Ever so often, we come across a dish that makes us want to jump up and dance because of the aromas that fill our home while cooking it. Well, this Cuban rice dish, Moros y Cristianos will make you want to pump up the salsa music and grab a mojito!
Rice is a staple food crop in Latin America and the Caribbean. Tropical Latin Americans consume an average of 37 kg of milled rice yearly — equal to about 1.3 cups of cooked rice daily. After sugar, rice is their single most important source of daily calories, supplying 11.5% of daily caloric intake.
Rice and beans are a very common combination throughout the Caribbean as well as in many other parts of the Americas. There is for instance the Costa Rican gallo pinto, the arroz con gandules of Puerto Rico, the Venezuelan pabellón criollo, the iconic rice dish of Spain paella valenciana, while Cuba has a scrumptious side dish of Moros y Cristianos (also called arroz moro), a very popular dish of black beans and rice.
What is Moros y Cristianos?
Moros y Cristianos is a dish that carries with it a deep cultural history. Moros y Cristianos (or simply moros, moro, congri, or arroz moro) is a Cuban dish served at virtually every Cuban restaurant. It is the Cuban version of rice and beans, a dish consumed throughout the Caribbean, Brazil, Mexico, the US Southern States, and elsewhere in Latin America.
Moros y cristianos means “Moors and Christians”. “Moors” refers to the black beans, and “Christians” to the white rice. The name of the dish is a reference to the African Muslim governance (early 8th century) of the Iberian Peninsula and subsequent Reconquista (15th century) in which Spanish Christians led by wealthy families in the north of Spain forced the Moors from the south of Spain into Africa.
The Valencia region is home to all kinds of unusual festivals and cultural celebrations, and one that all visitors are sure to hear about is the festival of the Moors and Christians, or Los Moros y Cristianos, celebrated all over Valencia and in the Alicante region. The festival is a sight worth seeing, with huge parades, elaborate costumes and plenty of music and gunpowder. And far from being a tourist attraction, it has great importance to the region, with traditions going back as far as the 16th century and marking a decisive moment in the area’s history.
Valencia is one of many parts of Spain to have a strong Moorish (or Muslim) influence, as it was under Moorish rule from the 7th century until the 15th century. The festivities commemorate the period known as the Reconquista of Valencia by the Christians in the 15th century, and the battles that were fought between the Moorish and Christian armies. The events are also held in honor of the city’s patron saint, Vincent of Saragossa, who is said to have intervened in the final battle, in which the Christians defeated the Moors despite being greatly outnumbered.
The festival gets off to a spectacular start. The two armies march into the city in the early hours of the morning, a grand entrance accompanied by loud music from their own bands, fireworks and much pomp and ceremony. The Moorish and Christian armies march in procession, dressed in colorful, elaborate costumes, each side attempting to outshine the other. The participants can number in the hundreds or, in some cases, thousands. Their arrival is eagerly awaited by the assembled crowds, who pack into the streets and onto balconies draped with the flag of St George before the sun even comes up.
The religious ceremonies come after in honor of the patron saint, and the negotiations, or embajadas, are held in the town’s castle or another important building, in which each side reads out a text in an attempt to persuade the other to surrender. Then the grand finale begins: a reenactment of the final battle, a riot of noise, color and smoke, ending in victory for the Christians.
The festivities usually last for three days and involve all the street parties and paella cooking competitions you’d expect from any celebration in this region. Other towns celebrate this festival at different times of year, and there are also many small towns in Andalucía which hold similar events on various dates. But wherever and whenever you go to see the festival of Los Moros y Cristianos, you’re sure to have a truly unforgettable experience.
It is not often that a dish stirs up so much debate based on its name only… Moros y Cristianos (or Moors and Christians) is a mix of black beans and white rice. Black beans represent the dark-skinned Moors and the white rice represent the lighter-skinned Christians. Cooked together they absorb the flavors of the dish and the beans lend color to the white rice. This is a traditional recipe based on a historical event. It is not a commentary on any religion or ethnicity. This is why I generally just say, “I’m making rice and beans” and leave it at that.
The dish is said to have originated during the Moors’ invasion of Spain and was later on brought to Cuba. As mentioned before, beans and rice dishes can be found in most cultures. A popular one from the U.S. is Hoppin’ John, which uses black eyed peas and rice. Said to deliver good luck if eating it first thing on New Year’s Day, Hoppin John undoubtedly has African roots that originally brought it to America. Beans and rice combined make up a whole protein so it’s a filling combination that is usually very inexpensive to make as well.
Cuban food is very regional, with strong influences from the Spanish, North African, and Caribbean areas. Moros y Cristianos has trickled down from the Spanish, where it is a popular dish served at the Feast of St. George.
There are three essential requirements to any Cuban dish, plenty of garlic, loud Cuban/Puerto Rican music in the background, and the cook’s favorite pot/pan.
Onions, garlic, and bell peppers are commonly used as a sofrito. To this sofrito are added the white rice and pre-boiled black beans, as well as the water that the beans were boiled in. Other seasonings such as oregano and bay leaf are often added to the dish to give additional flavor. The one ingredient that I have learned is important not only to cooking this dish, but to life in Cuba in general, is patience. Don’t try to rush the cooking process. It will proceed well if you allow it ample time for the flavors to develop and blend together.
Moros y Cristianos are different from simple arroz con frijoles in that the beans and rice are cooked in the same pot instead of separately. Congrí is another term for the dish, but is used more commonly to refer to the similar dish with red beans that is traditionally eaten on the eastern part of the island.
Moros y cristianos vs. congrí
The difference between Moros y cristianos and congrí in their traditional preparation is that the Moros and Cristianos are prepared separately; they don’t meet up until they’re placed side by side on the plate. In the variation called congrí, the rice and beans are cooked together. These days, many cooks make the rice and beans together Congrí-style, but call it Moros y Cristianos.
There’s no need to split hairs. Both methods work fine, although Cubans prefer “the sharper, more distinct flavors the old-fashioned technique delivers.” Either way, rice and beans are a constant in Cuban cuisine.
This nicely seasoned, flavorful side dish is often served with grilled or roasted meat, poultry and seafood. It is perfect for a rice bowl layered with some protein, like ropa vieja and vegetables. It’s a good party dish too and can be made well in advance and be served at room temperature. One bite of this authentic Cuban black beans and rice recipe and you’ll be hooked!
- 1⅓ cup long grain white rice
- 1½ cup dry black beans
- 2 cups cooking water of beans
- 2 onions , diced
- 2 cloves garlic , minced
- ½ red bell pepper , diced
- ½ green bell pepper , diced
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon paprika
- ½ teaspoon thyme
- ½ teaspoon oregano
- 2 bay leaves
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon black pepper
- 16 oz. canned crushed tomatoes
Soak the beans for 24 hours in a very large quantity of cold water.
Add the beans and 5 cups of water in a large pot. Cook covered on low-medium heat for 1h30. The beans should be tender but not crushed.
Add salt 10 minutes before the end of cooking.
Drain the beans and set aside 2 cups of their cooking water.
In a deep Dutch oven, heat the olive oil and fry the onion, garlic and bell peppers for 1 minute.
Add the cumin, oregano, black pepper and bay leaves. Mix.
Add the thyme and paprika and mix well.
Add the rice, tomatoes, beans and cooking water to the beans.
Cook covered for 20 minutes over low heat, stirring as the preparation tends to stick to the bottom of the casserole.
When all the liquid is absorbed by the rice, remove from heat and let stand 5 minutes before serving.