Thanks to all those childhood years spent watching imported Mexican television shows, I learned early that cantinas were bars, something to do with moustachioed bandidos with big sombreros drinkingtequila and drawing pistols with lightning-fast speed. Had it not been for these countless hours of, hmm… er, “educational” TV I would have made it to adulthood thinking that the word cantina always referred to the then-ubiquitous aluminum stacked lunch box in which our weekend lunch of rice, beans and res guisada (braised beef) arrived from the local fonda.
Known also as “miner’s lunchbox” and “tiffin lunch boxes”, they have been used worldwide for a long time. Regardless of who we should credit for the invention of such a magnificent piece of equipment, the fact remains that we made it our own.
Long before anyone came up with the idea of mass-producing Styrofoam plates, food “para llevar” was served in cantinas. Each family had one, its size depending on how big the family was. “Fondas” (Dominican mom ‘n pops restaurants, now usually called ‘comedores’) would have a list of customers that ate their fare everyday — or as was our case, on weekends. It goes without saying that what was on offer was none other than La Bandera Dominicana.
Every morning, customers would drop off their cantinas (which, for convenience, had the family name painted on top) and would pick it up sometime before noon. The delicious lunch would arrive served in strict order: habichuelas at the bottom, meat in the middle and rice and fritos verdes and salad on top. The ultimate convenience.
In this age of disposables the venerable cantina is now considered déclassé, a pity really, as proven by the mountains of Styrofoam plates flung everywhere, creating more and more pollution and waste.
It is refreshing to know, however, that at least in small Dominican towns cantinas are still alive and well.
On the days when Aunt Clara’s Kitchen is closed we buy our lunch in the neighborhood fonda (although nobody calls them that nowadays, perish the thought). I think I am going to start taking my cantina from now on, for the sake of the environment.
Who knows, I might start a new trend. The worse that could happen is that my friends won’t want to be seen in my company as I carry my cantina with pride.
- 2 lbs [0.91 kg] of beef (round or skirt) cut into small pieces.
- Juice of 1 lime
- A pinch of sun-dried oregano
- A pinch of pepper
- 1 teaspoon of salt (or more, to taste)
- 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil (corn, canola or peanut)
- 3 cups of water (may need more)
- 1 red onion cut into slices
- 2 tomatoes cut into quarters
- 2 bell peppers, cut into small pieces
- 3 cloves of garlic, mashed
- 1 cup of tomato sauce
- 1 sprig of cilantro, chopped
- Rinse the meat with cold water and scrub with the lime juice. Season with oregano, pepper and salt.
- In a pot heat the oil over medium heat. Stir in the beef and brown. Add 2 tablespoons of water. Cover and simmer over medium heat until the meat is very tender (it may take from 30-60 minutes), adding water by the tablespoon when it becomes necessary to prevent the meat from burning.
- Stir in onion, tomatoes, pepper and garlic, cover and and simmer until the vegetables are cooked through, adjust water if necessary.
- Add the tomato sauce and 1 cup of water, simmer over low heat to produce a light sauce. Season with cilantro and salt to taste.
- Serve with arroz blanco, a side dish (or salad) and beans.