Why Miami Cubans roast Christmas pigs in a 'Chinese box'

La Caja China CEO Roberto Guerra. Guerra says his father first spotted the wooden cooking boxes in Havana's Chinatown in 1955. In 1985, the two decided to re-create the devices, and La Caja China company was born.
La Caja China CEO Roberto Guerra. Guerra says his father first spotted the wooden cooking boxes in Havana's Chinatown in 1955. In 1985, the two decided to re-create the devices, and La Caja China company was born.
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In Latin American cultures, Christmas Eve is Noche Buena and time for a big family celebration, often featuring a pig roast. There are lots of ways to cook a whole pig. But at Noche Buena parties in South Florida and, increasingly, around the country, the preferred method for roasting a pig involves something known as a "China Box."

The first thing you need is a pig. In the Miami area, the place where most people get their whole pigs is a ranch on the outskirts of neighboring Hialeah. It's called Matadero Cabrera. Matadero is Spanish for slaughterhouse.

Bobby Damas drove nearly an hour from the next county to reserve his pig, a 70-pounder, butchered and dressed for Noche Buena. Like every other customer there, he said there's really just one way to roast pig.

"We have a China Box, la Caja China, and we put her in," Damas said. "The night before, we season it and we get it ready. And we just pop it in four hours before dinnertime. And that's it." Damas says it's the centerpiece of a traditional Cuban Noche Buena dinner: roast pork, black beans and rice, bread and that's about it.

The China Box, in Spanish la Caja China, is made of plywood and lined with aluminum. The original model is 4 feet long, 2 feet wide and 20 inches deep. The whole pig goes inside. The lid is a metal tray that holds charcoal. It's simple and efficient. Damas says, "You sit there and you just watch it cook. Right when she's pretty much done, you flip her over. And some people ... score the skin. I put salt water on it. And I let the skin get crunchy. Once that's done, you basically pull her out and cut it up."

Especially among Cuban-Americans, a key part of Noche Buena celebrations is the China Box. But the tradition began just 30 years ago — not in Cuba but in Florida. Roberto Guerra started the Caja China company in 1985 with his father in Medley, a Miami suburb. The factory recently moved to a new location in Hialeah, where workers cut the wood and metal and assemble the nine models the company sells.

As for the name, Guerra says his father saw his first China boxes in Havana in 1955. He was in that city's Chinatown, making deliveries for his business, when he saw people roasting a pig in something he'd never seen before. "Basically, it was a box with metal on top with the charcoal," Guerra says. "So he went over to find out what was going on. They explained it to him. He tasted, he loved it and he left. Then, 30 years later, 1985, he mentioned it to us."

Guerra and his father named the box for the neighborhood where he first saw it. The two made a prototype and spent a year testing it, developing recipes and determining cooking times. At the time, Guerra owned an export business and says he really didn't believe in the product he helped invent. He thought of it more as a hobby for his father.

But everything changed in 2003. A Miami chef asked Guerra to lend him five China Boxes for the South Beach Wine and Food Festival, an annual event that attracts foodies from around the country. Guerra sent the China Boxes but wasn't planning on going himself. He says his friend, the chef, forced him to go.

"When I got there," Guerra says, "there was a whole bunch of famous chefs waiting in line just to talk to me about how good the box was. And that's the time and the day I realized that I had something good." A few months later, The New York Times ran an article about La Caja China. Then came TV appearances with Bobby Flay, Al Roker and Martha Stewart. The China Box was famous.

Now Guerra says, La Caja China sells itself. He says, "You buy a box. You have 25, 30 people over. They see it. They touch it. They taste it from it." (Models start at $369 and run up to $1,299.)

On Christmas Eve, throughout South Florida, and in Latino households across the country, pigs will be roasting in China boxes. When they come out, Guerra guarantees they'll be perfect.

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