Steven Raichlen's Barbecue! Bible


CHINESE BOX

LA CAJA CHINA: MYTH VERSUS FACT
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Steven’s friend Mathew Masters cleared up a burning question for us: What is the history of “la caja China” (“Chinese box”)? More specifically, how did it get it’s name?
To paraphrase the blog Mat recently posted on his website, shoplatintouch.com, this ingenious grilling device–sometimes called “la caja asadoro”–was thought to have emigrated to Cuba with 150,000 Chinese laborers in the mid-1800s. According to legend, it was these workers who brought this style of cooking to the island. Using makeshift wooden boxes, they built wood fires on top, a method that roasted the pig very efficiently. Today, “la caja China” is familiar to grillmasters all over the world and has a cult-like following.

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But evidence does not support this theory as history does not show a culinary cultural exchange between the Chinese and native Cubans. Food anthropologist Stanley Mintz theorizes the term “China” doesn’t refer to the Asian country at all. Instead, he says, “China” (or “chino”) was used, slang-like, to describe something clever, mysterious, or exotic. Thus, “la caja China” actually translates to something like “the magic box”.
This hypothesis is strengthened, Mat reports, by Cuban chef Maricel Presilla: “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 something like this, a caja China.”
Whatever it’s called, la caja China, Mat believes, is the best-kept secret in the American barbecue community today. He appreciates it for its ability to roast large quantities of food in a short amount of time. He claims a whole pig, for example (see below), can cook in half the time of conventional barbecue methods. Thanks for the history/etymology lesson, Mat!

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Join the Discussion

  • Jack Chang

    Recently, I heard a story on National Public Radio about La Caja China.
    You can see the story here:

    http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/12/24/459976586/why-miami-cubans-roast-christmas-pigs-in-a-chinese-box

    In the story, Roberto Guerra, who started the company “La Caja China” in 1985 with his father in Miami, said that the name of the company came about because his father was making deliveries in Havana in 1955. He stopped in Havana’s chinatown. He saw people roasting a pig in a box with metal on top with the charcoal. He asked the Chinese people
    about the box, they explained it to him, and he tasted the pig and loved it. 30 years later, he mentioned it to his son. So, the box was named after the neighborhood where he saw it.