Friday, July 13, 2012


When first considering Cuba travel, it was to research a cookbook. In the first week that pipe dream flies out the window. This is a land that lives on sugar, from tropical fruits and fruit drinks, sodas, sweet cocktails, sweet pastries (fried dough and sugar), ice cream, sugar-water, coco-ruchos[1]. Seriously, the sugar load is everywhere. On the streets, in the casas and restaurants, in shops, on carts. It carries a deep history too, a history of slavery, so important to the early sugar years of Spanish and US sugar barons[2], later the Russians. The revolution destroys racism along with classism, and Cuba enjoys a very mixed society today. Meanwhile I'm jonesing for some greens, veggies, a potato chip...anything unsweetened.

Beyond the sugar fixation, I am underwhelmed by my experience of Cuban food. It is usually over-cooked, over-salted, unimaginative, and boring. Maybe it's a lack of food choices[3]; a Cuban friend loads her luggage with spices and cookware when returning home. Still, being a cook, I'm sure I can turn out different and better-tasting fare from the same ingredients. It's the sameness that bores me. Same same same, everywhere: pescado, pollo, or pork (fried or grilled, overcooked, oversalted), with shredded cabbage and a slice of tomato and cucumber (salad), hard white rice, dull beans, coffee. Nearly everywhere.

We get in the habit of ordering breakfast at the casa (usually $3), and for the most part it is very standard fare: a plate of fresh tropical fruit (banana, pineapple, mango or papaya), a 'tortilla' - flattened overcooked scrambled egg, bad Cuban bread (wanna be French baguette that misses by a mile), and strong Cuban coffee (espresso or with hot milk). I start saving part of my dinners for breakfast or take to the street, where for $1 cuc I can usually find a great cup of joe and a pulled pork or grilled jamon y queso sandwich. There is the exception, but we'll wait for Trinidad.

We duck into Cafe Neruda on the Malecon one afternoon, the Chilean poet being one of my favorites. The overcooked fish and overcharging (three times) compete with the bad food and dull service. Two thumbs down. Pablo, a gastronomist and foodie, would roll over in his grave. We had been warned (thanks, Conner[4]) to check all bills carefully, as overcharging and mistakes are 'normal'. We receive two correct bills during our entire stay! We also learn that 'enchilado langosto' is NOT a lobster enchilada; $3 fried chicken and fries down on the port can be a great choice;  .50 pizza at the bus station is a steal; and sometimes taking that handout on the corner is worthwhile - as in Al Medina, an Arab restaurant right off Plaza d'Armas, where a plate of falafel, dolmas, pita and hummus, fish ceviche, salad, and a mohito are $6.50. The amazing D'Gala trio serenades as well.

Overall we run into very few exceptions to dull food - an overpriced veal parmesan (billed as veal picatta) at an 'Italian' paladar in Varadero, a perfectly-cooked $12 lobster dinner at Dona Eutemia's in Habana Vieja (their traditional ropa vieja[5] is superb as well). We take a horse wagon to Aché, a paladar in Cienfuegos, and are treated to the best grilled chicken 'complete' meal anywhere. This great experience (from service to food) is capped off with melt-in-your-mouth coconut flan and an introduction to carajillo - a rich Cuban espresso with Havana Club aged rum (anejo). Maria's lobster dinner in Puerto Padre comes with side dishes like beets and carrots, really beautiful rice and beans, camarones and fried bananas. Yum!

We enjoy another memorable culinary experience in Trinidad[6] at Casa Chocolate Y Dailanis, 608 Frank Pais.  Definitely our best casa of the entire trip, for space, comfort, location, and value. Better yet, the husband (Chocolate) is a chef, formerly of the fancy hotel on the hill. His kitchen is stocked with herbs and spices, cookware, knives, food processor, fish steamer, pressure cooker, and other tools of the trade unseen in previous cucinas. His pride and creativity serve up each morning and evening, as we enjoy all our meals there.

Our first dinner consists of delicious fish soup, camarones a la casa (shrimp, cooked delicately in a magical garlic/herb/tomato sauce), luscious rice and beans (we peek into the kitchen midday as he is seasoning the beans), mashed sweet potatoes (a welcomed relief from fried yucca), long-bean and tomato salad, little eggplant divines, fruit salad, tiramisu, coffee - and all in portions large enough to provide lunch the next day. $7.00

Breakfast is just as delicious: huevos suprema - eggs, gently scrambled and perfectly seasoned with red peppers, green onions, and bacon, fruit plate (mangoes are going off in Trinidad), fruit smoothie, yogurt, ham and cheese plate (sandwiches for later), and the second best coffee in Cuba. [The best at a little café near Guantanamo, where the bus stops for a quick break. The espresso is so fabulous, I buy one for the driver. Fifty cents.]

On our last night there, Chocolate pulls out all the stops with a large whole parrot fish (caught that morning on the bay at La Boca), cooked to perfection...and all the sides, chocolate helados, and coffee. After lucking into Chocolate's cooking, I almost revive the idea of an island cookbook, but the revival is short-lived. Still he remains our favorite, just as his casa is.

Let's not forget the coppelias - state-run ice cream parlors, available in nearly every town, where ten to twenty cents (in local currency) buys a scoop of creamy coconut, dark chocolate, fresa (strawberry), and a few seasonal choices of delicious helados. We remain on the lookout for them throughout our trip. And are reminded of them at the Cancun airport on re-entry, where a Hagen Daas is $7.50 per scoop!

Trinidad remains one of my favorite places, in memory as it was in experience. Time stopped around the mid 1800's in this beautiful classic Spanish colonial town. Bicycles carry men, women, children, as do pedicabs and cabarello carts. A motorcycle. A rare car, banned from the centre. Mostly people walk, talk, greet neighbors. A horse waits, cart filling, while men (Chocolate joins in) load it with chunks of cement, old bricks, debris from the house shell across from our casa. A remodel is underway, probably a new casa particulares. Above the rooftops -  the Sierra del Escambray mountains, a sprawling sea on the horizon, clouds dancing. Mango trees dangle hundreds of ripening orbs. A tangle of electrical wires compete with fluttering laundry on tiled rooftops, as a man releases dozens of birds just before sunset. They circle and return.

Early morning, a man peddles by. "Pain, pain calliente," he sings as door after door opens along the narrow street for his hot bread. A horse-drawn cart passes slowly, with chunks of pork and whole chickens loaded on the back. A pedi-cab features pineapples, stalks of bananas, papaya the size of footballs, baskets of mangoes. Another has tomatoes and cabbages. On the street, food is delivered door to door. Neighbors come out to greet each other, welcome the day. Children walk to school in their red and white uniforms, laughing, happy.

from CUBA NOTES (aka my own rum diaries)
~ a multi-part series about my Cuba impressions

[1]  A confection found in Baracoa made of grated coconut, fruit or chocolate flavored, and sugar-sweetened so severely it can't be eaten.
[2]  By the 1880s over 80% of sugar exports went to the US, and large island plantations were owned by Americans.
[3]  Citizens line up for their food rations: arroz, frijoles, huevos, sugar, alcohol, tobacco...
[4]  Conner Gorry, former US writer, now living in Cuba. Writes for the government, Lonely Planet, her own blog (Here is Havana: and has a fab iPhone app, Havana Good Time, which works even when not online. Two thumbs up!
[5]  Ropa vieja is arguably Cuba's national dish. Spanish for 'old clothes', it's a well-seasoned shredded beef dish, popular throughout the country. Think pulled pork. Served over rice or chickpeas, or in a bun.
[6]  Lovely colonial city, tucked between the sea and mountains, founded in 1514.