Esther Heng cooks with the passion of her Cuban heritage.
Born in Cuba, Esther, her parents, Pedro and Maria Heng, and brother Julio fled the country in 1962 after the Cuban revolution.
Elizabeth (Eli) Heng Chamberlain was born after the family settled in Kansas City, and she still looks up to her big sister. “Esther learned to cook all the Cuban dishes from my mother and has a true understanding of the culture and hospitality,” Eli says. “Even though our mom died in 2014, Esther carries on her spirit by putting a lot of love into her cooking and making the food for family gatherings in our (Overland Park) home.”
Esther is the caretaker of her father. They live in the Kansas City home where she was raised. “It is such a blessing to be able to make a home-cooked meal for my father, the way my mother used to,” Esther says.
Q: With the restoration of diplomatic ties between the United States and Cuba, do you hope to return someday?
A: I think it is an exciting time in the diplomatic efforts between America and Cuba. I do hope to visit Cuba someday soon to visit extended members of our family who still live on the island. The only Cuba I know is from what our parents shared with us, and it obviously wasn’t a happy time when they fled the country under Fidel Castro’s rule. We are proud of our Cuban heritage.
Q: With the last name Heng, is there also a Chinese influence in your cooking?
A: Our grandfather came to Cuba and got married. So my father is half-Cuban and half-Chinese. The island is really a diverse melting pot of many cultures, as my mother’s family is Spanish, from the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa.
We know very little about my Chinese grandfather, but now that I cook for my father every night, he enjoys stir fries and bok choy. Our chicken soup is always finished with a sprinkling of Chinese parsley — or cilantro.
Q: How is Cuban food different from, say, Mexican food?
A: There are many differences: Cubans don’t eat tortillas as Mexicans do. Our tortillas are more Spanish in nature, like a frittata, using eggs and potatoes. Cuban food, while it is flavorful with the use of onions, garlic and oregano, is less spicy than Mexican food, since they use a lot of chilies.
Flour and rice are used in Cuba; corn is used in Mexico. Cuban beans are not thick like the Mexican refried variety. Cubans will cook black or red beans, but not pinto beans, and always serve rice with them.
I am sharing this recipe for Vaca Frita because it is a favorite of family and friends. It does require some patience and time to make, but is otherwise a pretty easy dish to prepare and is a great example of authentic, hearty, Cuban food. I use only fresh, quality ingredients and the cooking techniques I learned from our late mother, Maria Julia, who, although she was a native of Cuba, was a proud Kansas Citian.
Q: It’s obvious that you have a close family and that Eli and you have a tight bond.
A: We share a unique history and life together. To me, Eli embodies the Cuban spirit with her love of music, and I am filled with so much pride when I hear her sing. Even though we don’t look alike, we talk and think alike — we might as well be twins.
Our family and the food we share together are important to both of us. It is my pleasure to make the food and Eli’s pleasure to host the party. I love her two children and her husband, Justin Chamberlain. He is so good to me, and it makes me so happy when he — without a drop of Hispanic blood in him — pushes back from the table and says, “It’s good to be Cuban!”
Mary G. Pepitone is a freelance writer who lives in Leawood. Email her at email@example.com to nominate a cook.
Makes 8 servings
1 (2-pound) trimmed brisket roast
6 cups water
1 bay leaf
1 medium sweet yellow onion, halved
1/3 cup freshly squeezed lime juice, divided use
1/4 cup olive oil
2 medium sweet yellow onions, sliced thin
4 large garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon salt
2 limes, cut into 8 wedges
Bring brisket, water, bay leaf and halved onion to a boil in a heavy-bottomed Dutch oven over high heat on stovetop. Reduce heat to low and simmer for about 3 hours, or until meat is fork-tender. Allow pot to cool to room temperature.
Shred the brisket into a large mixing bowl using two forks, removing fat and membrane. Discard liquid contents.
Pour about half of lime juice over meat and set the rest aside.
Warm oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add sliced onion and sauté until just tender. In a small mixing bowl, mash garlic and salt to create a paste and add to pan. Sauté until garlic becomes fragrant and stir to avoid burning. Add shredded beef and remaining lime juice to pan. Heat meat and allow it to brown.
Spoon meat onto 8 plates and garnish with a lime wedge on each. Meat is usually served with Cuban black beans, rice and fried plantains.
Per serving: 168 calories (59 percent from fat), 11 grams total fat (2 grams saturated), 35 milligrams cholesterol, 5 grams carbohydrates, 12 grams protein, 313 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.