The Cuban Table, Yahoo Food’s Cookbook of the Week, is an almost anthropological cookbook about Cuban food and the people behind it. The idea started with food photographer Ellen Silverman “literally walking around and knocking on [Cuban people’s] doors and asking if we could look inside people’s kitchens.” Once Silverman hooked up with writer Ana Sofia Pelaez, they had a plan to write a cookbook—and to share delicious recipes for Mojitos, Flan de Leche, and Arroz con Pollo.
“A casual conversation started in New York, with Cuban people I know, and then I continued that in Miami, and then all the way to Cuba,” said Pelaez. “We covered the entire island, even getting as far as Baracoa, where Columbus disembarked. It was really like going back in time.”
You can read more about the book here. Below, we share some thoughts from Silverman and Pelaez that give us all an idea of what Cuban food looks like right now.
On Cuban food:
Ellen: There was a lot of pork and chicken, rice and beans, flan—so much flan!—and, of course, mojitos and Cuban rum. So there were the expected dishes, but there was also pork that’s cooked in its own fat. So you’d drive around and see these big black pots full of pork cooking away.
Ana: Cuban food is very simple, in a great way. There’s a limited repertoire of ingredients, and you’re not going to do very much to them—the ingredients really shine through in Cuban food. You always start with sofrito, a mixture of onion, pepper, and garlic, and everything goes from there. Maybe there’s some cumin or oregano, but there’s not a long list of spices and sauces. It’s more about timing, taking time to think about what you’re doing. You’re very engaged when cooking Cuban food.
On Cuban people:
Ellen: People are gracious. They don’t have a lot of food, so they’re not going to ask you in and say “Share this with me,” but they do what they can. And people were friendly, too, when I knocked on their doors. Sure, some people said no, because they thought “Why would you want to photograph my kitchen?” But for the most part, they were friendly. And imagine how much harder that would be to do here [in the States], to pull up in front of someone’s door and ask to come in!
Ana: They’re very honest about what they can or can’t do, and I was careful not to be a burden to them. So I wouldn’t set up meeting times at lunch or dinner when they would have to strain their resources. They’d often offer 4 o’clock, when we could [drink] coffee together and have the time to speak.
On what surprised them:
Ellen: One food editor friend of mine warned me, saying “Make sure you bring food with you. The food is terrible.” But that was not my experience at all. First, [my Cuban photographer friend who showed us around] loves to eat and knows where all the good places are. And yes, the food was simple, but quite flavorful.
Ana: People would have their heirloom dishes, but also their own takes on things. Because of the limited resources in Cuba, they’ve had to adapt those old recipes; I was relieved that they weren’t letting go of that culture despite that hardship.
On the recipes:
Ellen: It’s been a hard place to go to and people are still struggling so much. Everything is makeshift and improvised. There was a great deal of improvisation in the recipe making.
Ana: I’d ask, “Okay, is that all?” when we were finished with a recipe, and they’d say yes. But then after a pause, they’d say, “Oh, but if you can get cinnamon and vanilla, you’d add that, too.” They’ve had to adapt some of the heirloom recipes because ingredients can still be scarce there.
On the photographs:
Ellen: There are lots of little still-life moments in the book. I’m always looking for those moments: glasses sitting in a tray with a bowl of limes; four mugs hanging against a wooden wall and a purple cloth hanging next to to it. Cuba is visually so stimulating.
Try some Cuban recipes from the book: