Ahhhh, plantains. I hate to admit that I was never exposed to these as a child and only had my first taste of plantain (plátanos) as a high school junior. But, boy, have I made up for it since then. I will pretty much eat anything made with plantains, from fufú to mariquitas and say that it is the best thing ever; I truly enjoy all kinds of preparations. Plantains are a central part of Caribbean, Latin American, and African cuisines. After seemingly emerging in East Asia millennia ago, and appearing in East Africa in about 3,000 BC, plantains were brought to the Americas during the years of the Atlantic slave trade and flourished in the Caribbean climate.
There are many different varieties of plantains, and in Cuba, there are several that are used frequently, like the plátano macho and the plátano burro. While I have not been able to track down the plátano burro in the Northeastern US, the plátano macho is available and is generally what I pick out when I am making my tostones or other plantain dishes.
So, from my experience, there are basically three main stages in the culinary life of a plantain: verde (green/unripe), pintón o amarillo (yellow/semi-ripe), and maduro (black/black spots/very ripe). I don’t use the middle kind much, which are just plain yellow and just starting to get ripe, but there are definitely recipes to use them in. I always get frustrated because I will look at a yellow plantain and say, surely, this one will be ripe enough to make maduros, and almost every single time they aren’t. I inevitably end up frying them, trying them, trying to pass them off to my husband, and consistently say, “meh, they weren’t ripe enough”. (Of course, I would never let them go to waste, and do eat them.)
What I have found most different about the way Cubans eat vs. the way I grew up eating is that the mix of savory and sweet is common in everyday dishes. Now, this is totally en vogue now here in the U.S. (think bacon donuts, salted caramel) and appreciated by most, but it was a concept that I found difficult at first to fully embrace.
Cubans typically pair this sweetness of the maduros with a savory meal, especially for dinner. I would argue to say that the quintessential Cuban meal consists of arroz congrí (rice with black beans), either bistec de puerco or ropa vieja, and plátanos maduros.