Cecina: Salt, meat and changing times

Salt as well as meat, is one of the many things we are told to consume “in moderation”, or to avoid altogether given health, ethical or environmental concerns. However, salt has been an important part of human history serving as one of the world’s main commodities. Salt accentuates the flavor and texture of foods. Its mineral components preserve food as it inhibits microbial growth by drawing moisture out of the food. The name “salt” (or sal, in Spanish) is linked to Salus, the Roman goddess of health and prosperity. Furthermore, salario, the Spanish term for wage, comes from the use of salt as a method of payment for soldiers. Nutritionally, salt provides sodium and chloride, two of the essential minerals for many body functions. If iodated, it keeps our thyroids happy by providing the essential mineral for its functioning.

The marriage of salt and meat has given us delicious results including: jamón Serrano, ibérico, prosciutto, and carne cecina. Cecina can simply be defined as salted meat. It is also called tasajo or, in Puerto Rico, carne vieja (old meat).The type of meat used and the process varies depending on where you are.  In Cuba, tasajo is said to be traditionally prepared with horsemeat. A similar case is seen in Spain. In Puerto Rico, carne vieja is made out from dried, salted meat. Like bacalao (salted cod fish), tasajo should rest in water overnight before preparing, to remove the excess salt.

Personally, I have not tried Puerto Rican tasajo yet. It is not common in the Puerto Rican tables nowadays. I did tried the Mexican cecina, sliced beef cured with salt, left marinating for 3-4 days resulting in delicious, tender and flavorful tacos, as these:

Tacos de Cecina
Sembrado Restaurant (NYC)

Cecina was brought to Latin America and the Caribbean from Spain, from the northern region of León. However, the tradition of salting and airing meat for preservation was already present in the Americas, using the traditional animal protein sources of the time, such as deer, rabbit, and others (See: C. Lavin). These traditions continue today, as I witnessed during a stroll along an urban town in Chalatenango, El Salvador:

Meat drying outside
San Ignacio, Dept. Chalatenango, El Salvador

The salting meats allowed for a more secure and constant access to animal protein. Throughout history, access to meat has been a symbol of status. In some context, cecina or other types of dried or cured meats, may be a food of the poor, or those lacking access to fresh meat or the technology to preserve it. As access to more modern preservations techniques became available, people may opt for fresher meats, and leave tasajo behind. However, the staying power of these foods goes beyond the material function they play. Now, in contexts with refrigeration and better transportation systems, such as NYC, cecina is valued for its flavor. Its purpose is to be enjoyed by choice and not by necessity.


Thanks to C. Espada, for the topic suggestion. 


Distinguishing national cuisines in the Spanish Caribbean

Rice, bean, chicken and tostones Whose cuisine is it?

Rice, bean, chicken and tostones
Whose cuisine is it?

Growing up in Puerto Rico, rice, habichuelas (beans), mofongo, bacalao, bisté  were just foods, constant staples in my mom’s kitchen or in family gatherings. There were rare trips to fast foods. Mostly, I remember the trips to Wendy’s at the end of the school semester, when we got our grades. There was the occasional take-out my mom brought home after work. And the ever rarer visits to sit down restaurants, in very special family occasions.

I left Puerto Rico in 2001 to finish my undergraduate education in Miami. Back then, I was not familiar with the Puerto Rican community in the area. Luckily, the city’s overwhelming Cuban influence and foods eased my longings for home. But while familiar delicacies such as croquetas and cortaditos somewhat made up for the foods I missed from home, they were not enough. For the first time in life, I consciously sought out my food – Puerto Rican food: a well-made mofongo (not a Cuban interpretation), rice with red beans (not black)… Foods that were so commonplace were no longer just “comida criolla”. They became “Puerto Rican” foods, as cultural   affirmations in the midst of the well defined Cuban identity in the city.

My move to Miami came with a culinary language adjustment. I learned (most of the times the hard way) about subtle language differences, by the way our cultures named certain foods. It took some time to adjust to the “fact” that orange juice was not called jugo de china, but jugo de naranja, that beans were not habichuelas, they were frijoles, that a chicken thigh and leg was called encuentro, not simply muslo y cadera, and that bizcocho was wrong – the “correct” Spanish translation was “cake”.

Clever interpretation of jugo de china for the non-Puerto Rican.  Source: Mango Bajito, http://www.surropa.com/

Clever interpretation:
Mental image of “jugo de china” for the non-Puerto Rican.
Source: Mango Bajito, in http://www.surropa.com/

Traditional diets in the Spanish Caribbean have more things in common than differences. Depending on the situation, we might underline these differences, or point the similarities. While Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Cuba share similar colonial pasts, different historical trajectories have resulted in the distinctions in national cuisine. While in Puerto Rico our culinary influences are the usual suspects (Taino, Spanish, African, and more recently, from the United States), Cuba has added influences from China, and the Dominican cuisine has a few Middle Eastern additions.

The Spanish Caribbean is an excellent context to understand how notions of national cuisine are constructed and sustained. How are these differences and similarities played out in the Diaspora, in a big international city like New York City? This is the question I am pursuing these days.

Please share your opinion below:

How do YOU define your national cuisine?

An Elf in an Imaginary Kitchen

Cucuyé lives in the Fairy Kingdom. He is a kind and adventurous elf. He is the creation of Carmen Aboy Valldejuli the author of Cocina Criolla, the go-to reference guide in Puerto Rican cooking and subject of a recent posting.

I stumbled upon Cucuyé through my current research on Valldejuli and her work. It was a pleasant surprise to learn that aside from her cookbooks, she ventured into children’s literature. These books were published in the late 70s, early 80s. They are beautifully illustrated by Poli Marichal. The first one, Cucuyé en el Reino de las Hadas (Cucuyé in the Fairy Kingdom) won the 1979 children literature prize from the Instituto de Cultura Puertorriquena. The series is about the many adventures of Cucuyé. And this elf has quite the adventurous life! He has been a champion cowboy (Cucuyé, Vaquero Campeón), has enjoyed the wonders of the sea (Cucuyé y las Maravillas del Mar), and spent time with a naïve giant (Cucuyé y el Gigante Inocentón). However, and most interesting to me, are his adventures in the kitchen described in the book Cucuyé en la Cocina.

 “Sencillamente he decidido dejar de experimentar mas. Trataremos la receta tan deliciosa de mantecaditos del libro de cocina que usa Mamá Duende y que tanto nos gusta.”
[Simply, I have decided to stop experimenting. Let’s try the delicious recipe of mantecaditos that we like so much from the cookbook Mother Elf  uses.]

Such were the words of Cucuyé after trying three other recipes with his friends in preparation for a culinary contest. You see, Cucuyé likes to help his fellow elfs. Apparently some of his friends were walking around with old, broken boots and their families were too poor to buy new ones (Yes, poverty and social class divisions are present even in the Fairy Kingdom). When Cucuyé brought the idea of experimenting in the kitchen to his loyal friends, they mocked him:

“¡Estas chiflado!” (You are crazy!) – said Chemi.

Eso se lo dejamos a Mamá Duende” (We leave that to Mother Elf) – said Chopo (Yes, cooking is for women in the Fairy Kingdom).

But  Cucuyé pressed on and convinced them, for the benefit of their friends in need, as with the money from the culinary contest price, they would be able to buy the needed boots. Like Valldejuli, Cucuyé and friends collected and tried different recipes. But, in the end, they went for the tried and true recipes from Mother Elf’s favorite cookbook, which greatly resembles Cocina Criolla. And they made mantecaditos – the Puerto Rican almond shortbread cookie, named after the use of Manteca (lard) in the recipe, ½ a cup according to the Cocina Criolla’s recipe (yield not specified).
Mother Elf was proud, seeing the little elves work in the kitchen, measuring every ingredient and following the instructions in from the cookbook.  Funny moments were not á miss. A coquí, the emblematic Puerto Rican frog, decided to jump in the flour, creating havoc and laughter in Cucuyé’s kitchen (Yes! There are coquís  in Fairy World).

In the end – spoiler alert – they won the contest. Everybody was happy. Cucuyé bought new shoes for his grateful friends. On went Cucuyé to plan his next adventure… (Was there another adventure?)

cucuye winning

Cucuyé en la Cocina was a treat for me (and I hope for you as well). It is another, different piece, to my society a la Valldejuli puzzle. It echoes the importance of using cookbooks with tested and tried recipes, and of precision and measurements to produce winning results in the kitchen, also found in Cocina Criolla. Hope you enjoyed this little known treasure in the Puerto Rican children’s literature.

(The illustrations come from the book, Cucuye en la Cocina, by Carmen Aboy Valldejuli.)