Expats: Pobre Culis

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Photo by Delznaga.

Cuba’s most famous cigar roller is nicknamed Chinita (little Chinese girl) despite her rather robust frame and Philippine roots. Tiger Balm is one of the most accredited cures for just about anything. And Chinese flora pervades the landscape.

Chinese culture has infused Cuba with cinnamon and lion dances, homeopathy and tambares (drums). A remarkable statement given that the Chinese were first brought to the island as slaves, and lived in even less humane conditions than their African contemporaries. Hucked onto European boats by ambitious if heartless traders, the Chinese were shipped by the thousands in the 1840s to work the sugar cane plantations,and this kept on for almost a century.

During the California Gold Rush, a significant number of Chinese showed up in Cuba, having failed to fill their pans with gold and also suffering the greed and xenophobia of the Pacific Coast at that time. The Cubans saw them as a steady source of cheap labor, and welcomed the immigrants as “employees” once “slavery” was no longer permitted. Diligent and relentless workers, the Chinese built their own businesses and cultural associations.

As you’d expect, most of the immigrants were men and as such they ended up marrying Cuban women, and the mixed heritage is now easy to spot in the faces of islanders today. This is true not only of the physical aspect but also of the cuisine – Cuba’s culinary traditions are in fact a blend of flavors and ingredients from Africa, China and the Caribbean.

Ask a Cuban and they’ll likely say that their favorite soup is wonton.

And chicken Chop Suey isn’t far behind. But it’s not only that the Cubans like Chinese food, it’s also that the elements and tastes have been fused. Moros and Cristianos (bluntly translated as The Black Moors and the White Christians) is one of the most common dishes in Cuban cuisine – the traditional Chinese soybean is substituted for a the classic Cuban blackbean, but the white rice, onions, garlic and other ingredients are a happy union of the two palates. The Chinese also introduced pumpkin, cabbage, long green beans and cucumber into the Cuban diet.

In the 1960s, when the US embargo struck, many of the Chinese got out and went north to New York. And now it happens that the Cuban-Chinese cuisine has flourished, and is easier found there than where it began.

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