From the Left



The Ajiaco, the Cuban Sandwich and other Cuban Foods for Thought

Luis Martinez-Fernandez on

Foods prepared and consumed by particular communities or nations are excellent windows to the histories and cultures of such groups. Students of food culture, food historians and archaeologists have traced dietary developments among hominins dating back millions of years. They have learned, for example, that our prehuman ancestors incorporated meat and marrow into their diets around 2.5 million years ago and that humans planted tiny tubers known as chufas (aka tiger nuts) as far back as 16,000 B.C., making them one of the earliest cultivated plants. In Spain chufas are still used to make horchata, a popular -- and may I add, delicious -- milky drink that's served chilled.

There is much truth in Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin's famous 1826 aphorism, "Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are." After decades of studying the history of Cuba and its diasporas, I am convinced that what Cubans eat (and have eaten in the past) tells us much about their history and culture, including the encounters of its three foundational roots (Indigenous, Spanish and African), how those cultures merged to form a Creole society, and how its diasporas diffused Cuban culture, in turn merging it with cultures of other receiving societies. What Cubans eat -- and do not eat -- also sheds light on where they stand on the social ladder, the nation's economic health and its relations with foreign countries.

First course: the ajiaco.

Our meal begins with the ajiaco (a'xjako), a soup that originated among the Tainos, Arawaks who arrived to the island around A.D. 550 to 600. Before the Tainos, more primitive Indigenous peoples inhabited Cuba. They were semi-nomadic and foraged for mollusks, nuts and seeds. The Tainos were agriculturalists who cultivated yuca (manioc), a variety of other tubers, aji peppers, maize, tomatoes and guavas and other fruits. They complemented their diet with animal protein from fish, shellfish, iguanas, some types of birds and rodents named jutias. These meats were cooked over hot coals called barbacoas -- yes, that is the origin of the English word barbecue. They also prepared meats by drying them on racks called bucanes -- and yes, that is the root of the word buccaneer. French pirates adopted the cooking style and the word from natives who inhabited the island of Hispaniola.

World-renowned Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz told us that the ajiaco was one of the primary dishes of the Tainos before the Spanish conquest and colonization. It was a soup that included various indigenous tubers and aji peppers, hence the word ajiaco. Tainos dipped insipid casabe cakes made from yuca flour in pottery bowls of ajiaco.

Rather than staying fixed, the recipe for ajiaco as well as its counterparts (sancocho in Cuba and Puerto Rico and callaloo soup in other Caribbean islands) evolved over time as new waves of European settlers and enslaved Africans tossed new ingredients into the pre-Columbian pottery bowl.

Ortiz and other scholars after him recognized the slow-cooking ajiaco as a metaphor for the multiple and compounding processes of transculturation that produced an ever evolving Cuban culture. He coined the term transculturation in 1939 to signify complex cultural interactions among Indigenous Cubans, Europeans and their descendants and enslaved and free Africans and their descendants. "Transculturation" more accurately reflects the manifold hybridization processes unfolding in Cuba since the 1500s than the term "acculturation," which denotes the assimilation of new groups into an existing culture or society.


Cuba's historic transculturations, rather than producing a blended soup where new ingredients are lost or absorbed into a dominant broth, generated a stew in which various ingredients (from different parts of the world) retained their particular flavors, aromas and textures while at the same time infusing one another.

Cuba's first Spanish colonists brought their food preferences, ingredients and recipes. But they also had to adjust their palates to the island's geographical and agricultural circumstances, accepting -- sometimes reluctantly -- substitutes such as casabe cakes in place of wheat flour bread or wine made from pineapples rather than grapes. Cubans still use the phrase "a falta de pan, casabe" (if there is no bread, cassava cakes will have to suffice) as a saying for resignation.

We will continue to prepare the ajiaco in next week's column.


Luis Martinez-Fernandez is author of "Key to the New World: A History of Early Colonial Cuba." Readers can reach him at To find out more about Luis Martinez-Fernandez and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.

Copyright 2021 Creators Syndicate Inc.



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