Sabor a mí

I just had a whore's lunch, or so I've been told it is. Arroz con huevos fritos. In another place and time it was fast food, the simplest item of the Cuban menu, so basic that Cuban restaurants and coffee shops seldom carry it: it's too home-cooking. You make white rice, which every Cuban cook can do blindfolded, and you fry some eggs in semi-deep fat, burn them, as they say since Spanish food became trendy, and mount them on the rice. That's it. Well, no, you accompany the dish with a side of maduros, sautéed ripe plantains, and maduros cook quickly. The point of this Cuban a la puttanesca is you can make it between customers.

There are few things Cubans love more than this simple dish. Its austerity connects it with a Spanish favorite, fried eggs over a bed of fried potatoes. When I met the great American writer of Spanish cookbooks, the late Penelope Casas, she and her husband told me that while researching one of her books they asked Spanish chefs and restaurateurs what was their favorite dish. Invariably they said fried eggs with fried potatoes, something their mothers made, sometimes with a side of chorizo. My Spanish/Cuban identity makes me waver between the criollo and peninsular dishes, and while my palate usually gravitates toward Spain -- I love those Spanish spuds, sliced in thin rounds and fried in olive oil -- nostalgia drives me toward arroz con huevos fritos.

We Cubans don't top dishes with fried eggs, what's called a caballo (on horseback), as often as other Latin Americans, but a fried egg over picadillo and white rice is irresistible. Picadillo means hash, and ours is ground meat -- usually beef, but veal is divine, and some cooks add a bit of ground ham to the beef -- cooked in a sofrito, plus usually olives, capers and raisins. All over the Hispanic world this is a favorite filling for empanadas and millefeuille pastelitos, one of the delights of my childhood. However, Cubans often skip the pastry and serve the picadillo over rice. Fried egg is optional, while other options include adding baby peas -- Cubans are hooked on Le Sueur -- and diced carrots, or small potato cubes fried. The latter stretches the dish but it's also quite delicious. No matter what version, it's always served over white rice,

Arroz con picadillo and arroz con huevos fritos are nearly always accompanied by maduros, as is the classic arroz con pollo, a fancier Sunday dish. Fried dishes go with tostones, twice fried green plantains, and with anything accompanied by moros y cristianos -- black beans cooked with the rice, in the style of West Indian rice and peas. Roast pork, usually served with frijoles negros, calls for yuca (cassava) con mojo. The Cuban menu pairs other dishes with different tubers: boniato, ñame, malanga. As with other culinary traditions, these pairings are perfectly matched.

Cuban dishes echo through the Caribbean Basin and the rest of Latin America. A Brazilian feijoada tastes very much like Cuban frijoles negros, though with the addition of a variety of meats. And in fact, according to the late Nitza Villapol, old frijoles negros recipes included meats, just as in Brazil. Our neighbors Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic offer dishes very similar to Cuba's. A Puerto Rican asopao de pollo is like a very wet arroz con pollo, for example. And no one makes better tostones than Dominicans. Theirs are like the best fries, crunchy throughout, no mealiness in the middle.

The criollo menus are basically cuisine paysanne, even if some of the more elaborate dishes are served on special occasions. There is a repetitiveness to them that I imagine can bore, such as the ubiquitous sofrito in Cuban dishes. But aside from the nostalgia factor for those of us away from home, there's something seductive about the flavors, Something that encourages second helpings and the languor that suggests a siesta. What else it suggests on a steamy tropical afternoon is something that has to be tasted.