Cuba. Forbidden. Mysterious. A place that time has forgotten. All of these images come to mind when one thinks of Cuba. With the recent progression in Cuban and American relations, we decided to make the journey to visit the amazing city of Havana before the mega resorts and American business men move in and destroy it. The landscapes, culture, the food…they were all a preconceived notion to me. We actually booked the trip a year ago, as a fitness retreat with Escape to Shape. Access to Cuba is cumbersome and the only way we could enter the country legally was to come as a cultural exchange. We left the leg work with the experts at Escape to Shape. The owner, Erica Gragg, has led us on multiple adventures into the unknown. We trusted her implicitly to get us in to Cuba smoothly, to organize a fantastic itinerary, to eat amazing food and surprise us with off the beaten track adventures. She did not disappoint.
I could write all day about the kindness of the Cuban people, the fascinating and growing art scene, the intoxicating music, the tropical landscapes, the deep history and the decaying elegance of Havana….but this is a food blog.
So I will stick to the topic of gastronomy and hopefully, succeed in weaving in a bit of interesting commentary for you!
I had been warned, that the food in Cuba is boring. Beans, rice, chicken, fish and mojitos. It would make sense, considering that single biggest challenge to the chefs of Cuba is their access to a wide variety of food. There simply is not a lot of food products available.
And contrary to many other Latin American countries, Cuban food is not spicy. Not at all. All of this being said, my experience with the food in Cuba was surprisingly good.
For our very first meal, we had straightforward, traditional Cuban cuisine in the fishing village of Cojimar. This village was the inspiration for Hemingway’s ‘Old Man and the Sea’.
As we walked down the dusty sidewalk and entered the Ajiaco Cafe. As with most of our Cuban meals, everything was served family style, down the center of a long table.
As soon as we walked in, we were handed a mojito, their national cocktail. Everyone generally makes a mojito the same way, but not this place! My compliments to the chef who thought of adding honey instead of sugar and a single sweet pepper to these mojitos! It was un unexpected and tasty twist;)
Our feast started with a large basket of freshly baked bread, served with whipped pineapple butter. I did not taste the bread, but with the ever growing sounds of approving “yum”s, I tasted a bit of the butter. It was amazing! This is the perfect example of how common food in Cuba was integrated into something different. It had just the slightest hint of sweetness and was whipped into creamy perfection. I will definitely attempt to make it at home:)
Next came some cheese croquettes and the soup. We were told that the soup was a common countryside soup made with root vegetables (taro, yucca, potatoes), guaco and “many other ingredients”. Guaco is a vine-like plant whose leaves are said to have medicinal properties. I’m not sure what all the other flavors were, but it was simple and tasty.
The main entree was the Ropa Vieja (old rope), a shredded beef dish that is a staple in Cuba. The meat was tender and flavored lightly with onions. This was served with beans, rice and taro root with pickled onions.
For dessert they served rice pudding (another use for rice) with a sugared rim and spoon of lime sorbet, which was a perfect palate cleanser.
They also served my favorite Cuban Coffee from the entire trip. Not only was the technique fascinating to watch, it had a nice presentation, served in a small, rustic metal cup. The taste was sweet, but potent!
No matter whether it was lunch or dinner, casual or formal, most of our meals were closely matched to this meal, with different combinations of meats including ropa vieja, chicken, pork, swordfish and lobster. Nearly every meal was served with beans and rice and root vegetables or another vegetables. Rarely was there a salad included with our meal, just some shredded cabbage with tomato and some oil and vinegar…. if you were lucky.
The main difference between each meal was in the preparation of the meats (sautéed, versus grilled), the addition of sauces and multiple adaptions of root vegetable preparations (fried, sautéed, pureed and mashed).
It really was inspiring to see the many combinations that were made out of the same ingredients. Some of my favorite meals, in this traditional style were dinner at Le Chansonnier and Atelier and lunch at Ajiaco Cafe, our outdoor lunch La Moneda and Casa del Campesino near the Sierra del Rosario area (all complete with live music).
Of course there were a few restaurants that were more creative with their cuisine. El Cocinero offers an inventive menu, in a lively setting, with a large outdoor terrace.
I loved their adaptation of rice pudding, shaped into sushi rolls, with raisins in the the center, a condensed milk dipping sauce and chop sticks for eating.
La Guarida (www.laguarida.com) was my absolute favorite meal in Havana, not only because of the wonderful food, but because of the gorgeous 20th Century building it resides in and the manner in which the restoration was accomplished. It is considered a paladar, a privately owned, in home and family operated restaurant (as opposed to a government run restaurant).
Interestingly, part of it remains a multifamily dwelling. Much of the lower half of the building is left in elegant decay, with colorful tiled floors and an beautiful marble staircase, surrounded by thick, intricate wrought iron. Up, up, up the stairs you go, four flights up.
Every angle of your journey showcases a unique view, through a window, a door, a hallway, until you finally reach the restaurant, which has been lovingly restored, and is thick with modern art, crystal chandeliers, large wood paned windows, and multiple outdoor terraces that offer panoramic views of Havana.
The place is hopping, even as we finally finish our meal, well past midnight.
The dinner was our most decadent. It started with an appetizer of eggplant caviar, a shot of pumpkin puree and a small salad of candied pecans, pineapple, dried apricots and cheese.
Every bit was delicious and a complete departure from all of our meals in Havana. Next came a spinach crepe, filled with chicken and drizzled with a red pepper sauce. The main course was Lobster Beurre Blanc, served with beans and rice, fried plantains and (my favorite) yucca root, doused in copious amounts of butter. For dessert, we had a deconstructed lemon meringue pie with a chocolate tart. Unfortunately, the food was too dark to photograph. It was amazing. A night dreams are made of….
One more thing. The street food. It is best not to tempt fate and end up sick while visiting Cuba. Just don’t do it, unless it’s coconut ice cream served in it’s own shell. The heat is really intense and this little piece of heaven can literally, save you:)
So there you have it! I can’t wait to see how the food culture in Havana explodes once there is better access to more ingredients. The chefs of Havana have already created an impressive array of culinary choices, under the harshest of circumstances. It will only get better from here! For more information on the food culture in Havana, check out this article printed in Saveur in October, 2015 http://www.saveur.com/best-paladares-restaurants-in-havana-cuba