Cuba has several national dishes. (Spoiler: the Cuban sandwich, that bold union of ham, roast pork, and Swiss cheese conceived in Florida, is not one of them.) The prestigious ropa vieja—thin strips of flank steak drowning in a ragu-like sauce—might be the nation’s most popular dish, but the humbler arroz congri—rice and black beans—is the more constant staple. While it’s a little different from Cuba’s more famous fare (and a little harder to find in its paladars, family-run restaurants), no dish contains the story and spirit of Cuba quite like ajiaco, a heady, creole stew of meats, vegetables, and spices pulled from the Americas, Europe, and Africa—the encounters that created Cuba.
“Throw all the ingredients in a pot, and create something authentic, something good. That’s Cuba,” says Pedro E. Tejeda Torres, manager of Café Ajiaco in Cojimar, a fishing village east of Havana. Ajiaco became somewhat of an official metaphor for Cuba in the 1940s, when Cuba’s eminent anthropologist, Fernando Ortiz, anointed it the perfect expression of Cuban identity: a mixture of many elements, distilled from centuries of immigration, conflict, and coexistence to form something new—a process perfectly mirrored in the evolution of ajiaco. (Ortiz distinguished his concept from America’s own ‘melting pot’ by noting that Cuba’s version did not result in integration into one dominant, Eurocentric culture, but that each component retained its identity.)
There are other ajiacos, of course: Colombia’s, for example, is made with chicken and no fewer than three kinds of potatoes. In Chile, hard-boiled egg makes an appearance. But the Cuban ajiaco is a hefty catalogue of the island’s culinary history.
When Columbus landed in Cuba in 1492, the ill-fated Taíno inhabitants—the indigenous peoples of the northern Caribbean who welcomed his party—had a pot-based broth of meats and root vegetables, seasoned with a local hot pepper: the “aji” that gives the stew its name. The Spanish seemed to find this native fare repugnant at first—in 1598, a member of the governor’s household described the pepper as caustic—but somewhere along the line, the colonizers acquired a taste for it and got busy reshaping it in the image of their Spanish stews, but with Cuban ingredients. They kept the indigenous tubers—boniato (sweet potato), malanga, and yuca—but replaced the meat the Taíno used (vermin, fish, birds, sometimes reptiles) with fresh beef and pork. Salt-dried meat, tasajo, joined the mix, along with maize, tropical pumpkin, and tomato. (The ajiaco also grew milder: the fiery Habanero may be named after Cuba’s capital, but spicy peppers are not a Cuban staple.) The more than one million African slaves the Spanish brought to Cuba to work on sugar plantations left their mark on ajiaco with yams, plantains, bananas, and cooking methods. Holding it all together is sofrito—the flavor base of many Cuban dishes—made from vegetable oils or animal fats, garlic, onions, green peppers, ground cumin seeds, or other spices brought by Arab and Chinese immigrants. This potent jumble is simmered together to produce a thick brew equally suited to a fork as to a spoon.
There are many classic ajiaco elements, but there is no one recipe: making an ajiaco is also shorthand for making something from whatever is available. (In fact, in the 1930s, Cuban president and dictator Gerardo Machado decreed that ajiaco should be eaten once a week, to make use of each province’s agricultural bounty.)
This adaptable feast was ideally suited to endure the disruptions to Cuban cuisine after the Soviet Union collapsed, and with it, the generous subsidies that softened the bite of the U.S. economic embargo. Food shortages meant many Cuban staples became out-of-reach expensive, or disappeared from markets and kitchens altogether. For Cubans, cooking—and many other parts of life—became a matter of making something from whatever was available.
Cubans lost ingredients, but they didn’t lose ajiaco. When beef became a rare commodity—in Cuba, cows are property of the state and illicit slaughter and consumption carry stiff penalties—pork became the staple meat. When access to vegetable oils and animal fat for sofrito could no longer be taken for granted, Nitza Villapol—Cuba’s beloved TV chef who first taught Cubans how to cook, and then, in harder times, how to cook with less—suggested substituting other condiments.
Agricultural reforms and urban farms (“agroponicos”) have brought some Cubans a more steady supply of produce, but fresh beef and spices are still rare commodities, or occasional treats, for most Cubans. This won’t change overnight, but if old ingredients return to kitchens and new ones are added, the ajiaco might become something new again.
Where to try it:
Calle 92, # 267
Cojimar, Habana del Este, Cuba.
As Havana’s burgeoning restaurant scene remains in thrall to all things Italian, or experiments with brave new combinations like banana, tuna, and vinaigrette, the guys at Café Ajiaco scour old cookbooks for historic and traditional Cuban recipes. They also give cooking classes: Lesson one is ajiaco.