This is one of those cultural cooking methods that is vague in it's actual origins. Their is a Miami website that sells them commercially that calls it La Caja China. The company's owner claims that he invented the box after observing a Vietnamese method for cooking which was also based on heat from above. The actual box appears to be a unique slow-cooking vessel, but most websites boast about it's incredible heat within and it's ability to cut down cooking times. Either way, (if done right) you are left with an amazingly juicy tender pig with dark crispy skin... and that explains the Cuban love for it.
Our hotel has been throwing an annual 'Culture Day' to celebrate the many (and there are quite a few) nationalities that are employed here. A definite high-point to the day has been having Severino 'Nena' Cruz, the grandfather of Christian in our Catering Dept., bring over his home-made china box and roast a whole pig. His box was made 20 years ago by hand. Like other boxes, it is made of wood... but like the better ones, it is plated with steel. The commercial ones at La Caja China are plated with aluminum, and the top tray that holds the burning charcoal and wood tends to warp and fit less securely. Nena's caja is a soundly-built machine. He even added the modification of a side door that drops all the way down suspended on chains to allow easier access to the pig. The commercial model and most other home-made versions require you (with the help of another) to lift the burning tray of charcoals before gaining access to the pig from above.
Charcoal is used to start the fire. Wood is added on every hour to bump up the heat. There is always the claim of an Asian origin to this method... hence the obvious name, but with things of this nature... who really knows the its true beginnings... anyone from Louisiana ever heard of a 'Cajun Microwave'... very similar.
Here Severino opens the secure-fitting side door to check out the pig's progress. Being a coonass, I have a deep love for all things falling into both the 'pork' and 'slow cooked' categories simultaneously. I grew up watching old men patiently looking on for the slow-forming signs of readiness in spit-turned pigs. One of my cousins still designs his own deep pig roasting trailers with spits.
This is part of the hourly rotation of adding and stirring the coals for intense heat. Aside from the simple genius of this method and its Cuban appeal of tender pork with crispy skin, I only find one thing missing... smoke. As a coonass, my only disdain for this process is that all the smoke dissappears into the air... never to kiss the sweet flesh of a pig. I've naturally thought about the possibility of venting the smoke back into the box which would convert it into a smoker, but would that affect the integrity of the design? A vent for smoke is also a vent to release heat. Maybe there is no middle ground. Oh well, where there isn't smoke... there's mojo. Nothing soaks up mojo better than crackling pig skin.
All in all, it was a triumphant day for pig meat. With all of the different cultures represented at our in-house event (all Central and South American countries, the islands, Cuba, US cities, Vietnam) pork was by far the most dominant meat. It does me proud to see so many peoples offer pork dishes as representations of their cultures. Viva la cochon!