Havana, Cuba: a City Tasting Tour
A lone fisherman in combat fatigues and beret, a cigar hanging from the corner of his mouth casts his line from within the walls of the Maleçon, the 8 kilometre serpentine stretch of promenade that hems the city in. Today, the waves crash over the low walls at points, but other than a few joggers and fishermen, it’s quiet as the sun is yet to find its strength.
By 8:30 am I need to seek shade in the cooler side streets. A little later I see the fisherman walking with a small bucket filled with his catch in the characterful streets of Habana Vieja or old Havana. Is he going home or selling his wares, I wonder.
Before the crush of American tourists lining up outside the banks to change their currency and the throng of those in search of internet-cards outside the Telemundo offices, I sip a cappuccino with weak foam and sugary pastries at San-José Panaderia-Dulceria, a state-run bakery in Calle Obispo.
The prices, in local peso and the convertible currency for tourists – the CUC – are low. It shows in the quality of the butter-less, egg-less pastries and brown frosting that’s meant to emulate actual chocolate.
Rising To The Challenge
But, this has always been the challenge in Cuba – to adapt to frequent harsh circumstances, to ingredients, or the lack of them, and to create in spite of it all. I speak to Cubanos who remind me about the Special Period they endured from 1989 to 1991 that crushed the Cuban economy, a time when hunger was the norm.
Today, sometimes the mojitos are made with lime juice from a Tetra Pak box, the piña coladas without coconut milk and the pastries without butter. The potatoes advertised on menus are almost never available, but sweet potato and taro are. And American Coca Cola, hardly an inconvenience, can’t be found in Havana, except occasionally at a luxury hotel catering to foreigners. There is TuKola, though, the syrup-sweet Cuban toothache-inducing variety.
Currently, there is a revival in the culinary scene as both state-run restaurants and paladares – the privately run eateries, often operating from the homes or former homes of the owners – face an influx in tourism. Reservations at the most popular paladares must be made weeks in advance during the peak season, usually by phone as internet connection is intermittent.
Ingredients like spices, olive oil, nuts, grains, butter and sea salt are flown in from Miami, a 45-minute plane ride away and what’s available at the market will be adapted to fit within recipes.
The Cuban Plate
Cuban cooks are schooled in resourcefulness and while many try to serve French-inspired menus with beef, lobster and delicate plating with sprigs of rosemary and imported wines, the core of comida criolla or Cuban cuisine is quite simple. Dishes like moros y cristianos (black beans and rice), a staple at most meals, congrí (rice with red kidney beans) fried plantains, fried chicken, grilled fish, starchy stews and ropa vieja – a shredded meat (commonly beef) dish served as a sauce-less stew – are staple main meals.
Locals’ breakfasts often consist of bread and a smear of butter and sometimes a fried egg. Hotels and casa particulares (home stay accommodations) serve up sliced fruit (a luxury for locals), bread, eggs, fruit juice and coffee. As a rule of thumb, paladares and even casa particualres serve better quality food and the service is infinitely superior to most state-run restaurants where staff receive low wages. Traditional Cuban fare is served at the perennially popular paladar, Doña Eutimia. En route, punters attempt to lure you into a slew of restaurants tucked on a side street in the heart of old Havana, but it really is worth snagging a booking here and politely declining their offers.
La Moneda Cubana has beguiling views from the balcony, but it also attracts busloads of tourists for lunch. This, of course, can’t be helped. Even La Guarida, with its plush dining rooms and balconies, housed in a derelict residential apartment block in Centro and made famous by Senel Paz’s short story, Strawberry and Chocolate, has its fair share of gigantic tour groups. Atelier in Vedado offers exceptional service in a high-ceilinged dining room in a contemporary art-filled home that attracts a posh crowd. The lobster, churrasco (grilled beef steak), flan and cheesecake are outstanding by local standards. As trade and travel start to open both inwards and outwards, Cuban gastronomy finds itself on the threshold of monumental opportunity and growth.