Ever since I found my way down to the state once known as the craziest (and now the freest) state in the nation (Florida), I’ve been exposed to a type of food that is ubiquitous in Florida, but not so common in my native Georgia. A type of food that Desi Arnaz might have stolen Lucille Ball’s heart with. The type of food Scarface learned to cook from his grandmother. I’m talking about Cuban food.
When hordes of Cuban refugees escaped the overly militant bearded guys back in the 50s, they brought their cuisine with them and blessed South Florida with it. And I’ve discovered to my great pleasure and joy that this food, in addition to being a cornucopia of flavors, is also quite good for you.
And this is supported by the stats. Cuba, like virtually every country in the modern world, has a fair number of obese people, but their obesity rate is 25% or so, which is not bad compared to most developed countries. Cuban Americans have a slightly higher obesity rate, but that’s because they’re less likely to go hungry than native Cubans. Lack of political oppression does that. America’s problem is the literal opposite of hunger, as I’ve noted before.
Still, Cuban Americans do better than most Americans. Their obesity rate is about 30%, which is not great, but good for America, I guess. And I imagine it might have something to do with the cuisine. Although many of them might have also gained good exercise habits by swimming/rafting from Havana to the Keys.
But there is one myth that we must dispel first. Some people (particularly from across the pond) have remarked that Cuban food is really just a knock off of Spanish food. This is heresy. Say this in Tampa and you’ll be transported to MacDill Air Force base where you’ll be declared a terrorist and CentCom will transfer you to a black site. Or maybe just Guantanamo. Say this in Miami and you’ll be found beaten unconscious in a back alley in Little Havana. And if you say this in actual Havana they’ll probably take you to La Cabana to be shot.
Cuban food isn’t just Spanish food. It includes Spanish foods, certainly. But it also has a fair number of Caribbean and African ingredients and spices, in addition to the Spanish stuff. You’ll find things like plantains and yucca and habanero pepper (which comes from Cuba) in these dishes.
In my early days in public accounting, before the endless sheets full of arcane numbers sucked the joy out of my soul and chained me to my desk for the entire day, I would often head to one of many local Cuban restaurants in the Tampa Bay area, and was exposed to many of their classic dishes. So I’ve done the nutrition research on a few of my favorites.
So let’s start with the basics. People familiar with Cuban food often first think of black beans and rice. It’s as closely associated with Cubans as pasta is with Italians, or potatoes are with Irish, or god awful organ meat concoctions are with my Scottish ancestors. Remember, offal is awful, particularly haggis.
Many Cuban meals come with black beans and rice as a side. And it’s relatively light, for a side dish. A cup of black rice and beans has 220 calories, which is not bad. It also has a decent chunk of vitamins B1 and K, as well as healthy doses of selenium, zinc, magnesium, iron manganese, copper, and phosphorus. This dish traditionally comes in the form of yellow rice and black beans. Although it can come in the form of…Moors and Christians. Which is white rice and black beans. Which seems…totally racist. Unless it’s a metaphor for interracial marriage, in which case it’s totally woke.
But this isn’t a full meal, unless you’re someone who signals their moral superiority by suffering from anemia and a B12 deficiency. That is to say, a vegan. But for the ravening meat-eating masses that comprise most of the human race, the main course must involve dead lesser animals. So, what do Cubans have to offer in that regard?
Well, let’s start with one of the few things that I can actually cook, which also happens to be a national dish of Cuba. Ropa Vieja, which is a stew made from shredded beef and tomatoes. And literally means “old clothes” in Spanish. Because I guess they think that makes it sound appetizing in Cuba. I mean, I know they went all in with the communism thing a while back, but they really could use some proper capitalist marketing skill when it comes to naming dishes. Of course, I am descended from people who thought sheep’s stomach was worth eating and giving it a name like “haggis” would make it sound less gross. On the other hand, “Big Mac” totally sounds better than “Old Clothes”. So when it comes to good marketing, ‘Merica still owns.
But I guess I’m getting a bit far afield. The Old Clothes are actually quite tasty and healthy. They have 220 calories per cup, which really isn’t bad for a main course. This much worn outerwear will also have more than half of your daily vitamin B12 and A requirements, about 40% of your iron and zinc RDA, and healthy doses of Niacin, B6, Phosphorus and vitamin C. It’s all around good, even if the name sounds gross.
Another Cuban staple is yellow rice and chicken. I know that seems bland. It’s probably something that shows up on Cuban kid’s menus. But remember, they spice things. And Caribbean spices can have a serious bite, so it’s not as bland as it sounds. And it’s certainly good for you. A cup has 260 calories and healthy amounts of various B vitamins, manganese, iron, selenium, phosphorus and copper, and zinc.
And there is a more awesome form of this, even though it has a “settler colonial” name that might cause an overly sensitive college kid to develop so much anxiety that social media would be relaxing by comparison. I’m talking about Rice Imperial. It’s rice and chicken, except with a wide variety of additional ingredients that could include banana, mayonnaise and hot peppers. So in addition to the benefits of yellow rice and chicken, you also get the benefits (and costs) of fruits, sauces, and hot things. Of course if it’s too extravagant, the meal might not be so healthy. It may explain the 25-30% of Cubans and Cuban-Americans who are obese.
And then there’s that staple dish of the Spanish diet that Cubans put their own spin on. And will still probably shoot you for it if you claim it’s “just Spanish”. That famous rice dish that my father, in a deliberate attempt to annoy the waiter at the local Cuban restaurant, called “Payola”. I’m talking about paella. Leave it to Dad to substitute a slang term meaning “bribery” for a national dish. He’s been a troll since before the Internet.
Paella can come in many varieties, but my favorite Cuban type is Paella de Mariscos, which is loaded with seafood. The Cuban version of this is loaded down with shrimp, scallops, clams, mussels, lobsters, white fish chunks, and any number of other mercilessly slain denizens of the deep. Often doused in lime juice and various herbs and spices (some of which can have a bit of a bite), it’s basically Cuban jambalaya.
But noticeably healthier than it’s Cajun equivalent. I’ve noted before that Cajun food, although great, is not that great for you. One cup of this type of paella has 350 calories and a healthy dose of B vitamins, vitamin A, C (because of the lime juice), and E as well as a big portion of zinc, iron, selenium, copper, and manganese. Two cups is a full meal, so double these if you eat like a normal person. And you’ll find that one meal gives you almost all of the micronutrients you need in a day.
Another thing Cubans are known for is their tamales. And I know you’re thinking “Hey, Triple D (nobody calls me that), aren’t those also Mexican?”. To which I say, shut up. They’re totally different. Cuban tamales have more Caribbean ingredients and fewer fart producing ingredients. They’re wrapped in corn husks, not dough made from corn meal as the Mexican types typically have. Drawing an equivalency between Cuban Tamales and Mexican Tamales is another thing that might get you sent to Guantanamo or beaten up in Little Havana or shot in La Cabana.
Anyway, Cuban tamales are a full meal. One six-inch has 600 calories, more than half of the vitamin B12 I’ll need in a day, and a good chunk of vitamin A, vitamin B6, niacin, copper, iron, selenium, and zinc. It’s a pretty good thing to eat for lunch, if I don’t want a sandwich. Although sandwiches can be quite healthy, as I’ve discussed before.
So there are plenty of good choices for the main course. And if you don’t want rice and beans on the side, there are other options for side dishes. One is fried plantains. For uncultured, non-Florida barbarians who don’t know what plantains are, they’re those weird green things at the store that look like under ripe bananas. And their nutrition is similar to bananas, with 120 calories each, and a little bit of everything nutrition-wise, especially vitamin A, C, and B6.
And if you want something a little more sweet and dessert-like, tostones are a decent side or snack. These are really just fried plantain pancakes. And they’re sweet enough on their own that there’s little need to add sugar or anything else that might cause a Keto-bro to faint. This means you’ll be getting the nutrition of a plantain (and including a decent chunk of Omega-3, because it’s fried), without too many extra calories. They’re noticeably healthier than actual pancakes.
Another plant that Cubans like frying is yucca, a potato-like root plant. And as ‘Mericans do with potatoes, Cubans like to slice and fry their Yucca. Yucca fries are reasonably healthy, with a smattering of various nutrients, including a decent chunk of vitamin C. They have fifty percent more calories than french fries, though, at 290 calories per cup. Even in Cuba, big sides can give you big sides, I guess.
Then there’s the greatest import from Cuba to the United States, apart from Desi Arnaz. Cuban sandwiches. These are a common lunch meal in Florida, and also the most common cause of fistfights between residents of Tampa Bay and Miami, who always like to insist that theirs is the true Cuban sandwich. These beauties are made from half of a sub roll (or bread to that effect), loaded with pork, ham, pickles, and a decent dose of mustard. And then pressed so flat it looks like it was crushed beneath Fidel Castro’s boot. But pressing them into submission combines and seals in flavors, making them ten times more awesome.
Cuban sandwiches have 665 calories in each 6 inch sandwich, a huge chunk (nearly a full day’s supply) of several B vitamins, as well as healthy doses of iron, calcium, copper, and manganese. You should not come to South Florida without having one. It’s more important than meeting Mickey Mouse or visiting the Everglades.
So Cuban food (for the most part) can be really healthy and very tasty. But that’s not the only advantage. It’s also fairly easy to make. Particularly the rice and bean-based dishes. Even someone of my mediocre skill can make it. And given that it’s fairly low-cal (in sensible portions) and very nutritious, anyone making it can keep the weight off and the micros up. The prevalence of Cuban food might even explain why my adopted state of Florida has the 9th lowest obesity rate.
So, if you’re a proper foodie and trying to keep the weight off, think about adding some Cuban food into the diet. Most of the options are very healthy and can easily be worked into a weight loss plan. Just make sure to do it Florida Cuban style, not actual Cuban style. Because these days, actual Cuban style involves running out of food and going hungry. And possibly getting shot at La Cabana.