It was many years after we left Cuba before I wanted to eat split pea soup, even though my mother’s split pea soup is delicious.
Cuba is a tropical country where things grow freely, but the communist controls greatly limited the food available. Everything had been rationed since Fidel Castro took power, and the grocery stores quite often had nothing at all. Even if something was allowed on your ration card, you could only buy what they had at the store. My mother stood in line for hours hoping to buy some food, a pair of shoes, anything.
For a VERY long time, (it seemed like years to my sisters and me) chicharos (split peas) were the only thing she could buy, but there was no ham or chorizo available with which to flavor the soup.
Mamina continued buying and making the chicharos because she knew they had a lot of nutritional value. It seemed that we ate chicharos for every meal for weeks on end. Mamina used whatever she could from our vegetable patch to flavor them, but often they seemed just a tasteless green mash. My sisters and I grew very tired of split pea and dreaded meal time.
Mamina would set out bowls of soup for my sisters, and me. She spoon fed our baby sister, Nina, and at times when my sister Isis and I complained more than we ate, she would reach over and put a spoonful of soup in our mouths also.
During this time my father was in a labor camp, for the crime of wanting to leave the country. Alone, and with few provisions, as my mother struggled to care for us, she was struck with inspiration. One day she went out to the back patio to do the wash and saw a cute little frog sitting by the door to the kitchen. My mother has always liked frogs, and this little frog by the kitchen door gave her an idea. She began to tell us wonderful stories about a crazy adventurous frog named Antoñica. who would overcome great odds with her daring and creativity. Antoñica helped us dream of freedom and possibilities. These exiting tales were reserved for mealtimes. We ate until our bowls were empty, distracted from the bland food by the flavor of Antoñica’s world and Mamina was comforted knowing her daughters were well nourished, and better prepared for the adventures and challenges ahead.
CHICHAROS – Split pea soup
1 lb bag (2 cups) split peas
2-3 medium potatoes, peeled and cubed
1-2 cups calabaza, Cuban squash (optional)
A soup bone, a piece of ham or bacon, with lots of meat
1 Tablespoon salt
2-3 Tablespoons olive oil
½ green bell pepper
1 medium onion
4-5 garlic cloves
Chorizo (Spanish sausage – optional)
1 8 oz. can tomato sauce
Rinse peas, then cover with water and soak overnight. Next day pour out soaking water and add fresh water so it is about 2-3 inches above the peas; add potatoes, carrots and meat. If using a pressure cooker, cook 15 minutes after pressure is reached. However you don’t need a pressure cooker, they’ll do just fine in a heavy pan; cook covered on medium low heat for about 1 hour, till they are soft. Add more water as needed. Add a tablespoon of salt after the peas are soft.
Chop pepper, onion, garlic and sauté in olive oil. When onions are translucent, add chorizo and tomato sauce and cook a few minutes longer, then add sofrito to peas. Stir and cook on low, covered, for about 10 more minutes. It will thicken a bit and all the flavors will blend. Taste to see if it has enough salt.