Frijoles, Platanos y Mojitos for Our Cuban Chinese Tio
Why are we who we are? It’s an existential question, but also a consideration of history, migration and fate.
Grandfather Henry, Grandmother Ivy and Great Uncle Randolph
Photo credit: Linda Shiue
In a random twist of fate, my husband's grandfather Henry stepped onto a boat in Canton, which happened to be headed for Trinidad, and that was how my husband ended up speaking English, taking A-levels, making curry, and lacing his lime juice with Angostura bitters.
If, instead, Grandfather Henry had done what his brother had done, he might have ended up in Cuba, and my husband would have grown up speaking Spanish, eating black beans and rice, and dancing salsa instead of the even more risqué dancing they do in Trinidad.
The Chinese diaspora is an amazing thing. The Chinese, spurred by poverty at home but also by an intrepid sense of adventure and fearlessness, literally got on boats headed to anywhere else. This applied mainly to the Cantonese of Southern China, who had access to the sea and the confidence to literally set up shop wherever they might land. I began to meet these fascinating Chinese-something or others in college, with diverse backgrounds and upbringings far more exotic than my own, in the New York metropolitan area.
What they had in common was looking like they could be related to me, but having much more tantalizing accents. Chinese Brazilians like the boy I met at freshman orientation who first introduced himself as "Michael", then quickly reverted back to his real name, Miguel, once he figured out we could pronounce it (and that it might even be attractive). Chinese in Jamaica, speaking such a strong patois I could not be sure what language was being spoken. The medical resident I met in the hospital who came from Northern England, with the Leeds accent I wished I had (she knew she sounded cool). The Chinese Dominican selling Chinese herbal medicine in San Francisco, speaking Spanish and Cantonese fluently, and limited English with a Latin (not Chinese) accent. The Chinese restaurant owners I met in Amsterdam, who had come not from China, but by way of Suriname, to the Netherlands. And most fatefully, the Chinese Trinidadian who would become my husband.
The amazing thing about these wayfaring Chinese is that wherever they landed, they would somehow effortlessly learn the language of their new home (even Dutch – who can learn Dutch?) and learn to make local food (always Chinified, to use my own term). Certainly, marrying the locals was one way to become local. Grandfather Henry married Grandmother Ivy, affectionately known for the last 50 years of her life as Granny, and together they raised five children. Those children had a mini-diaspora of their own, with few staying in Trinidad, and the rest now scattered across the globe, with outposts in Saskatchewan, Toronto, rural England, Frankfurt, New York, and beyond. Granny was an excellent and adaptable cook, making the foods of her heritage (Scottish and Indian), but with a local flair, adding rum and Scotch bonnet peppers to her cooking.
We'll hopefully make it to Cuba one day, and will want to search for the descendants of my husband's Tio when we get there. And it won't be Chinese food, but the Cuban staple of frijoles negros and rice, washed down with a mojito or two, that we will want to savor.
A MEAL FOR OUR CUBAN CHINESE TIO
Frijoles Negros (Black Beans)
1 pound dried black beans
3 quarts water
1 smoked ham hock (optional if you want to make this vegetarian, but lends a wonderful smokiness)
1 1/3 cups olive oil
2 small onions, peeled and finely chopped
8 cloves garlic, peeled, finely chopped
2 bay leaves
alt and freshly ground black pepper
3 tsp. sugar
3 tsp. dried oregano
1 cup dry red wine
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar or balsamic vinegar
3 tsp. cumin seeds or 1-1/2 tsp. ground cumin
Accompaniments: steamed white rice, platanos (recipe below)
Pick over beans and remove any foreign particles. Wash well, cover with water and soak for 4 hours or overnight. Drain beans after soaking.
Put soaked, drained beans in 3 quarts of water in a soup pot. Add ham hock to the beans. (Note: do not add salt at this point. Doing so before they're cooked will make them tough.) Bring rapidly to a boil. Reduce heat to moderate and simmer beans until tender, about 1 hour.
If using whole cumin seeds: In a sauté pan, dry roast (low to medium heat without oil) the cumin seeds until fragrant and slightly browned.
Next, add 1 and 1/3 cups olive oil to the sauté pan. Add the chopped onions and garlic to the pan and sauté over low heat. Season with salt and pepper. Add the bay leaves and cook for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Remove 1 cup of cooked black beans, drain, and add to the onion mixture in the sauté pan. Mash the beans thoroughly using a spoon with the rest of the ingredients in the sauté pan. Stir in the sugar and the dried oregano. Add the bean and onion mixture to the bean pot (this is to thicken the beans). Cover, and simmer for 1 hour, at moderate heat.
Add red wine, vinegar, and additional salt, pepper, cumin, and oregano to taste. Uncover and cook until sauce thickens to your desired consistency. Serve hot over white rice and garnish with cilantro and chopped, raw white onion, if desired. Serve fried plantains on the side.