Order in or take out, we New Yorkers love our Chinese food. But it can be confusing to see “General Tso’s Chicken” served with a side of tostones, yellow rice, and black beans. So, what do Hong Kong and Havana have in common? A colorful history. A deception. A revolution. And plenty of garlicky pork fried rice.
The fusion renders an exotic, yet natural outcome, when you know the backstory.
In the 1800s, Cuba was the largest producer of sugarcane in the world, and depended heavily on slave labor from Africa. But by the mid-19th century, the increasingly expensive African slave trade compelled Cuban plantation owners to turn to China in search of another labor source. There, they found young, able-bodied workers — particularly from Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan.
Single, male, Cantonese workers arrived by the thousands with hopes of returning to their homeland with the money they had earned. What they got instead, was virtually slave labor — an eight-year contract, a low wage of four Cuban pesos a month, and no way to save up for the passage home. Deceived and deprived of the company of family, friends, and women, many of these workers from far-away Asia had intimate relationships with Black or mixed-race Cuban women (any kind of intimate relationship with white ladies was against the law).
By 1940, an exotic population of 35,000 Cuban Chinese families called Havana home. Rumor has it that Havana had the largest Chinatown in South America, where fruit stalls were aplenty and hawkers sold warm buns, fried fish, and potato chips — food with a touch of nostalgia that had a way of diminishing homesickness and longing.
In 1959, Fidel Castro and the Revolution changed Cuba forever. Many Cuban Chinese businesses were confiscated, and families were forced to leave. Migrating back to China with a mixed-race family was not an option, so the population moved to the nearby islands of the Caribbean and the welcoming United States — mainly to Miami and New York City.
Back in the 70s, Cuban-Chinese restaurants abounded in the Big Apple, especially in Chelsea and what is now the Meatpacking District. Not so today, since the younger generation of Cuban Chinese are pursuing careers outside of the restaurant business. But the few Cuban Chinese restaurants — like La Caridad 78 in Manhattan and Nuevo Jardin de China in Astoria — are thriving. Others like Sabrosura in the Bronx and Grand Golden Lion in Williamsburg have had a huge following for decades.
On closer study, both Chinese and Cuban cuisines use plenty of pork, rice, and seafood. Naturally, many preparations feature these ingredients with touches of soy, garlic, and scallions, and accompaniments of plantains, beans, and yucca. The Chinese took locally grown, medium grained Cuban rice, stir-fried it in a wok with pork, and added tomatoes, onions, and garlic to create yellow fried rice or arroz frito. There’s no way to describe this unifying deliciousness — if you don’t have a gym membership, get one; you’re going to need it.
At La Caridad 78, I started with a hot chicken noodle soup, and was surprisingly comforted by the presence of potatoes (In Havana’s Chinatown, a bowl of hot soup was typically served with garlicky buns, and provided a satisfying meal to those who could afford only that). The oxtail curry that followed had African influences, while the juicy grilled pork chop was served with fermented Chinese black bean sauce. I downed it all with a tamarind juice and ended my meal with a flan.
There’s another wonderful part about Cuban Chinese restaurants: the bill. The reasonable prices are served up in very generous portions and big flavors.
A Chino Cubano menu is really a passage of history on a plate, suited for the undecided, the curious, and the adventuresome.
Video produced by Thomas Peisel