In her introduction to A Taste of Cuba: A Journey Through Cuba and Its Savory Cuisine, co-author Valerie Feigen wrote that “all cooking can be summed up by a simple equation: ingredients + process = final dish.” But what happens when the process gets lost in translation, or ingredients are difficult (or impossible) to find in the United States?
…they also had to learn how to substitute ingredients, which were not found here in the United States, and adapt the chefs’ techniques when recreating the recipes in their own kitchens.
Just as Cubans have done when particular ingredients are scarce in their homeland, when Feigen and co-author Cynthia Carris Alonso were putting together A Taste of Cuba —a compilation of exclusive recipes from chefs at paladares around the island— they also had to learn how to substitute ingredients not found here and adapt the chefs’ techniques when recreating the recipes in their own kitchens.
In Cuba, unripe fruits and vegetables are usually used for cooking, whereas ripe ones are eaten fresh.
The authors found that in order to make the recipes in the United States, some adjustments were necessary, like using salted butter, rather than sweet butter, and taking into consideration the larger size of eggs laid by US chickens. Sugar tends to be more processed (read, sweet) in the US, so smaller quantities are needed than with Cuban sugar.
In Cuba, unripe fruits and vegetables are usually used for cooking, whereas ripe ones are eaten fresh. For instance, papaya can be cooked in a simple syrup when it’s green, to make a delicious dessert, but if it’s yellow and ripe it can be thrown in a smoothie. (Just remember to call it fruta bomba when in Cuba!) Unripe plantains are best when deep-fried and made into chips (or twice-fried and mashed into tostones). Ripe plantains —maduros— are sweet and can be pan-fried in light oil.
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The authors shared with Startup Cuba the hardest-to-find ingredients from the recipes they encountered, and how to substitute them with ingredients you can find in any US grocery store.
Top 5 Substitutes for Hard-to-Find Cuban Ingredients
1. Cassava (Yuca) and Malanga (Taro)
Parsnips and turnips make good substitutes for the ubiquitous cassava (yuca) and malanga (taro).
2. Sour Oranges
Sour oranges are not always on hand in the US, and lemons can be used.
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3. Yerba Buena
Fresh spearmint is ideal (or other varieties of mint if spearmint’s not available) can be used in place of yerba buena in recipes (and for preparing mojitos).
Cubans love their traditional boniato (use sweet potato or, if deep frying, yam) and the Cuban pumpkin, which is most similar to butternut squash.
5. Aji and Cachucha Peppers
Aji and Cachucha peppers are often used interchangeably in Cuban cooking and a substitute combination of Habanero peppers with yellow or red bell peppers creates an approximate amount of sweetness and heat; proportions can be adapted to taste.