La Caja China: A Little History
So here’s a question we get quite often regarding our La Caja China grills, “What an awesome idea! Where do these things come?” Glad you asked…There seems to be as much mystery surrounding the origins of the “caja china” as there is about how to use one. Stories have been told about the approximately 150,000 Chinese laborers who came to Cuba during the 1850′s, and that it was they who brought the cooking style to the island, hence the term “caja china.” Makes sense right? “Chinese box” made by Chinese people. Case closed. Well, not so fast. Research indicates no known record of these pig roasters dating back this far. In fact, the evidence shows there to have been relatively little co-mingling between the Chinese and Cuban cuisines, unlike the clear associations that can be made in many other countries of the Americas. So the question remains, where did the “china box” originate, and where did the name “la caja china” come from?
According to well-traveled food anthropologist Sidney Mintz, the more likely scenario is this… The term “china” or “chino” does not represent the country of China in this usage, but actually represents a common Hispanic term describing something as mysterious, clever, or exotic. Using this interpretation, “la caja china” would translate as “the clever box” rather than “the Chinese box.” This hypothesis is strengthened by renowned Cuban chef Maricel Presilla of the restaurant Zafra in New Jersey when she states, “Cubans like to call anything that is unusual or clever Chinese. And this is true all over the Caribbean. Pretty much any culture there, whether Cuban or Puerto Rican or Dominican, they have somewhere some kind of thing like this-a Caja China.” (Sifton) Variations on the box can be found in various countries, and go by a variety of names. In Peru there is the “caja china criollo,” in the Cuban community the “caja asadora” (roasting box) and “asador cubano” (Cuban roaster).
In Louisiana’s Cajun community it is referred to as a “Cajun microwave.” The reality is that all these “china box” grills are very similar in their style of cooking, using heat from charcoal and the pressure of an enclosed roasting box to cook large amounts of food in an incredibly short amount of time. Not only is the cooking time shortened from eight or more hours for a large pig to just four, but the meat comes out incredibly tender and savory. It is, in my opinion, the best kept secret in the American barbecue community today. You can purchase one, along with its accessories, at http://www.shoplatintouch.com. Once you own one, you’ll wonder what took so long.