Seemingly, there is as much mystery surrounding the origins of the “caja china” as there is about how to use one for those not familiar with the roaster. Stories have been told about the roughly 150,000 Chinese laborers who came to Cuba in the 1850’s, and that they brought the cooking style to the island, hence the term “caja china.” Research, however, indicates no known record of the roasting box dating this far back. In fact, there appears to have been relatively little co-mingling between the Chinese and Cuban cuisines. So where then did the box originate, and where did the name “la caja china” (the Chinese box) come from?
According to food anthropologist Sidney Mintz, a more likely scenario is that the term “china” or “chino” does not represent the country in this case, but is actually a common Hispanic term that describes something as exotic, mysterious, or clever. 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 cubana” (Cuban roaster).
In Louisiana’s Cajun community it is referred to as a “Cajun microwave.” The reality is that all these roaster boxes 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. 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.