Film & TV

Monika "Mika" León Talks Food and Politics With Padma Lakshmi for Hulu's Taste of the Nation

Monica "Mika" Leon and her mother Lupita Estupinan (left) hosted Padma Lakshmi in their home for a Noche Buena celebration.
Monica "Mika" Leon and her mother Lupita Estupinan (left) hosted Padma Lakshmi in their home for a Noche Buena celebration. Monica Leon
What exactly is Nochebuena and what are its origins? In the third episode of the holiday season of Padma Lakshmi’s Hulu show Taste the Nation, the food writer and longtime Top Chef host joins Monica “Mika” León of Caja Caliente to learn about the celebration and its significance for Cuban immigrants in Miami.

The show, which debuted last year on Hulu, follows Lakshmi around the United Sates as she explores the food culture of various immigrant groups and how they have shaped the essence of what America is today. Other episodes in this second season showcase Hanukkah in New York City, Thanksgiving in Cape Cod, and Korean New Year.

“Of all the shows I’ve been in, this is the one I’m most passionate about. It covers the food, but also the culture, why people eat what they eat,” León tells New Times. “It is special because it explores what’s behind me and my relatives, and what made Casa Caliente what it is.”

The Miami-based episode, "Mojo-Ho Christmas,” is now streaming and features Lakshmi’s visit to Calle Ocho, a talk over a cafecito with Miami Herald food editor Carlos Frias, and stops at the Miami Freedom Project and Michael Beltran’s restaurant, Ariete. The last segment of the show has the hostess experiencing Nochebuena firsthand at Leon’s home.

“She went beyond what everyone does when they come to Miami and made it more educational and documentary-style,” León says. “She covers a whole spectrum of the culture and perspectives.”
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Caja Caliente's food truck in the Design District.
Caja Caliente
León, a 30-year-old Cuban-American chef who has appeared on Beat Bobby Flay, Guy's Grocery Games, and Chopped, started Caja Caliente as a small food truck in April 2016, serving up tacos from a two-foot grill. Three years later, the family-run restaurant opened its brick-and-mortar location (808 Ponce de Leon Blvd., Coral Gables; 786-431-1947). Since September of last year, León has also hawked her modern version of Cuban cuisine from a food truck stationed at 95 NE 40th St. in Miami's Design District.

Nochebuena (“Good Night” in Spanish) is celebrated every year on December 24, and in Latin-American cultures, it is often the biggest feast for the Christmas season, a time to get together with family and loved ones over food and drinks.

“It is an important holiday for us Cubans, especially here in Miami,” León says, noting that marking the occasion helped Cuban exiles affirm their culture in their new nation, “Before Castro, it was a real celebration. It became a silent Christmas during the regime, but for us here in Miami it is a crazy loud holiday, a celebration of life and freedom all over again.”

For the show, León serves traditional Cuban food and drink associated with the holiday: a “caja china” of whole roasted pig, croquetas, pastelists, yuca con mojo, and plenty of rum to wash it all down. She and her family members share their immigrant experiences and political views with Lakshmi, covering issues such as U.S. immigration policy, taxes, and the recent Cuban protests.

“The show brings a lot of awareness to Cubans and it goes into issues no one us to talk about," Leon notes. “It gave us a voice, and those who watch will come to appreciate how resilient we are by understanding how a lot of Cubans got kicked out of their own country, threw themselves onto rafts for freedom, and managed to rebuilt their lives in Miami.”

Taste of the Nation. Streams on demand via Hulu.
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Juliana Accioly
Contact: Juliana Accioly