebrated by burger connoisseurs but little-known outside the places where it is routinely served. That is positively criminal, as this burger has few equals.
Some memories demand to be remade.
One of the few culinary memories I have been completely unable to experience outside of a home kitchen is alcapurrias. This classic Puerto Rican fritter features prominently in my childhood as an occasional treat, especially around holidays, and made for exciting lunches because of their rarity. On occasion, the whole family would get together to make an especially large batch, a rustic experience wonderfully out of place in our big-city home. Posted recipes posit that the alcapurria is a variety of croquette and usually recommend the familiar croquette log or cigar shape, but the ones I knew were round, more like hand-pies or empanadas in size and presentation. Once I left Miami, those memories became more and more distant, and more and more treasured. As a matter of my Puerto Rican pride, I needed to take control of those memories and make them more firmly mine, and that meant learning how to make alcapurrias. And today, I succeeded.
Canadian coffee shops hold little allure for me, as a tea drinker who is well aware that her tastes are an afterthought in this space. I have spent a great deal more time in them than I ever wanted to, but I do appreciate one thing that happened in Canada’s coffee shops: me getting introduced to date squares. Invented in Newfoundland, this distinctively Canadian pastry is two layers of oat and flour crust around a filling of date paste, and it mingles crunch, sweetness, sourness, and general heft to satisfying effect. There is a strange irony to encountering dates more often living in Canada than I did in Miami, given that I come from a culture strongly influenced by Mediterranean cooking, but life has a way of surprising us.
Cuisine is a conversation. Foodways are not static and nothing traditional is the age people think it is. For a culinary tradition as circumstantial and inventive as Puerto Rican food, this is especially true, as new low-cost ingredients get incorporated into old patterns. That’s where this entry in our journey appears: pasta in tomato sauce, but make it Puerto Rican.
Cuba is the largest island in the Caribbean, and with that size comes more regional variety than outsiders realize. In particular, the Oriente region of Cuba, facing Haiti and closer to the equator than the rest of this already-tropical island, are known for spicier fare than parts farther north. Bayamo, one of the oldest cities in Cuba, is at the heart of this region, and gives its name to this curious casserole.