Cafecitos, croquettes, and cubanos. Let us take a moment to thank South Florida’s prodigious Cuban influence for some of our most influential culinary staples. While it’s no secret that cafe cubanos (and versions of croquettas de jamon) originated from the largest island nation in the Caribbean, the birthplace of the Cuban sandwich — which is most characterized by its blend of ham, pork, cheese, mustard, and sometimes salami — is hazy, to say the least. Though its name suggests a simple past, two Florida cities — Miami and Tampa — will tell you otherwise.
It’s believed that the first Cuban sandwich was made more than a quincentenary ago the by Taíno tribe in Cuba. They were one of three different cultures that inhabited the island before Europeans arrived. Jorge Astorquiza, a food chemist in Tampa, says the Taínos used casabe bread, made from yucca, to make the dish. Instead of pork — an unavailable meat at the time — the Taínos stuffed fish and bird meat inside the center of two thin, crunchy slices of casabe, which would taste more like a cracker than a slice of dough.
When Europeans eventually arrived on the island — primarily the Spaniards — meats such as pork and ham were quickly introduced into the native’s diets, transforming the sandwich into a succulent, meaty mass. Casabe was substituted for a doughy, bread-like alternative also, which at the time was easier to make for the islanders. “Traces of the sandwich originate back from the Indians,” says Astorquiza, “but the sandwich was really invented with what was brought from Spain.”
In the mid-1800s, the Cuban tobacco industry emerged in Florida, where it first emerged in Key West. Later, tobacco moved north to Tampa, with thousands relocating to Ybor City — a historic neighborhood founded by cigar manufacturers with Cuban, Spanish, and Italian descent. Because of the influx of immigrants who mainly worked in factories, a quick, affordable lunch was yearned for. This marked the rise of the Cuban sandwich.
“The Cubans came to Florida and started making their sandwich here,” Astorquiza states. “But it started to mesh with more Spaniards and Italians too, which explains the sandwiches key ingredients today, like roasted pork, ham, and salami. In order to differentiate the sandwich made in Cuba with Florida’s new version, the Cubans in Tampa started calling it a ‘Cuban sandwich.’” Astorquiza continues, “Being in Cuba, there was no need to say ‘Cuban sandwich,’ it was just a sandwich. But its popularity in Cuba and in the States is just the same. If you want to get technical, though, it’s called a Cuban sandwich for a reason — it was made by Cubans.”
The ingredients inside a Cuban sandwich are simple: ham, roasted pork, Swiss cheese, pickles, mustard, and if you’re in Tampa, salami. But recreating the age-old delicacy is far from easy. Putting aside the feud between Miami and Tampa for a moment, every Cuban sandwich needs Cuban bread — which, although comparable to French or Italian bread, has a different baking method and ingredient list.