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The smell and taste of Cuba and good memories
March 14, 2007
By Jennifer Chandler

Mavi Capote and her daughter Beba Heros can't go back to their native Cuba, but they can still connect to their homeland at the dinner table.

For the entire Capote and Heros family, preparing Cuban food has become a valued tradition to help keep this family connected to their Latin American roots.

As the fragrant aroma of black beans simmering on the stove top and ripe plantains sauteing fills the Heros kitchen, Beba explained:

"Flavors, smells and tastes make you remember things. When I eat Cuban food I think of my grandmother, my country, good memories like those.

"Cuban food is special. Latin American food cannot be lumped into one category. Each country's cuisine has its own unique style and taste."

"Mexican food tends to be spicy," further explained Mavi. "Cuban food is milder and more flavorful."

The use of spices such as oregano and cumin are trademarks of Cuba's delicious island cuisine.

Lucia Heros, Beba's daughter-in-law, says that while many dishes have the same names across Latin America -- arroz con pollo, tamales, and frijoles negros, for example, the differences in each country's dishes come from the seasonings and preparation techniques.

Originally from Nicaragua, Lucia offered a good example: "Cuban tamales are corn-based and filled with ham or pork. Nicaraguan tamales are filled with rice, potatoes, pork and raisins."

Just as was tradition in Cuba, family meals have remained the custom for this family.

In Cuba the whole family (school children, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles) came home daily for lunch, but here the family made Sunday dinner the tradition.

"Every Sunday our family would get together for a big meal. It was a sacred time and no one dared miss it," Beba said.

Mavi and her husband, the late Dr. Dagoberto Capote, came to the United States with their two children, who were young adults, in 1961 when Fidel Castro gained power. At the time, a small group of Cuban doctors was invited by American colleagues to Memphis to work in area hospitals and medical schools. (And as fate would have it, Beba's future husband Ricardo, also Cuban, came with his family to Memphis for the same reason.)

Life stateside was different than the one they lived in Cuba, where they were wealthy and had staff that handled all the day-to-day kitchen and household duties.

"When we first came to Memphis, we didn't have much money so we ate foods like bologna and peanut butter. But then we all became fat," Beba said. "At that point we knew that we needed to return to our Cuban roots to eat more healthily."

But since neither Mavi nor Beba had done the cooking in Cuba, they had to learn how.

"All of us were in the same predicament," Beba said.

So the Cuban community came together and shared recipes as well as memories of what they ate back home, and they all learned how to cook together.

And cook they did.

"My husband loved to make lechon (roasted pig)," Mavi said. "He made it almost every Sunday."

In addition to lechon, a typical Cuban meal includes frijoles negros (black beans), arroz blanco (white rice), picadillo (a flavorful ground beef dish), maduros (fried ripe plantains) and galletas Cubanos (Cuban crackers).

"The first time I tasted Mavi and Beba's cooking was when I was dating my husband Ricky in college," Lucia said. "They used to bring Ricky coolers full of Cuban food for his freezer. Needless to say, his house was a popular late night dining spot!"

Now that Latin American products are more readily available in Memphis, it's easier to replicate the Cuban dishes.

"I recommend the Superlo Foods on Covington Pike," Beba said. "It's like a little Hispanic country in there! They have banana chips, yuca, malanga, Spanish olive oil, guava juice, Goya brand products, and all the Hispanic condiments."

But what they both miss are the wonderful tropical fruits that are not easily found in the U.S.

"Some of my favorites were mamey, anon and guanabana," Beba said. "I wish we could get them here."

Still, she's glad to be here.

"As much as I miss Cuba, life is much better over here," she said. "Food is rationed in Cuba now. People are starving."

More than 40 years after leaving Cuba, the tradition of enjoying their favorite homeland dishes is just as strong as ever.

Mavi and Beba have shared their Cuban specialties with Lucia and are now even teaching the fourth generation.

"This food is really yummy," said 7-year old Alessandra Heros as she enjoyed a plate of frijoles negros. "I love to cook with my mommy and my grandmother and my great-grandmother."


Enough sugar to caramel-line a bread loaf pan (see below)

1 12-oz. can evaporated milk

1 1/4 cups sugar

Pinch of salt

4 eggs

1 tbsp. vanilla

1/4 cup water

Caramel-line a bread loaf mold: Preheat an oven to 500 degrees. Cover the bottom of mold with white granulated sugar (it should be about 1/2 -inch deep). Place the mold in the oven. Check after 15 minutes. If the sugar is still white in parts, stir with a wooden spoon to mix with the browned part. When all the sugar is dark amber in color and begins to foam (about 3 minutes more) remove the mold from the oven. Let the caramel run, tilting the mold in all directions to coat the bottom and sides. (Always work fast, as caramel sets in a few minutes.)

Let the caramel cool.

In a large bowl, mix all the ingredients (except for the sugar used in the lining) at medium speed for 2 or 3 minutes. Strain into the caramel-lined mold and cover with aluminum foil. Place the mold in a pan of hot water in a preheated 350-degree oven for 1 hour. Serves 8 to 10.

Source: Beba Heros

Frijoles Negros (Black Beans)

3 lbs. dried black beans

30 cups water

3 whole green bell peppers plus an additional 1 1/2 lbs. green bell peppers

1 1/2 lbs. yellow onions

2 cups olive oil

2 cans red pimientos

1/4 cup vinegar

2 tsp. sugar

1 tsp. ground cumin

Salt and pepper to taste

The day before serving:

In a large and deep pot, soak beans in the water with the 3 whole peppers for 3 hours. Cook over low heat until the beans are tender, about 1 hour. Remove and discard the peppers.

The next day:

In a blender or food processor, grate the onions and green peppers. Cook at medium heat until all liquid is consumed. Add 1 can of red pimientos, minced, and 1 cup of olive oil. Saute for about 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Add sugar and cumin. Cook at a very low heat for 1 hour. Add the rest of the oil, vinegar and the other can of red pimientos, sliced (add the water from pimientos). Cook 2 hours more or until thickened. Serves 12 to 20.

Source: Beba Heros

Platanos Maduros Fritos

5 very ripe plantains

1 1/2 to 2 cups vegetable oil

Peel the plantains and cut diagonally in 1/2 -inch slices. Use a large skillet that can hold a good number of slices in a single layer. Heat oil over medium heat. Place plantains in oil (in a single layer) making sure the oil covers the plantains well. When the plantains are golden brown, turn and cook on the other side. After both sides are golden brown, remove and place on paper towels in order to remove the excess grease. Serves 6 to 10.

Source: Beba Heros


1/4 cup olive oil

1 onion, minced

1 green pepper, minced

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1 lb. ground beef

1/4 lb. ground ham

3/4 cup capers

1 tsp. salt

1/8 tsp. pepper

1/2 cup tomato sauce

1/4 cup dry wine

Heat oil over medium heat and saute onion, garlic and green pepper. Add the meat and cook for a few minutes, stirring constantly to avoid sticking. Add the remaining ingredients and cook over medium heat for approximately 20 minutes. Serves 8.

Source: Beba Heros

Copyright 2007

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