“You don’t go to Cuba to eat,” just about everybody had warned me. “There’s nothing to eat there.” Well, it turns out not to be true. I’d been to Cuba once in 1997, and my culinary memories were dim. As a food writer and restaurant critic, my recent return trip was an eye- (and heart-) opening experience.
Havana’s sights and sounds are compelling. It was spared the dreadful disregard that late 20th-century city planners had for their fellow human beings. No mirrored behemoths leer mockingly at a cowering populace. Architectural gems abound in a dozen different styles, including Spanish Colonial, elegant Neo-Classical, Art Deco and Vegas-style 1950s streamline. Some buildings are being renovated by foreign (mainly Spanish) investors, others are left to their slow disintegration. While superficially time seems to have stood still, it is just one aspect of this vibrant swinging metropolis. Cubans live very much in the present — how else to endure the hardship daily life presents here?
I knew Cuban food from my early days in New York. My mother and I hung out at Victor’s Cafe on the upper West Side, a haven for ex-pat Cubans and their fans. Aromas of garlic soup, roasted red peppers, spicy picadillo, flaky empanadas, fruity batidos and luscious baked flan were some of my earliest and most pleasurable “foreign” food memories.
Fusion of foods and spices
Cuban cuisine is a fusion of Spanish, African and Caribbean influences. Additions from a small Chinese community are found in certain dishes as well. The cooking is based on starchy tubers such as yucca, malanga, potato and plantain, and the ubiquitous rice with black beans (when mixed together called moros y cristianos). Sauces are simple: a sofrito of onion, garlic and tomato is the flavor base of many Cuban dishes. The spices most discernible are cumin and cinnamon, and condiments are achiote (annato) and bitter or Seville orange. Hot chilies are rarely used.
Pesos and ration books
Workers in Cuba earn the equivalent of about $15 U.S. per month in Cuban pesos. With these, they are given libretas (ration books), allowing them small amounts of basic food stuffs such as rice, oil, sugar and flour. Other relatively inexpensive foods can be bought with one’s remaining pesos: beans, fruits, vegetables and meat (limited to pork or mutton of low quality). “Luxury” items include chicken, fish, seafood, beef, alcohol, olive oil and cheese. These must be paid for with the CUCs (convertible pesos), which in 2004 replaced the dollar as the currency used by all tourists or locals to buy luxuries.
CUCs are only earned by people in government jobs or in the informal economy — those serving foreigners, or through family members abroad who send back money. For example, a bottle of spring water at the bus station was priced 1.20 CUC, (about $1.50 U.S. at the current rate of exchange) and was not for sale at all in Cuban pesos. In effect, most people can’t buy something like this. The majority never eat a whole chicken or a plate of shrimp.
Gregory Peck in the Paladar
In 1995, the government initiated a program to allow paladares (small privately owned restaurants) to operate. Paladar is Spanish for “palate” or “taste.” People opened their dining rooms to the public, offering simple home-cooked food. Some paladares have blossomed into full-fledged professional operations, others retain their home-kitchen ambiance.
Paladar El Gringo, a typical but high level venue, is located in the Vedado area, once home to Havana’s elite and now a laid-back residential neighborhood dotted with apartments, hotels and restaurants. The simple space features posters of Gregory Peck in the eponymous Hollywood movie. The garbanzo beans, flavored with ham, tomato, green peppers and onion are a hearty appetizer. Baked lamb shanks, braised with tomatoes, peppers and cumin are gigantic, tender and succulent. This is Criollo (Cuban home) cooking at its best.
Chicken with sour orange sauce
At El Aljibe, an airy outdoor official or government-sanctioned restaurant is located in the “nice” section of town called Miramar. I ate well here, ordering the pollo asado Aljibe, a roasted bird served with a lightly thickened sour orange sauce. It came with white rice and the best black beans in the world: thick and creamy while retaining their texture, fragrant with cumin, and with a touch of vinegar adding a tart undertone. I was surrounded by well-heeled Cuban diners, “probably politicians” my friend Yosely observed.
A trip to a large covered market in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood was an enlightening experience. I was immediately grabbed by a skinny but strong-willed woman who insisted on giving me a “tour” of the market. To label her aggressive would be polite. “Look at this!” “Photograph him — no not him, HIM!” she shrieked. I obediently did as I was commanded.
There was quite a variety of produce in this market, where only Cuban pesos could be spent. For sale were fresh lettuces and leafy greens, green beans, peas, squash, tomatoes, carrots, pineapple, mango, papaya and several kinds of potatoes and other tubers like malanga and yucca. Although the meat section was limited to some fatty bacon and gristly looking mutton, there were long lines to buy.
In a large bodega, rationed staples such as flour, sugar, rice, oil and vinegar were doled out. The market was bustling, the atmosphere jolly. Foods were of high quality and looked fresh and local, but the choice was narrow compared to a similar-sized Mexican market. My “guide” had bought a bag of malanga tubers for her family’s dinner. Perhaps with the tip I gave her she would pick up a little bacon to liven it up.
Peanuts and sandwiches
Street food in Cuba is limited to the peanut vendors made famous by the song “El Manicero,” and purveyors of small sandwiches containing a slice of mystery meat and a lettuce leaf. I saw signs and photos of mouth watering tortas de lechón (sandwiches of suckling pig), but the pig itself seemed not to exist. I remember the wonderful, colorful batidos at Victor’s in New York – thick, refreshing fruit milkshakes with exotic names like mamey and guayaba, but didn’t see any on offer in Havana.
Cuba may not be a gourmet’s paradise, but I ate well and abundantly, and the whole experience made me feel happy and very alive. When I thought of what most people on the island were eating, I toned down my critical agenda and enjoyed what I had, thanking God for the abundance in my life, and the freedom to move and think that I often take for granted. The spirit of ingenious creativity that prevails in Cuba is positively intoxicating — as Irving Berlin wrote, “I’ll see you, in C-U-B-A.”
Nicholas Gilman is a founding member of a Mexican chapter of Slow Food International, the author of “Good Food in Mexico City: A Guide to Food Stalls, Fondas and Fine Dining” and served as editor and photographer for the book “Mexico City: An Opinionated Guide for the Curious Traveler.” He has a website, goodfoodmexicocity.com and has appeared extensively on radio and TV in the U.S. and Mexico. He lives in Mexico City.Top photo: Havana market display.
Slideshow and photo credits: Nicholas Gilman