Not questionable Cuban food, mind you, but questions about Cuban food which continue to dog me, even after 10 years here, like: why are there no croutons? Or guacamole? And why don’t Cubans cook with coconut (Baracoa excepted)? Or bacon? I mean, it’s not as if there aren’t enough cocos and pigs to go around. To be fair, bacon is making inroads (see note 1) and I’ve seen a couple of coconut dishes here in Havana, but a tasty use for stale bread and old avocados?! You’d think the frugal out of necessity and habit Cubans, people who always use a tea bag twice and for whom disposable diaper is an oxymoron would be all over these past expiration date preparations. But no.
As devoted readers of this blog well know, I’m preoccupied with food, maybe disproportionately so, but that’s what happens when your formative years are spent in a food insecure home (see note 2). Whether that’s the reason my mom and siblings are such avid, fantastic cooks, I can’t say, but it rubbed off on me. This devotion to inventive, well prepared food coupled with the hundreds of restaurants, bistros, cafés, buffets, and drive-ins (Hawaiian kine) I’ve had to review for guidebooks makes me an expert of sorts (the bad, overly critical kind perhaps, but hey, someone has to steer you clear of shitty food in your travels).
Not surprisingly, I’m both excited and wary about the explosion of new restaurants in Havana. Excited because the quality and diversity of menus are improving – even in state restaurants which seem to be upping their game in the face of stiffer competition. Wary because I know how horrifyingly crappy Cuban food can be and the tricks used to try and cover the fact. At the same time, I’m concerned for my fellow travelers since everyone is writing about these new eateries, including amateurs and hacks who are dangerously unqualified – either due to a lack of regard for good food in general or ignorance of Cuban cooking and context specifically. These poseurs shall remain nameless, (that would be tacky), but their “work” on the topic has motivated me to help out with some observations about eating in my fair city.
All the examples below are from new paladares which are currently or soon will be listed in my app Havana Good Time.
An Indian restaurant sans raita – So Cuba has its first “Indian” restaurant (note quotation marks people – punctuation has a function!). The space is quite lovely and the staff is attentive, but the food? Like the guy I lost my virginity to, being the first is not enough to win me over. I know, I know, I should be thankful that we even have an “Indian” restaurant here (see note 3), but you know what? I cook better Indian food and mine is accompanied by the requisite raita. For those not familiar with Indian cuisine, this traditional sauce is used to cut the spiciness of dishes while adding a dynamic flavor layer to the palate. And before you jump down my throat about the unavailability of certain ingredients here in Cuba: raita is yogurt, cucumbers, and garlic – three items that rarely go missing here in Havana.
“Vegetarian” spring rolls – It’s really too bad that the new Vedado paladar serving this toothsome finger food doesn’t heed punctuation as religiously as we do: when I cut into one of these rolls recently, out spilled bok choy, scallions, cabbage, carrots and…ham. When I asked the waitress (nicely, my shoulders unburdened of any NYC or foodie chip) what was in these rolls, she confirmed the presence of the ever-present pork. I pointed out that this could result in some serious problems – not only with vegetarians (see note 4), but also with Jews and Muslims too, who take as much solace as herbivores to see vegetarian selections on the typically pork-laden Cuban menu. When I asked why they call them “vegetarian,” she said with a straight face: ‘because there are lots of vegetables in there.’
Deep fried olives are considered nouvelle cuisine – I don’t know what was more shocking: seeing something besides Gouda cubes and croquettes as hors d’oeuvres or the realization that they had actually deep fried olives to serve to a group of foreign VIPs. While far from heart healthy, I have to admit these were disconcertingly tasty, which can be said for almost anything except the deep fried cucumbers I had last week. Both of these examples, by the way, hail from Habana Vieja, part of Eusebio Leal’s wickedly clever fiefdom (which is usually head and shoulders above regular state enterprises). Alas, sophistication is not an overly common Cuban trait, as evidenced by…
Oil & vinegar, the one and only dressing – Sure, you might get a nice honey Dijon in someone’s home, but in a high end paladar? Not likely, where the same tired oil-vinegar- salt trio prevails (lucky you if that exotic spice we call black pepper is available!). A few places are starting to provide balsamic and olive oil, considering this the height of haute, showing how far we are from raspberry vinaigrettes or tahini-lemon dressing. Granted, raspberry vinegar and sesame paste are in short supply here, but honey, Dijon, blue cheese, anchovies, capers, soy sauce and many other ingredients for inventive dressings are available sin problema. But this lack of sophistication is even more blatant in the place with…
Busty waitresses in low-cut blouses and Daisy Dukes – I don’t care how hot you are (or think you are or your manager thinks you are): I don’t want my steak served with more flesh in my face than Copacabana sees in summertime. In a word: inappropriate! Especially at this expensive high-end restaurant featured recently in several glossy magazines (which made a glaring omission of the “uniforms;” unsurprisingly, all the articles were written by men). Havana Hooters anyone?
The $4 fruit shake – Argue with me all you want (welcome to the club!), but this is simply wrong in our context and distorts the local economy like the thousands of bright-eyed NGO workers who rush into post-disaster Haiti or Indonesia and pay triple the going price for bananas, potable water, taxis, whatever. To all the new places offering the four dollar shakes and similar: consider yourself boycotted on GPs.
Musing about all this leads me to believe the absence of croutons, guacamole, and coconut-based dishes is due to lack of knowledge, experience, creativity, motivation, or a combination thereof.
What do you think readers? Any surprising omissions in your Cuban culinary travels?
1. I predict crispy bacon (not the flaccid, fatty crap at hotel buffet troughs) will explode in popularity as US visitors continue to pour in and restaurateurs realize the egg/bacon/toast triumvirate is as American as inequity.
2. Mom was a single mother of four which made her, out of necessity and habit, a creative, but stretched cook (and very Cuba in her way which is a big factor as to why I’ve been able to survive/thrive in the peculiar conditions on this side of the Straits. Epigenetics might have something to do with it too). We all remember with a shudder living on oatmeal for two weeks solid and the fight over who got more noodles. This fracas is still dragged out to this day – but in the best, sibling rivalry type of way now that our oatmeal and noodle days are behind us.
3. In the interest of full disclosure: everyone I’ve talked to who has eaten there – visitor and Cuban alike – was very impressed with the place which means one of two things: my standards are too high or theirs are too low.
4. I have seen a strict vegetarian take a bite into an egg roll he was told was 100% veggies and the resulting fisticuffs – never underestimate the strength and rage of a pissed off vegetarian!