Buena Vista Social Club Inspired Frijoles, Platanos y Mojitos

This month’s theme for Let’s Lunch, a monthly virtual potluck on Twitter, is a meal inspired by music.   I’ve chosen Wim Wender’s 1999 “Buena Vista Social Club,” which lushly and lyrically documented Cuba’s son musicians of the same name, and intrigued me with the sights and sounds of the streets of Cuba.  Here’s a menu and a story inspired by the music.   First, the music:

Why are we who we are?

An existential question, but also a consideration of history, migration and fate. 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.

What if?

If, instead, Grandfather Henry had done what his brother had done, he may 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 risque 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 5 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.

Trinidad wedding by Linda Shiue

Grandfather Henry, Grandmother Ivy, and Great Uncle Randolph

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.

*   *   *

Frijoles Negros (Black Beans)

frijoles negros by Linda Shiue


1 pound dried black beans

3 quarts water (12 cups)

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

Salt 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 saute 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 saute pan. Add the chopped onions and garlic to the pan and saute 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 saute pan.  Mash the beans thoroughly using a spoon with the rest of the ingredients in the saute 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.

Platanos (Plantains)

platanos by Linda Shiue

These cousins of bananas can be enjoyed green (unripe) or ripened, but always cooked.  I prefer platanos maduros (fried sweet plantains), made with ripe plantains, best when the skin has turned black), but if you use green plantains, they are calledtostones.


3 to 4 ripe (heavily spotted yellow to brown) or very ripe (brown to black) plantains

1/2 cup canola oil for frying


Cut the ends from the plantains and peel. Cut the peeled plantains on the diagonal into 1/2-inch-thick slices. In a large skillet heat 1/3 cup oil over moderately high heat until hot and fry plantains in batches, without crowding, until golden brown, 1 to 2 minutes on each side.  Prepare a plate with two layers of paper towels.  Transfer fried plantains to the prepared plate to drain,  and season with salt if desired.

Serve plantains immediately.


mojito by Linda Shiue

This quintessential Cuban cocktail blends the island’s famous rum with lime juice and fresh mint.  Hemingway is said to have enjoyed mojitos at La Bodeguita del Medio in Havana, Cuba.

Recipe adapted from www.tasteofcuba.com


2 teaspoon white sugar, or to taste

Juice from 1 lime (2 ounces)

4 mint leaves

1 sprig of mint

White Rum (4 ounces)

2 ounces club soda or sparkling water


Place the mint leaves into a long mojito or Collins glass and squeeze the juice from a lime over it.   Add the sugar, then gently smash the mint into the lime juice and sugar with the back of a spoon (this is called “muddling”).  Add crushed ice, rum and stir.  Top off with club soda or sparkling water to taste. Garnish with a mint sprig.

*     *     *

Please also stop by and see these other fabulous music-inspired dishes from #LetsLunch on Twitter today:

Tiger Cakes ~ from Ellise at Cowgirl Chef

Purple Rice Pudding with Rosewater Dates  from Pat at The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook

Honey Mac Wafers with Coconut ~ from Lisa at Monday Morning Cooking Club

Tommy’s Chili ~ from Felicia at Burnt-out Baker

Banana Bread ~ from Rashda at Hot Curries and Cold Beer

Chicken and Dumplings ~ from Cathy at ShowFood Chef

Quiet munchies for concert-going ~ from Patrick at Patrick G. Lee

Coconut Cake ~ from Steff at The Kitchen Trials

Gluten-free Thin Mints ~ from Linda at Free Range Cookies

Django Reinhardt/Pear Frangipane Tart from Danielle at Beyond the Plate

Jewish Vegetarian Kishke from Rebecca at Grongar Blog

One Meatball from Karen at GeoFooding

by Linda Shiue

A version of this post was published in The Asia Mag on May 11, 2010.

15 responses

  1. Pingback: Jewish Vegetarian Kishke « GrongarBlog

  2. What an intriguing family history you have, Linda! The Chinese diaspora really is a wondrous and fascinating thing. Many years ago, a friend took me to a Cuban-Chinese place in NYC; the food there was supposed to reflect the historical fusion between the cultures in Cuba –wish I remembered more about what we had!

  3. Pingback: Triggering Taste Memory with Purple Rice Pudding « The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook

  4. Pingback: Django Reinhardt & Pear Frangipane Tart | Beyond [the Plate]

  5. What a fascinating story of Chinese diaspora and these things always result in tasty food! I love plantains and black beans too, but my family doesn’t have an immigrant story that exotic (just from Asia to here) but a close friend of mine is Cuban so I’ve learned to make and enjoy her hometown delicacies! Thanks for such a interesting post!

  6. Wow! How interesting to read about the Chinese diaspora and the family history. Beautiful wedding photo. And your recipes remind me of a trip to Cuba many years ago where we ate lots of plantains and drank lots of mojitos!

  7. Pingback: How The Bee Gees Inspired A Gluten Free Thin Mints Recipe « Free Range Cookies Blog

  8. I never tire of hearing about your husband’s family background. The Chinese are truly the wanderers of the world, and it’s so interesting to see how food has influenced so many cultures everywhere.

  9. I love the Buena Vista Social Club and the tie-in with your family history. The Chinese Diaspora is amazing and I never tire learning and reading about it. I sometimes wonder “what if” my great grandfather decided he wanted to do business elsewhere besides Indonesia or “what if” my parents found their home in Australia instead of Singapore. We’ll never know, will we?

  10. Pingback: Sam Sifton’s Trini-Chinese Chicken (Trinidadian Chinese Five Spice Chicken) | spicebox travels

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