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 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.
This recipe is as much a requiem as a celebration.
Frijoles negros, black beans, are at the center of the Antillean Hispanic culinary constellation. Any group meal will have them, any celebration platter will center them, and any rotation of different dishes will find them eventually. One does not experience the food of Puerto Rico, Cuba, or the Dominican Republic without dining on black beans and rice. I made this meal the center of numerous efforts to impress non-Hispanic paramours, and I kept it in my repertoire because of how constant, and powerful, its memories are.
We return to the subject of Latin American cooking with Alyssa. This time, we visit my grandmother’s signature meal, arroz con gandules. Puerto Rican Spanish for “rice with pigeon peas,” this is a hearty meal on its own or accompanied with meat or a salad. It follows the Puerto Rican tradition of “one-pot meals,” making it relatively simple to learn and a staple when my grandmother entertains guests or contributes to holiday platters. I look forward to tasting hers again…if I am again welcome there.