Emblematic dish: the ajiaco

Esteban Pichardo, in his dictionary of Cuban words, states that ajiaco, metaphorically speaking, is the combination of melted differences.


Esteban Pichardo, in his dictionary of Cuban words, states that ajiaco, metaphorically speaking, is the combination of melted differences. It seems to me there is no better definition for a dish that results from the mixing of dry and fresh meat with vegetables and root crops, which is how we call in Cuba a group of green produces and garden vegetables, rich in carbohydrates.

According to Pichardo, it is an aboriginal word. Fernando Ortiz, in his Nuevo catauro de cubanismos, doesn´t go as far, but terms it as a Cuban word. The Spanish Language Royal Academy also includes the word in its dictionary.

According to Pichardo, who describes and defines like the great lexicographer he was, ajiaco is a dish made up by pork or beef, jerked meat, sliced green bananas, casava, pumpkin...with plenty stock, lemon juice and hot pepper. He adds that ajiaco is the equivalente of the Spanish stew, and he is quite correct because Nitza Villapol, who studied the Cuban cuisine like no other, stated that, initially, the ajiaco was nothing but the Spanish stew using our own vegetables and crops. In the 19th century, the Cuban stew or ajiaco still included chickpeas, one can confirm it when reading recipes of that time.

There are several ways to prepare the ajiaco, in accordance to different areas of the country, ingredients and spices used in its preparation. The ajiaco from Havana is nothing like the ajiaco from the eastern part of Cuba.There is also a sea ajiaco, to endorseonce again the fact that there are only two large Cuisines, the farmer´s and the fisherman´s, from which all other cuisines derive. On the other hand, each people has its own ajiaco , or stew. However, like one of the characters from Leonardo Padura´s novel, Vientos de cuaresma says, the Cuban ajiaco, in any of its versions, "is above the olla podrida (meat and vegetable stew), the French potpourri, Italian minestrone, the Chilean pot, the Dominican sancocho, and, of course, the Slavic borsch, which is almost no worth to mention in this contest of latin tastes."

According to Nitza Villapol, the cuisine became truly Cuban when chickpeas were taken out of the ajiaco. This happened quite late in time if you take into account that, in the 16th century, the ajiaco was already a very popular dish in Cuba. Pichardo, whose dictionary was published in 1836 for the first time and in 1875 for the fourth time, while the author was still alive, states that the ajiaco was widely popular inland, although it appeared sometimes in certain high-class dinner tables. .
Julia Howe mentions the ajiaco in her book A trip of Cuba, saying it was a dish typical of Cuban rural areas. Howe was an American writer who made a trip to the Caribbean, visiting Cuba in 1859. Next year, she published the book. Here in Cuba, during her stay in Matanzas, about a hundred kilometters East from Havana, she described "the surprise of a dish from the rural areas of Cuba, a kind of stew prepared with ham, beef, lamb meat, potatoes, sweet potatoes and yam. It is called ajiaco and is a very typical dish like Hamburg's eel soup or Boston's salt cod."
María de las Mercedes Santa Cruz y Montalvo, Countess of Merlin, Cuban writer who lived in Paris held ajiaco in great steem. In her book Viaje a La Habana (trip to Havana), first published in 1844, she recalls that during the first day of her stay in Cuba and while seated at the family table, she was presented with one the best dishes of the French cuisine, which she scornfully rejected saying she wanted a "simple ajiaco" instead. "I didn´t come all this far but to try typical food," she added.
Despite the variety of ingredients necessary to prepare the ajiaco , it is a dish easy to make. Of course, it is not a daily dish, but rather a dish you prepare for Sundays' family reunions, celebrations and gatherings. In some Cuban homes it is an indispensable dish for New Year's lunch menu.
Here we have one of the many recipes there are to prepare ajiaco.

Creole Ajiaco
4 Portions

100g of pork meat, 100g of chicken meat, 2 tender corncobs, 1 large sweet potato, 1 cassava, 2 platains (green and ripe), 2 potatoes, 100g of pumpkin, 2 tomatoes, 2 peppers, 1 onion, ½ a bunch of scallions, 6 cloves of garlic, 2 oil spoonfuls of oil, ¼ of a parsley bunch, cummin, salt as desired.
Wash the vegetables and the corncobs, peel and slice everything in big pieces. Wash, rinse and slice the tomatoes and peppers. Slice the onion in thin rings. Peel and crush the garlic cloves. Wash and slice the parsley and the scallions in small pieces. Wash and chop the meats in cubes.
Pour the oil in a pressure cooker and put it to cook over low fire. Add the onion, tomatoes, peppers, garlic, cummin and salt. When it starts to fry lightly, add the meat cubes to fry too. Add the vegetables and add enough water to cover everything. Put the lid on the cooker and leave it over low fire, cooking with pressure for over 20 minutes. Remove the cooker from the fire. Sprinkle the parsley and scallions. Serve hot in a large bowl or in individual dishes.
Translated by: Rebeca Castellanos

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