What is the origin of the dish, “ropa vieja”?
It means in Spanish “old clothes.” It’s made from carne deshebrada, shredded beef, cooked in tomato sauce. It comes from Canary Islands and Spain. The legend is of a poor man who was hungry so he cooked his clothes in a tomato sauce. Something magic happened and the clothes became carne. That’s what I learned on Wikipedia!
Most Cubans that live on the island will recognize roasted pork more than ropa vieja as a traditional Cuban dish. I think this is because of scarcity. Both ropa vieja and roasted pork are very popular and traditional Cuban dishes but in Cuba people eat more pork than beef, not by choice. When I had my first booth at TMY in 2011, everyone was asking me for “ropa vieja.” Last year, the same. So I said, I have to make it.
How did you learn to cook?
My memories go back to when I was a child. During the summertime I spent a whole month at my maternal grandparents house in Camaguey. My grand grandmother, Paula, was the one that used to cook. I loved her food and had an interest in cooking. I remember the dinners we had at her house, on Sunday nights. Everyone was there–my parents, me and my siblings, my grandparents and great grandparents. Many Cuban households had four generations at a time living in the same house, and it’s still very common in Cuba.
What do you remember most from those meals?
We were always gordos me and my siblings. I loved the desserts! The bread pudding, the pastel de guayaba. Also, tropical fruits with a homemade syrup of sugar and water, like dulce de frutabomba en almíbar, which is papaya chunks in syrup. It is also made with grapefruit, mango, guayaba, and coconut. I love arroz con pollo, too, which is a very special dish in Cuba. Also, plantains. But for me it was the dessert.
You’ll be selling some of those desserts?
Yes, Cuban shortbread cookies called polovornes, and guava pie. That house in Camaguey was close to a park, like Central Park. On one of the nearby corners was a dulcería. After dinner in the summertime era, my grandparents took me and my brothers to the park to play. Always the people from dulcería were making pie and polvorones for the next day. I remember smelling all those amazing smells. Sometimes now I make those sweets just for that smell. Sometimes I don’t even eat them—it’s just for the memory.
How did you learn to cook?
I love to cook. I was raised by 12 women and basically all of them were working. The oldest son is the one who has to take care of the youngest. So my mom taught me all of this when I was 6 years old. But cooking was like a hobby for me. Now that I’m far away from home, I cook to remember. I started inviting coworkers and friends over and they were like, “wow this is so good.” They encouraged me to apply for a Festival booth.
What are some of the Nicaraguan specialties you’ll be sharing at the Festival?
I’ll be making Rondon, which is a main dish. The base of everything in our cooking is coconut broth. I use the real fruit, not from can. But it’s a lot of work. You have to peel the fruit form the shell. In Nicaragua we have machetes, but it’s not easy for me to find a machete here so I use whatever I can. Rondon is usually served with seafood. My hometown is on the ocean, so seafood is always a part of our meals. But here I’m doing it with beef. Also at home, we grate the coconut meat by hand. It’s more convenient here to use a blender. The meat, cassava, and plantains absorb coconut broth. It’s served with rice and beans. To the coconut juice I add bell peppers, onions, pepper, salt.
I’ll also make tajadas, which are green plantains, sliced thin and fried. They are [a] crispy snack.
For dessert is cassava cake, made with grated cassava (I don’t use a blender for that!), which is cooked with butter, coconut milk, and sugar. Then you add flour and bake it. A funny fact about coconut is that its flavor gets stronger over time. So with cassava cake or bread, you don’t put it in the fridge because that would prevent the flavor from getting stronger.
There is a lot of coconut in your dishes. Can you talk about that?
The coconut is significant. During the war, after the revolution and after we went to war against the Sandinistas, the Mosquito Coast was cut off from all of the products that we imported from the Pacific side of Nicaragua (Managua) The government stopped sending us resources from the Pacific side. Things like oil and sugar. So we started relying on the coconut more. We even had to cook ocean water for the salt because we were out of salt. Coconut gives a special taste to everything. We have a saying, when things are bad with the economy: Just add some coconut!
What does cooking and sharing Nicaraguan cuisine mean for you?
This is a chance to show people about my culture. I’m planning to make some signs in my native language, so the menu will be in 3 languages: Spanish, English, and [my] native language.
My people have a saying, “Pana pana,” which means something like, “I’ll scratch your back and you scratch my back,” but it’s deeper than that. Because it means I’ll help you even if you don’t help me back. It’s a kind of hospitality, this will to help other people, which is always there.
What foods will the Filipino American Student Association (FASA) be serving at TMY?
We’re doing all traditional Filipino foods this year. Our three main items are: Lumpia, a Southeast Asian-style eggroll made from a crepe-like wrapper, filled with chicken, pork, or vegetables. It’s deep fried and served with a spicy, sweet and sour sauce. We’re also making Pancit, a traditional dish of rice noodles, cabbage, garlic, onions, and carrots. It’s a vegetarian dish this year. And then Chicken Adobo, which is [a] really popular chicken dish made with a marinade of vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, pepper, bay leaves, then slow-cooked and served with rice. We have a traditional melon juice also, made with cantaloupe, sugar, and water.
Who does the cooking?
All of our executive board members do the cooking. We are using Mama’s Hawaiian Barbeque Restaurant this year for our kitchen. They are also sponsoring us, donating items in exchange for advertising.
We kind of all grew up with it, cooking with our families. We each pick a few recipes, test them out, and figure out which is most cost effective. We don’t really have a set-in-stone recipe list. What we serve is like a fusion of all of our families’ recipes.
Where did you learn to cook?
I learned from my mom and her close friends. Filipinos are very family oriented. I remember always being in the kitchen. That’s where a lot of bonding happens, where everyone hangs out cooking and eating together. I really enjoy making Lumpia. It’s a lot of fun, it’s hands on. It’s a lot of work, rolling and making filling, but you can get everyone involved. We serve that to our members for our first general meeting to get our culture out to our members.
How is TMY important for your group?
It’s not just all about the food, but also the process of cooking it and sharing the experience while doing it. Filipino food is very family oriented, getting people together, that whole experience is going to solidify the Filipino culture.
Most of our earnings from TMY go towards our events. We participate every October in the Friendship Games, an event in California that brings together all the Filipino communities from colleges around the west coast. Thousands come. There are dance competitions for both cultural or contemporary dance, food trucks, and competitive games. We also fund “Fiesta,” our own cultural night at the Tucson Convention Center, where serve and eat Filipino food and perform Filipino dances such as Tinikling, a traditional folk dance with bamboo sticks, along with other dances from different regions. All of our families come watch that event.
Last year, my freshman year and my first year away from home, FASA provided me a lot of social experience. We call ourselves a “FASA familia.” We hang out together outside the club. It goes back to being family-oriented. We’re doing that now with our extended family.
What does cooking and sharing Polish cuisine mean for you?
Whenever I would visit my grandmother in Warsaw she would produce incredible, multiple-course meals with enough food to feed all 12 of the 7 people at dinner. These meals would come out of a kitchen that you could barely turn around in, so her work was like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat. How she so wonderfully broke the laws of physics was beyond me. Cooking, and cooking Polish food in particular, became a part of who I am, and the food I make with others is a way of sharing an experience so close to my heart and letting them understand a part of who we are through mouthfuls of pierogi.
Who is involved in cooking the foods you sell?
Under guidance of a few Polish mothers and fathers, mostly the Lajkonik Polish Folk Ensemble, a group my mother, Joanna, started not long after she moved to the United States and my brother and I were born. Lajkonik practices and performs traditional Polish folk dances. We also provide a lot of the manpower for the food booth at TMY. But the booth has been around much longer than Lajkonik, serving as a hub for the Polish community in Tucson. Polish people from all over Tucson get together to cook together, keep the booth a fun and welcoming place, and reconnect with people they haven’t seen since the previous year. We all hunch over sacks of potatoes in the morning and the old hands tell the new how everything works. The food we serve reflects the relationship ingrained in Poles by our mothers and grandmothers, that fullness is happiness.
Can you tell us about some of the foods you’ll be serving this year?
While the rest of the food scene is going hipster and modern, we keep things “old school,” which I think that works to our advantage. We have the classic Polish kielbasa, a smoked pork sausage, stuffed with spices and lots of garlic. We also have Golabki, a wrapper of tender cabbage leaves stuffed with a pork and rice. If you want more slow-cooked goodness, we have Bigos.
How has selling food at TMY helped your group deepen its cultural expression and performance?
Without TMY, our dance group would not be what it is today. The festival has always been a highlight of our performance year. We’ve even passed up on performing in California at that time because giving back to the Tucson community is so important to us. The festival organizers have been very supportive of us. We’ve been able to invite other Polish dance groups, collaborate with local Tohono O’odham and Mexican groups for our performances, and be as innovative as we want to be. Because of this, I like to think we’ve shown that even traditional folk dancing can be exciting if the right people bring the right energy on stage.
The 2017 Tucson Meet Yourself Folklife Festival will be held on October 13, 14, and 15. Learn more about TMY at tucsonmeetyourself.org.