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Cuban and Puerto Rican flavors spice up the melting pot.

It’s time to think outside the burrito! There is much more to Latin cuisine than our favorite Mexican food items -- not that there’s anything wrong with loving Mexican cuisine!

Depending on where in the United States you live, you might think of a different country when you hear the term "Latin cuisine." That might mean Mexican food for a resident of the West Coast, Cuban cuisine for a Miamian, or Puerto Rican fare for someone from New York or Chicago.

"Latin America" comprises countries developed from colonies of European powers that used languages derived from Latin -- namely Spanish, Portuguese, and French, according to the Encarta encyclopedia. But the Latin cultures that have had perhaps the biggest presence in the U.S. to date are Mexico, Cuba, and Puerto Rico. Since Mexican cuisine is fairly well known, let’s take a moment to explore the other two.

Cuban Cuisine

The Indians living on the island now called Cuba lived on fish, cassava (a starchy tuber), corn, beans, sweet potatoes, yuca (a potato-like vegetable), tomatoes, and pineapples. The year 1492 brought Christopher Columbus to Cuba. He claimed the island for Spain, and Cuba was a Spanish territory for several centuries. By the 17th century Cuba began importing Africans to the island to work as slaves.

Foods from the regions of Spain (Canarian, Galician, and Asturian) that helped populate Cuba, along with those of the Indians and African and Chinese slaves, helped shape today's Cuban cuisine.

"Cuban cooking combines the tastes of Spain with the tropical flavors of the Caribbean," Glenn Lindgren, co-author of Three Guys from Miami Celebrate Cuban, says in an email interview. "Throw in some New World spices and ingredients and a strong African influence, and you have the essence of Cuban cookery."

One thing Cuban food is not is spicy hot, adds Jorge Castillo, another co-author of Three Guys From Miami Celebrate Cuban: "We Cubans just don't use the hot peppers that are such an integral part of many Latin American cuisines."

That's not to say Cuban food is not highly spiced.

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