I miss Chino-Cubano food. Although my family’s cooking genes featured a range of old-school Caribbean-Asian fusion, I discovered Chino-Cubano food late in life. Right after college graduation, I ate this delicious, affordable food every day when I worked in NYC’s Hell’s Kitchen. There were two eateries on 9th avenue owned by the same chef that I loved. I don’t recall the name. But the owner’s name was Mr. Yip. Both joints featured a huge melange of Chinese-Cuban food served on oval plates for just a few dollars.
Besides the delicious food, I loved eavesdropping on the Chinese workers speaking Cantonese to each other and Spanish to customers. This was an only-in-New York experience or an anthropologist’s dream. I think I loved listening to the workers talk as much as I loved hearing my own Chinese Trinidadian relatives speak with West Indian accents.
Back in the 70s, my first job as a teacher-counselor at the YMCA took me to this old West side neighborhood. Located next door to a police precinct on West 54th between 9th and 10th avenues, it was my usual lunch time routine to explore 9th Avenue, NYC’s richest ethnic food world. Although both eateries offered basically the same menu, I took turns going to each one. I was raised eating Guyanese, Trinidadian and Jamaican-Chinese Caribbean food. Chino-Cubano food was a welcome change.
My usual meal was simple: Special Fried Rice, a side order of fried platanos and a café for $4. Today, this meal cost about $10! This is still a bargain. Cuban-Chinese cuisine is not really fusion. It features juxtaposition or a pairing of both Chinese and Cuban food on the same plate. Eg. black beans, with rice—either white, yellow or Chinese fried rice, platanos, bok choy, Chinese dumplings, broccoli, pork, chicken or seafood.
Sometimes my Trini-Chinese mother tried her hand at Chino-Cubano cooking. She would “Latina-fy” her menu with black beans, yellow rice and plantains. To “China-fy” Cuban food, my mother would insert ginger, Hoisin or oyster sauce, bean sprouts and bean curd to her dishes.
At one of NYC’s oldest Chino-Cubano restaurants, La Caridad78’s menu features wonderful contradictions: “Comida China y Criolla” lists the Cuban dishes as “Spanish Dishes.” “Platos Criollos” is the menu headline, but the word criollo is a contradiction too. It was originally used to distinguish Cubans from colonials. A Puerto Rican friend pointed out to me that the dishes listed are actually Cuban, not Spanish: vaca frita, chuletas en salsa soya, bisté de palomilla, rabo encendido and others. Listed on other menu pages were typical Chinese dishes such as bok choy, lo mein, beef with bean curd, and sweet and sour chicken. Tsingtao, a Chinese beer is also served along side regular ones.
There are very few Chino-Cubano recipes posted online. Here are a few that I found:
Genealogy background: Chinese indentured male workers arrived in Cuba in 1847 to replace the African slaves. Since the Chinese women were not allowed to join them, many Chinese men intermarried with Afro-Cuban, Native and local island women creating a unique multicultural society. Another migration from 1919 to 1925 brought over 25,000 more Chinese immigrants. They took advantage of the island’s prosperity during those times, primarily in Havana. This long Chinese history on the island left an indelible mark especially in traditional Cuban food. After the Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution, many left for Miami and New York where the Chino-Cubano restaurants flourished in the 1960s and 1970s. Sadly, today, very few of these eateries exist. Many New Yorkers like me have fond memories of their favorite Chino-Cubano restaurants.
(Cooking Genes is an ongoing series)
Do you recall eating Chino-Cubano food? Do you have any recipes or menus?