As you pack your bags for sunny Miami along with SPF 30, your new swimsuit, and dark sunglasses, think about tucking a restaurant list into your carry on, as the Miami dining scene has burgeoned so much as to compete well with long time favorites of New York City and San Francisco. You probably even have that savvy friend who told you what foods to try that are synonymous with the Magic City. If a Cuban sandwich is on that list, well then, you got yourself a good pal there!
The Cuban sandwich is long associated with Miami’s large Cuban community, so much so that you might think Miami Cubans actually invented it. While these gregarious and most proud citizens of our city definitely know how to make a Cuban sandwich, they can’t actually lay claim to creating it in the first place. No, that honor, according to some historian friends of mine, is that while the Cuban sandwich may have been born in Cuba, it was educated in Key West, Florida!
That’s right, the beloved hot and crispy sandwich made its real debut in Florida, but further south than Miami. But let’s back up a moment to the humble beginnings of the treat so that when you learn how to make a Cuban sandwich, you’ll think about its history in every crunchy bite.
Centuries ago in Cuba there was a recorded sandwich. The “bread” was made from two pieces of sliced cassava. Cassava is a bulbous, sturdy and starchy vegetable similar in a nature to a potato. In between two slices of the cassava, the islanders placed wild birds and called it a sandwich. Not very appetizing for sure by today’s standards. But through the years once the Spanish conquistadors arrived and brought more foodstuffs, the sandwich improved, but it never evolved into anything terribly exciting in Cuba. It’s true acceleration took place in Key West.
As Cubans left the island to escape their Spanish conquerors, they went to Key West given its proximity to the Cuba and that there was employment in the cigar factories. As the days were long for this job and workers were mostly planted at a station rolling the aromatic product, the easiest thing a factory owner could feed their employees was a sandwich. The Cuban sandwich then begins to take on some shape in the form a proper bread and a filling of some meats.
But then one very tragic day, one of the cigar factories owned by a man named Mr Ybor, burns to the ground. Heartbroken, he decides and at the urging of some business associates not to rebuild in Key West but in Tampa, FL. He relocates, taking many workers from Key West to form a large Cuban community in a city that bears his name to this day, Ybor City. Now the Cuban sandwich really takes shape. Coming at about the same time as the new Cuban arrivals are Italian bricklayers. These two groups of people get along quite well and so the Cuban sandwich, even to this day in Tampa, includes that Italian favorite, salami! And to twist the story even further, a third group of people joins the Cubans and Italians-German Jews. In every proper Cuban sandwich there is yellow (heaven forbid it would be that fancy schmancy Dijon) mustard and pickles. That contribution is definitely more German than Cuban!
And when it comes to the bread, one of the first bakeries that produced the crisp, yet tender loaves was in Tampa. The bread itself uses lard which produces at once that flavorful, crunchy, yet delightful soft interior. Traditional bakers will also use a moist palmetto leaf placed onto the bread to produce the familiar texture, although larger bakeries today rely on slashing the top of the bread with just a sharp knife or razor to create a bread that has a great mouthfeel.
So, how did Miami become the center of attention when it comes to the Cuban sandwich? Well, around 1959 when Cubans started fleeing from the revolution under Fidel Castro, Miami was the choice of relocation. But they had relatives already here in the state of Florida. Miami Cubans picked up the tradition of serving the sandwich as part of a meal, no longer restricting its use just to the cigar factory workers and you could say the rest is history. Miami Cubans perfected it and perfected it until the city became one with the Cuban sandwich!
Let’s say you enjoyed the Cuban sandwich so much on your holiday in Miami, that you want to recreate it at home. It’s actually quite easy. Here’s how to make a Cuban sandwich in your humble abode.
How to Make a Cuban Sandwich Step by Step
This version of the Cuban sandwich is true Miami-style. There isn’t a slice of salami in sight as they do in Tampa! But we will let you decide your palate. If you want to sneak a slice or two of the slightly salty Italian meat into this recipe, we will keep your secret! Miami Cubans also askew the use of tomatoes and lettuce and if you add them, well, we might not be as forgiving!
1 loaf Cuban bread, or the next best substitute is Italian bread. You will need 7 inches of it to form a sandwich
Yellow mustard ( do not use Dijon)
2-4 slices Swiss cheese
4 slices cooked ham
4 slices roasted pork or a pile of pulled pork ( technically the raw pork should be marinated at least 24-48 hours in mojo sauce which is a garlicky, olive oil, vinegar and herb based marinade. Then you roast the pork. You can purchase bottled mojo to do this or you can just use pork that has not been marinated)
1. Cut the 7 inch piece of Cuban bread in half lengthwise. Generously butter the outside of both bread halves.
2. Spread yellow mustard in a thin layer over the bread slices
3. Add slices of cheese to one side of the bread, layer on pickle slices (anywhere from 4-6).
4. Add the ham slices to one side of the bread. Then pile on the roast pork.
5. Place the top portion of the bread over all.
6. In a panini press or sandwich press, add the sandwich and press down until the sandwich is about one third of its original height. Cook until the sandwich is hot and the outside is crispy. The cheese should be melted. This will take about 6-7 minutes.
7. Cut the sandwich in diagonally half and serve hot.
By Robyn Webb