by Raul Menchaca
HAVANA, Aug. 5 (Xinhua) -- Cuba's culinary heritage is alive and well, thanks to award-winning Cuban chef Jorge Luis Mendez and others like him.
"We have succeeded in preserving authentic, traditional Cuban cuisine," said Mendez, who believes national dishes "allow peoples to express who they are."
Mendez said Cuban food combines the culinary influences of the various cultures that have landed on the Caribbean island through centuries, from Spanish conquerors to African slaves.
Cuban cuisine has been enriched over the years by the different voluntary and arrivals of immigrants from other parts of the world, said Mendez, also staff of the tourism faculty at the University of Havana.
"The Africans, the Chinese, even (immigrants from) eastern Europe have contributed to enriching our food," he added.
Imported flavors, combined with Cuba's own native ingredients and culinary staples, have generated such favorite dishes as "ajiaco a la criolla" (a hearty meat stew), "Moors and Christians" (black beans and rice), Cuban tamales (stuffed corn dough wrapped and steamed in corn husk), corn or taro root fritters, "congri oriental" (red beans and rice), and yuca in a garlic sauce.
Cuban chef Ernesto Bello is another proponent of Cuban cuisine.
"At home I primarily make Cuban culinary dishes," said Bello, who has worked at some of Havana's best known restaurants, including El Tocororo, La Finca and La Moraleja.
Cuba's cuisine has great potential "because it is the result of a blend of cultures, which is definitely what we are as a nation," said Bello.
That heritage is reflected in the list of the top 25 popular dishes in Cuba, compiled by Cuba's Federation of Culinary Associations (FAC) based on what locals and foreigners alike order most frequently.
Cuban Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero recently underscored the importance of the national cuisine to the tourism sector.
"It will always be priority number one to continue to diversify and raise the quality of our services in general, but of our gastronomy in particular," Marrero said at the opening of the 9th Varadero Gourmet Festival in early July.
To do that, Marrero called on "each culinary enterprise to create its own signature (dishes), each chef to provide his own special seasoning and each bartender to add his own touch to the cocktail he is preparing."
Cooking instructor Pedro Manuel Serrano, who has been working at a restaurant in Cuba's renowned beach resort of Varadero for 27 years, said visitors enjoy Cuban food.
"Tourists like Cuban cuisine due to the creativity involved in the preparation and the variety of dishes," said Serrano.
Cuban authorities hope to make the Cuban cuisine an additional tourism attraction to foreign visitors.
Some 4.2 million foreign visitors are expected to arrive in the island in 2017, according to official figures.