Can a single dish inspire wanderlust? This culinary journey through Cuba shows its cuisine has come of age.
The wispy, crispy tendrils of shredded meat were flash-fried, adorned with grilled onions and tasted of lime and garlic. It was beefy, salty and slightly sour and, after the initial crunch, the meat was pleasantly soft and elastic. The platter of vaca frita (fried cow), serendipitously ordered at a Cuban restaurant in Ecuador back in 1996, disappeared within seconds.
This is when I fell in love with Cuban food, and my obsession with vaca frita endures. I cannot pass a Cuban restaurant without checking to see if it is on the menu. More often than not, they have a similar dish called ropas viejas (old clothes), which is also braised and simmered and shredded but finished in a tomato-based sauce. Vaca frita is a difficult dish to make in any quantity, as the beef cannot be crowded in the frying pan, and it must be fried just before serving.
When I told people I was going on a food tour of Havana, they scoffed. Two friends claimed they would never visit Cuba again, the food was that terrible. Suffice to say they hadn’t been in more than 10 years.
This pains Laura Cruz, a 31-year-old Havana foodie and entrepreneur who is about to launch the website immersecuba.com that connects tourists with private rental accommodations called casa particulares.
“I get a lot of feedback from Americans,” says Cruz, a former IT worker for the government of Cuba who, as an Instafoodie, posts under her lululikecoco handle. “I’ve heard Cuban food is bland, and that hurts my feelings because it’s not true.”
Just like visitors to Canada suffer through mediocre meals near tourist traps, you are going to run into some subpar food and drink in Cuba. The mojito at Havana’s La Bodeguita del Medio, one of two famous watering holes frequented by Ernest Hemingway, was a disappointment. Better to spend your money at El Del Frente on O’Reilly Street, which has a spectacular rooftop patio and stellar cocktails that look like they were made by a food stylist, including fishbowl gin and tonics that tasted of vanilla, mojitos made of local mango and beer wrapped in a sleeve of newspaper to soak up the condensation. I had a few little plates to share with my travelling companions, with the ceviche winning my vote for best dish.
You can’t write about food in Cuba without a brief history lesson. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Cuba was plunged into an extreme economic crisis as its main source of trade dried up. Food and fuel shortages meant Cubans went hungry, and the country entered what former president Fidel Castro called the Special Period. As the tourism industry grew and the decades passed, the country’s fortunes improved.
The island became more self-sufficient, producing some of what it needed and finding new trading partners for what it couldn’t – Canada, no surprise, is a source of flour and beef. Chefs turned to indigenous foods like taro root, squash and cassava out of necessity, then found themselves on the inside track of the local food movement. Now, thanks to internet access, although limited and expensive, chefs are searching out new recipes and experimenting with novel cooking techniques.
“Two years ago, Cuban cuisine is not what you’re seeing now,” says Cruz, ordering taro root fritters called frituras de malanga, an octopus carpaccio, and red snapper ceviche at the Havana paladar called Habana 61 after its street address. “Now the chef is the owner of the restaurant and wants to show his creativity.” Because she loves to eat and because she loves to proselytize about Cuban food, Cruz will add food reviews and pictures to her website after launch.
“In Cuban cuisine, the most important thing is the flavour,” she says, conceding that, for the most part, presentation on the plate lags behind. “Cuban people are not so fond of beautiful dishes. It’s not pretentious food, just good food.”
Chef Pedro Pablo joins us at our Habana 61 table. A self-taught cook, he learned most of what he knows in five years at the Meliá Cohiba hotel in Havana and another 13 in another well-known Havana paladar called La Guarida. He also spends hours doing internet research, watching videos of chefs and searching out recipes on Google. This is the new face of the paladar, once the domain of home cooks who opened their kitchens and living rooms to visitors.