Magazine article ReVista (Cambridge)

Fried Rice and Plátanos

Magazine article ReVista (Cambridge)

Fried Rice and Plátanos

Article excerpt

IN NOVEMBER 1968, TWO FOOD CRITICS FOR New York magazine enthusiastically announced the arrival of a new cuisine in town: "Probably the only benefit that has been derived from the U.S.-Cuba estrangement is the establishment of the Cuban-Chinese restaurant as part of New York's gastronomic life." Chinese Cuban restaurants emerged in Manhattan from Chelsea to the Upper West Side. At Asia Pearl on 54th Street, Spanish-speaking customers filled the plain formica tables or sat at the counter for their fried rice and traditional Cuban dishes. The reviewers noted: "The fried rice dishes are good and seem to be comfortably placed between the Chinese and Cuban cooking. Pork, ham, shrimp and one called simply special are $1.05 each. It is the Cuban side of the menu that should be the most novel for the average New Yorker. The scope of the familiar omelet is enlarged by the addition of either banana, shrimp or Spanish sausage (from 85 to 95 cents)."

While this Chino Latino cuisine may have surprised the magazine's readers, it was perfectly comprehensible for the influx of Cuban immigrants arrived since the 1959 Cuban revolution. They would have been familiar with Havana's Barrio Chino, which by mid-century was one of the largest Chinatowns in the Americas, or encountered Chinese-owned restaurants and shops in provincial towns across the island. Indeed, the Chinese Cuban eateries in New York and elsewhere are one strand of a history of global migration circuits between Asia and the Americas.

From 1847 to 1874, about 125,000 men from southeastern Guangdong Province arrived in Cuba as indentured laborers for sugar plantations, railroads and mining prior to and during the period of gradual abolition of slavery. The coolie trade ended after an investigative commission exposed its atrocities in 1874. Those who remained settled in Cuba as agricultural and urban workers, artisans, labor contractors and market gardeners or remigrated elsewhere. As early as the 1860s they established eateries and food stands in an emergent Chinese district of Havana, and within a few decades merchants from Hong Kong and San Francisco set up transnational firms for the import of food products and luxury goods from China.

Food is a central motif in narratives about the Chinese role in the Cuban ajiaco (stew), a metaphor for the multiple ethnic components of Cuban national identity. The Chinese who participated in Cuba's independence struggles beginning in 1868 and made interracial marriages and other alliances were key to a process of integration. War narratives emphasize the Chinese role in patriotic and noncombat auxiliary activities, such as delivering messages, preparing food and acquiring medicine and clothing for the rebels. In 1884, for example, a group of Chinese charcoal makers protected hungry Cuban insurgents from Key West from Spanish forces. Once they were out of danger, the Chinese welcomed the troops with coffee, as any good Cuban would do. The Cuban commander commented that "they prepared a magnificent meal: rice with chicken, fried pork, plantain and sweet potato: a Creole meal" (Antonio Chuffat Latour, Apunte histórico de los Chinos en Cuba,[1927]. As Shannon Dawdy notes in her article on food, farming and national identity in Cuba, the foundations of an emerging national cuisine were viandas or starchy roots and tubers such as sweet potatoes, yams and manioc, as well as plantains, which were native-grown and produced on small-scale farming plots. (New West Indian Guide 2002) A Cuban nationalist movement similarly developed in opposition to both foreign control and large-scale agricultural regimes. Although the Chinese were recent arrivals, through their preparation of a quintessential Cuban meal they were represented as supporters of Cuban independence and potential citizens in the new republic. These kinds of narratives undermined the more common racialized descriptions of the Chinese as a "yellow peril" that circulated throughout the Americas since the 19th century. …

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