Is there any food-loving culture that doesn’t adore a good snack? One Miami-born writer remembers his favorite Cuban dishes (and American treats) served at the merienda hour at his grandmother’s house.
Long before I even knew the word “brunch” existed, my favorite meal of the day was the other fourth meal of the day: merienda. A tradition that made its way from Spain to Cuba to my Miami childhood, merienda nestles snugly between lunch and dinner, typically around 3 p.m. (lining up perfectly with my after-school life). My abuelo would pick me up from school and take me to abuela’s house, where I would hang out until mom was done working. Five days a week, while I was busy enjoying the very best era of after-school cartoons, my abuela did her level best to fatten me up. Her home cooking was such an integral part of my childhood and here are a few of my all-time favorite meriendas.
True to her Cuban heritage, there was one staple you could always find in the kitchen: platanos (or “plantains,” if you’re feeling really Caucasian). Tostones, mariquitas, maduros, sopa de platano…the only thing my grandmother didn’t make out of platanos was patio furniture. From salty and crunchy (mariquitas) to sweet and squishy (maduros), she had a platano recipe for every bit of the spectrum. Get our Sauteed Plantains recipe.
Fried Steak, Fried Eggs, and Fries
Another of my favorite go-to Cuban dishes was Bistec Empanizado (think chicken-fried steak, but thinly pounded and served without gravy). When this wasn’t paired with white rice, it was french fries, and there was usually a fried egg on top. No, I was not bulking up for a heavyweight lifting competition, just living my best life. Again, the fact that I didn’t develop high cholesterol before high school is nothing short of a miracle. Get our Black Bean Cakes with Fried Eggs recipe.
I don’t know if this is a thing for all first-generation Americans, but growing up in Miami’s very Cuban culture, there was some unspoken imperative to be “Americanized”—to know the culture and speak the language. Although abuela demanded that my sister and I speak Spanish while we were at her house, she would add hot dogs, French fries, homemade cheeseburgers, and cherry pies to her merienda repertoire. For a telltale Cuban twist on burgers, just add a heaping pile of crispy shoestring fries. Find me a 7-year-old who doesn’t want to eat like this.
Funny story about this dish: I’ve called it by the wrong name my entire life and I don’t plan to stop anytime soon. Shredded chicken smothered in cream and cheese, Abuela’s famous Chicken Divan was nothing short of divine.
Cuban Bakeries: Cornucopias of Sweet Confection
There is an entire wing of the Cuban food pyramid dedicated solely to pastries (or pastelitos). The funny thing is, no one really makes homemade pastelitos, but everyone has their own go-to bakery. Pastelitos come in many shapes and forms: from the savory de carne, to the sweet de guayaba, and cream cheese rich de queso, to name just a few. Get our Cream Cheese Pinwheels recipe.
Little Havana Rituals, $39 on Airbnb
Get a taste of Miami's Little Havana from a local Cuban transplant.
My Heart Is in Havana
My grandmother came over from Cuba in 1960 with her 5-year-old daughter in tow, just months after becoming a widow (my grandfather had died suddenly of a brain tumor). Shortly after Castro had swept into power and took my grandparents’ property, they came to the United States and got themselves a piece of the American dream. They built lives for their children, who went on to build better lives for their grandchildren. I am forever indebted to my family for the life I have today, and I honor the memory of my abuela by cooking and, most importantly, feasting on these special dishes from my childhood.