Say you're from Iowa. Your sister lives in South Florida, she's married to a Cuban, and you're taking the opportunity to get out of the snow and party in Miami at his family's house this Christmas.
You show up in socks and sandals, cargo shorts, and a Hawaiian shirt, with a used Vicente Fernandez CD you bought at a corner store in Little Havana in your hand.
Your sister and her husband greet you at the door with a machete and a syringe. They lead you into the kitchen, and lying splayed out on the counter-top is a 100-pound pig that's just had its backbone split between the shoulder blades, and been cut open and pumped so full of mojo sauce you'd think the pig itself was looking forward to the way it was going to taste.
That's where the caja china comes in. The caja china is an outdoor roasting oven that uses coal placed above the meat for cooking. The meat goes inside the box on a rack, and the coal goes above it, on a metal shelf.
In Spanish, caja china means Chinese box. It supposedly gets its name from the Chinese railroad workers in Cuba who inspired the box's development with their own, similar device. We have not substantiated that claim, and cannot vouch for it, but it does make for a good story.
The box simulates the act of pit roasting, because it's easier to buy a box than dig a hole.
A Cuban-style pig roast may occur for any number of holidays and special occasions, but it may well be most popular on Noche Buena, or Christmas Eve, when tradition holds that families and friends get together for an all night feast and celebration.
La caja china works by circulating hot air around the meat, no fire ever actually touches it. It can roast a 50-pound pig in a little over three and a half hours. It's prodigious roast rate may be what makes it famous.
The box is also sometimes called an asadero. Our research shows that one of the primary manufacturers of this type of grill is a Miami-based company called La Caja China. They are famous for their version of the box, and we are proud to count them as Dade County representers.
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The caja china meets the main requirement of cooking method for Cuban-style roast pork, or lechon asado as it's called in Spanish, by properly crisping the skin. If you cook a Christmas pig and the skin ain't crispy, Santa's not coming.
Happy Holidays! Here's a video of la caja china in action.