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Roasting a Pig Cuban Style in a Caja China
The Art of Hog Roasting
Art is defined as a skill acquired by studying , practicing and performing . Such is the tradition of hog roasting for cubans. For the Cuban American population pig or hog roasting has evolved from a simple cooking method to a fine art that can easily become an all day project. Typically a man's domain, the Cuban man will enlist every family member , friend and neighbor to help. Apart from the hog, they will need two cases of beer to start off . No, the beer is not for marinating . Hog roasting is such an integral part of our way of celebrating that seldom a big event passes by or holiday that we don’t pull out the “caja china”.
A ‘Caja China’ means Chinese box. It is a wooden box used to roast a whole hog. The idea was inspired from the Chinese railroad workers in Cuba which roasted their hogs on a charcoal covered pit back in the day. It is designed to cook up to approx a 100 lb pig in about four to six hours time. Caja Chinas are popular now and are sold online or in local Cuban markets. Thank goodness they have perfected and figured out how to make these in mass quantities. In the past the art of pig roasting commenced a week before when the men actually had to build the box.
Buying a Hog
To roast a hog you will need an idea as to how many people you will be feeding and calculate about a pound and a half of meat per person. The best pigs are between 60 and 100 lbs. Anything larger becomes too difficult to handle properly and might not even fit in the box.
- You can hand pick your hog from a pig farm and transport it yourself already cleaned and prepped for cooking or
- You may it order it by phone or online and have it delivered from a previously frozen state to your door. If previously frozen you need to calculate the thawing time when planning your event. It will also arrive cleaned and ready to cook.
- Make sure to request the head of the pig be splayed open. This helps ensure that cooking will be even .
Marinating Your Hog
Marinating the hog the night prior to cooking it is essential for the best flavor. Every ‘pig master’ has his own variation as to how to marinade but we can all agree on pouring on the 'Mojo' and sour oranges. They are both bottled products sold but if they are hard to find in your area you can make your own. Mojo is easily made by mixing these ingredients.
- Garlic Cloves one clove per pound of meat run through a garlic press or mortar and pestle
- Salt 1/4 teaspoon pp
- Whole black peppercorns 1/4 teaspoon pp
- Oregano 1/4 teaspoon pp
- Sour orange juice about 1/2 of an ounce pp (If sour orange juice is unavailable you can combine two parts orange to one part lemon and one part lime).
You will also need
- Two cases of beer (do not use to marinate)
- Boxed set of Dominos
Place your hog on a sturdy clean area skin side up and sprinkle liberally with salt. Turn the pig over now exposing the ribs. With a knife pierce the meat all over with about ½ slits without piercing the skin. Introduce the mojo into all these little crevices and pour any left over on top. Everyone experiments with a bit more or bit a less and they all turn out fine. We like to place our pig indoors overnight after covering it with plastic. We then place ice bags on top which have been double bagged to prevent leaking, and let the a/c run very cold. You should have been drinking beer throughout this process. Now is the time to finish the two marinating beer cases.
Cooking The Hog
After the hog has been marinating overnight and you’ve decided when you want the hog to be ready - Get up early and go buy some beer. Now place your hog inside the caja china . Make sure the lid is securely attached, charcoal is placed on top of the lid to roast the pig inside. Its sort of a reverse method of cooking that works real well and fast. Start off with a 20 lb bag of charcoal. Light with lighter fluid by piling it high in the center. Once the charcoal turns white partition it in 4 piles using a rake or shovel and spread it to the four corners of the caja china . This provides indirect heat while the pig roasts. You will need to add an additional 10 lbs of charcoal about every hour. After the third hour you will open the lid to flip the pig and score the skin. This allows the fat to run and help insure a crispy skin. The grease flows and is collected in a catch pan inside the box. Cooking times vary according to the size of the hog and the cooking temperature inside the caja china. Some of the caja chinas come with thermometers and timers but you can use a regular one. Make sure you have plenty of beer at this stage as the pig masters tend to get dehydrated.
Once the pig reaches an internal temperature of 185 degrees which should be measured at the thigh it is thoroughly cooked. A beer can now be enjoyed and concentration moves onto making the skin crispy. It might take about 40 to 50 minutes but do take a peek every 10 minutes or so after the initial half hour of flipping and remove cover. Once the skin is brown and crispy enough, you‘re done. It is not uncommon to have spectators at this point hoping for a taste of crispy skin. So we indulge so we can move on to cutting that deliciously smelling and tasty pig.
It is a lot of fun for us and common to have pig roasts for all type of events. Pretty affordable too when you want to feed a lot of people. I’ve found that having plenty of beer not only insures I will have plenty of helping hands but in the rare event of a fire I’ll have liquid readily available to put it out. I’m still calculating exactly how many Cubans are needed as condition are never the same but if I have to guess I’d say about 21.
- 2 to carry the beer inside and ice it.
- 2 to pick out and transport the hog.
- 1 to complain about the hog being too small .
- 4 older guys to render advice and tell you how they did it in Cuba all the while playing dominos.
- 2 to marinate and help drink the beer.
- 2 to cook the hog.
- 2 to turn the hog .
- 3 to taste test and check for doneness.
- 2 to cut the hog.
- Plus my husband the host which doesn’t really fall into any of these other categories. I think he’s mastered the art of hog roasting.