Of all the global Christmas food traditions, Cuba’s Christmas Eve roast pig might just be the best yet. The centerpiece of a Cuban Nochebuena is a lusciously tender, juicy, crisp-skinned roasted pig that’s been marinated in the classic sour orange, garlic, cumin, and oregano marinade called mojo. Known as lechón asado, this glorious pig is not only packed with flavor from the marinade, but imbued with smoke from the barbecue, and the puffy, crackly, savory pig skin basically becomes chicharrones.
Cuban black beans and rice, fried plantains, and croquetas (small fried fritters of potato and ham or salt cod) are all likely to show up alongside the pork. Salad and mashed yuca are often there too, and there’s plenty to drink. As for sweets, there might be buñuelos, flan, and/or turrón (a nutty nougat similar to Italian torrone) to end the meal.
The overall impression is of abundance—of food, of fun, and of love.
We visited Amor Cubano, “a little piece of Cuba in a corner of Manhattan,” to talk to Vivian Baquero about some of the traditional Nochebuena menu items. The restaurant opened 10 years ago, with “a lot of love” and places a premium on making their food authentic, so it’s no surprise that lots of people have told Vivian “it tastes like home.”
No Nochebuena is complete without the lechón, although in the city, where it’s not so easy to roast the pig on a spit or over coals, it comes from the oven. It’s still juicy, tender, and delicious—and plentiful.
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The yuca is simply boiled with some salt, and dressed with mojo at the table. Vivian learned her mojo recipe from her grandmother, who used a big mortar and pestle to grind raw garlic, then added fresh-squeezed sour orange juice (or lime juice in a pinch), and stirred in heated vegetable oil to cook off some of the fire from the garlic.
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Then there are the Moros y Cristianos (rice and beans). The black beans are cooked with bay leaves, then mixed with white rice and finely chopped chicharrones or bacon that’s been stir-fried with onions and garlic. Muy sabroso!
Wash it all down with beer or Cuba Libres, and be sure you have music to dance to, because as Vivian says, “In Cuba, you’re always dancing.” It’s definitely one way to work off all that food, so you can go back for more.
If you want to host your own Nochebuena feast, here’s a complete menu from chef Randy Zweiban, who took inspiration from the Cuban expat community in Miami when he moved from Florida to open the pan-Latin restaurant Nacional 27 in Chicago.
Just remember the three “F”s of Cuban Christmas celebrations: family, friends, and food. Make a whole lot of the latter and invite a bunch of the former, turn on some good music, maybe mix up a batch of coquito (Cuban coconut eggnog), and celebrate joyfully.
Cuban Christmas Menu
These crispy, savory salt cod fritters are hard to stop munching on, but you’ll want to save plenty of room for everything else, because it’s all delicious. Get our Bacalao Croquetas recipe.
Something a little like a Cuban ratatouille, this rich stew of eggplant, tomatoes, and peppers is meltingly tender and flavored with cumin and coriander. Get our Eggplant and Tomato Stew recipe.
A light, crisp, refreshing side salad made special with caramelized onions, avocado, and lime-sherry vinaigrette. Get our Cuban Green Salad with Avocados recipe.
The star of the show, this tender pork is dripping with juice and flavor. This particular recipe is a bit non-traditional in that it adds spicier peppers to the mojo, but you can leave those out for a more classic Cuban flavor. Use sour oranges if you can find them, or consider using a blend of orange and lime juice. Get our Mojo Marinated Pork Cubano recipe.
Black beans and rice taste wonderful on their own, but add some sweet fried plantains (plus bits of garlicky pork and boniato), and the flavors and textures are especially incredible. Get our Coconut Rice with Black Beans and Fried Plantains recipe.
Boniato is another tuber similar to yuca. Here, it’s mashed with potatoes and caramelized onions, and tastes just as good with extra mojo as plainer boiled yuca does. Get our Mashed Boniato with Onions recipe.
Flan is rich and creamy yet fairly light, so it’s a perfect end to an abundant meal. This version is made with pumpkin and warm spices, and doesn’t skimp on the caramel sauce. Get our Pumpkin Flan recipe.