The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos

Reading this book and getting to know the main character of Cesar Castillo in The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love was both a joy and a sadness. This is a man with a great lust for life, dancing and drinking and eating and womanizing…….and with a talent for making decisions based on instinct and as oftentimes as not, ending up in worse circumstances.

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The trajectory of Cesar’s life is told in this book. He is a musician who comes from Cuba with his younger brother Nestor, both of them determined to make a name for themselves in the musical world of mambo in 1950s New York City. Nestor is a dreamer, sensitive and still in love with Maria back in Cuba, for whom he writes the song that will launch he and his brother into a semblance of success, “Beautiful Maria of My Soul.” While the title references both brothers, however, the book is truly Cesar’s tale of joy, woe, happiness, pain, and ultimately, calm satisfaction with his life. It really is the story of any man, of Everyman.

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Cesar is bigger than life, with appetites to match. He is the businessman, the driving force of the two brothers, yet – spoiler alert – when Nestor dies, a part of Cesar goes with him……..which all of us who have loved and lost someone can well relate to. There were times, though, when his life went from bad to worse, when his boozing and whoring made him into such a sad pathetic jerk, that I threw the book down in disgust. But I picked it up and continued reading, because his character is so fascinating, so resilient and ultimately, so filled with the joy of life.


There’s a sense of wonder in this book that conveys Cesar’s mindset so well. You can understand why he continues to make the same mistakes over and over, yet still find something new and precious in his life. He is such a strong, tough, macho man, sensual, able to turn the world a bit on its axis toward him, and yet has those colossal weaknesses that bring him back down to earth.

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One passage in particular stood out to me. It’s just after they have appeared on the I Love Lucy show with Desi Arnaz, who becomes somewhat of a patron to them, and their Irish neighbor Mrs. Shannon comes to congratulate them and to goggle at Cesar, for whom she has a huge crush.

“She followed Cesar down the hallway…..through the kitchen into the dining room: they had a long table still set with platters of bacalao – codfish cooked with garlic – black beans, rice, a huge salad, pork chops and steaks from the plant, and a big bowl of yuca.”

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Yuca, a quintessential Cuban food, is also one of the simplest and tastiest things to cook. It’s a root vegetable, kind of like a potato or turnip but with more flavor. I cooked them still frozen, in chicken broth mixed with lemon juice and a chicken broth cube, about 30 minutes, to thaw, then added some olive oil and simmered on low another half hour to cook through. They do have a woody center that’s inedible so take that out before you eat. The pan juices, reduced, make a lovely sauce. Add salt if needed. The Cuban-style black beans were easy – I cheated and used canned black beans, and mixed them with gently sauteed onion, garlic, green pepper, salt and cider vinegar, mashing them to thicken.

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However, it was the bacalao that was the star of the show, based on this great recipe from La Cocina de Nathan. This is the method that worked for me.

1 lb salt-cured bacalao

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2 eggs
2 cups of all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons of baking soda
Handful of fresh parsley, roughly chopped
6-7 cloves of garlic, either mashed into a paste or as finely grated as possible

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1.5 cups of water
Freshly ground black pepper

Soak your bacalao overnight, changing the water every 2-3 hours. This is to drain the salt and also reconstitute the fish, kind of like what you do with dried porcini. Refrigerate the rinsed, drained and desalted cod until ready to use.

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Let bacalao come to room temperature. Peel the fish meat off the skin, taking out all the bones and scales. Flake with your hands, though initially you may need to use a sharp knife until the meat begins to break down.

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In a separate bowl, mix the flour and the baking soda together and whisk to evenly combine. Add the eggs to the flour and baking soda and whisk again. It will be a fairly crumbly mix, which is what you want at this point.

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Start gradually incorporating the water, until you have a thick, batterlike consistency. Add the chopped parsley and the mashed garlic and mix again.

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Then add your bacalao pieces, and stir well to mix. Cover and refrigerate for 1-2 hours. Ideally you should refrigerate overnight. But in this case, hell no. I was hungry!

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Heat grapeseed oil in a large pan. When smoking hot, drop in spoonfuls of the bacalao batter. Don’t crowd the pan, as too many cooking at once will drop the oil temperature, which is what makes fried food greasy.

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Cook 3-4 minutes per side, or until golden brown. Remove to a paper towel to drain.

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Serve beautifully with the black beans and the garlic-flavored yuca, and of course, some wine.

“In the name of the mambo, and the rumba, and the cha-cha-cha.”

23 thoughts on “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos

  1. I’ve never had yuca; just haven’t ever really given it much thought but now I’m intrigued. And those fish cakes if I can call them that. Oh, they’re just gorgeous! And of course, being frugal, I’m a huge fan of any beans! What a meal! What a book, it sounds like!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The book is quite a read, very visceral and sensual. Yuca is one of those unexpected dishes that turn out being so much better than you’d expect. Anything starchy like that I find is always better cooked in chicken stock, which gives it even more flavor. I found it frozen at an international market here in town, so not sure where you might find it but any Latin American grocery is sure to have it.

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  2. …at some point I should read the books you post before commenting, to at least be able to…. say something not utterly banal except, of course, another tantalizing review and recipe. Kicking the baccala up in such a way with black beans and yuka, which I’d like to try (maybe something is available one of the ‘immigrant’ shops, one more serving the varying latino/hispanic communities, that have sprung up here basically everywhere – though Cuba itself isn’t represented,) would be a pleasure (though around here its considered a foreign dish, ‘terrone’, from the south, itself. This is a meat, more so beef, and rice-risotto place.) Another enticing post….

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      1. …witty? Erudite? …hmm… I’d use words more like….bald. And… verbose. Even… dispersive. Or gorilla-ish. It’s the stuff, the story, the recipe, the voice, I think, that count or counts. Not the… cracks and nooks between the spaces, so to say, however neat or seductive they may seem. You give stuff well that’s both a pleasure to read while pique-ing interest in a novel at hand. I loose words in… the crannies between lines, sometimes look to save a note with an easy flourish, mostly hog-washed.

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      2. Bald is beautiful, didn’t you know? And I would not call you verbose in the least. I like your style of writing, and you always make me consider the text in a wholly new way. Plus, you are extremely talented at breaking down Shakespeare into understandable, and very funny, pieces, which I appreciate since I don’t care for plays, preferring prose to poetry and verse. Just say thank you and accept the fact that you have a fan. 🙂

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  3. Hi Vanessa – I’ve never bought or cooked yuca or bacalao. The fish recipe looks so involved, but rewarding in the end! How different do you think it would have been if you had refrigerated the bacalao batter overnight?

    This post took me in to the Wayback Machine! I actually read The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love back when it first came out and I was kind of obsessed by it, then. When the movie came out: ditto! I haven’t re-visited either in all these years and wonder how I would receive them, now. Have you read any other books by Oscar Hijuelos?

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    1. I think the batter would be just fine if it were refrigerated overnight. Would probably give it more time to activate. This is a really wonderful book although I have not read anything else by this author. I really love the movie as well, particularly the music. I was disappointed that they left out so much but I suppose they had to work with limited time. Anyway I love the book and the movie just like you. 😁

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  4. I’ve seen the movie, but I don’t think I ever read the book. You have intrigued me now. The yuca looks really good, almost like jicama or potato. And I would never have thought to make bacalao but you make it look really easy. Another great post as usual. Thank you.

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    1. I actually saw the movie before I read the book, which I rarely do. The book was better as always but the movie was really good as well. Excellent dancing and music. I’m glad you liked the recipe as well. It ended up being much easier than I would have expected, it’s just somewhat labor intensive. But the end result was well worth it.


    1. I appreciate that. I completely agree with you about the book 2. The sensuality with the music, the food, the passion and everything else was really nice…..though sad in many ways too


  5. Vanessa, being of Spanish descent my toes were tapping to the memories of these songs, while reading your narrative about these brothers and the wonderful meal you prepared. I must say your blog brings delight for my mind and the eye.. Keep up the good work and I as always look forward to seeing what you’ll post about next.. Take care, my dear…

    Laura 🙂 Love black beans, and that was a very good movie too..

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for your wonderful comment! I’m so happy you enjoyed the post. I enjoyed cooking it as well, and had the mambo music turned up high as I did. I appreciate the support greatly!

      Liked by 1 person

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