Survival Skills for Cuban Cooks – Finale

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Thriving in the Cuban kitchen is akin to being a basketball coach: you have to master the art of substitutions. When a recipe calls for pancetta, you understand bacon. If (and when) that’s not happening, a bacon-flavored bouillon cube is a workable alternative. Bouillons of all stripes – pork ribs, chicken and tomato, sausage – are kitchen staples here and though no substitute for the inimitable Better than Bouillon, I’ve made a killer pasta all’Amatriciana with the little square suckers. Alas, the B in BLT does not stand for bouillon. If a recipe says ‘fresh tomatoes,’ that’s understood as canned for a good part of the year, which in turn becomes tomato puree when all else fails (see note 1). And it will: I recently resorted to the ubiquitous ‘puray‘ for a chicken Masala recipe that my husband is still going on about.

Recipes calling for cream aren’t cause for panic as in other underdeveloped, sweltering climes since Cuba is almost entirely a powdered milk kind of place. I remember powdered milk from my childhood as thin and watery, a vehicle for wetting our puffed rice into something approaching edible. Powdered milk also had to be ‘made’ which rendered it labor intensive in my mind. In short, the powdered variety was nothing like the whole and creamy milk my friends poured straight from the carton onto their Cap’n Crunch and Froot Loops (see note 2). But since living in Cuba, I’ve discovered that powdered milk is a versatile and powerful tool in the tropical kitchen. By adjusting the powder to water ratio you can approximate heavy cream (or at least half-and-half) and while I won’t be serving up chocolate mousse with a dollop of whipped cream anytime soon, I make a mean Fettuccine Alfredo and fabulous flan thanks to powdered milk.

Things get trickier when a recipe calls for any cut of cow. It feels like India over here beef is so scarce and the thought of steaks fuels, in part, dreams of escape (see note 3). The only reliable source of red meat – aside from the trio of tony supermarkets selling a handful of cuts to the foreigner crowd, plus the best off Cubans – is frozen ground beef sold in tubes. Not an ideal stand in for the cubed sirloin holding together my favorite chili recipe but it works and ‘Conner’s chili’ has become a dinner party favorite.

Another key to my kitchen survival is importing staples that are simply not available ever. Most people come home from vacation with a suitcase full of souvenirs – some handwoven cloth or a carved totem, a pair of hand-tooled sandals and a couple t-shirts. But when I head home, I’m limit up – close to 50 pounds – with foodstuffs. That seems like a lot, I know, but do you realize how much a jar of Better than Bouillon weighs? Not to mention canned hearts of palm (my guilty pleasure) maple syrup and tahini, dried mushrooms, apricots, and sun dried tomatoes, tortillas, bulgur and couscous, popcorn, basmati rice, and nuts of all types. I always come packing a big block of Parmesan cheese and at least once a year with some olive oil (which has been known to explode en route. Not at all pretty). Cereal figures big in my importation scheme and a few nooks and crannies of luggage space are always packed with spicy stuff: Rooster or habanero sauce, cayenne or red pepper flakes. If you’ve ever been here, you know how alarmingly bland Cuban cuisine is. Now if I could only figure out how to smuggle in some tofu…

Choosing the right recipe is nearly as important as being able to punt. I have a dear friend who sends all kinds of goodies to my PO box here in Havana, including recipes. Exciting stuff, except when it’s clippings from Saveur or Gourmet. That is to say, utterly useless with all their esoteric ingredients and fancy equipment. My go-to source is Cook’s Illustrated, a no-nonsense monthly with real recipes for real people using an evidence-based, kitchen science approach. Not surprisingly, it’s published by frugal and hearty New Englanders who preserve and can and maintain root cellars. I’ve wow-ed Cuban crowds with eggplant Parmesan, tilapia Meunière, apple brown Betty, and blondies culled from Cook’s Illustrated which by the way, is one of the few advertising-free publications I know.

Online recipe databases are another indispensable tool. Got several heads of bok choy or an abundance of carrots? Hit the search button and you’re good to go. One serendipitous day not too long ago, cream cheese suddenly and quite magically appeared on store shelves. With the closest bagel over 90 miles away, I typically have little use for queso crema, but it had been a long time since I’d seen it on these shores and it would likely be as long before I saw it again. I bought four packages. The general state of things here induces this type of ‘wartime buying’: it doesn’t matter if you need it, when you see it, buy five. So I stashed my little bricks of creamy goodness for safe keeping and logged onto my favorite recipe database. Moments later I had recipe in hand combining the cream cheese and another treasure buried in the back of my fridge: a tub of top-of-the-line dulce de leche brought in by my Argentinean brother-in-law. People are still talking about my individual dulce de leche cheesecakes. Too bad the stars will probably never again align for a repeat performance.

When my psychological hunger conspires to get the best of me, I remind myself (or my husband assumes the responsibility in that special way of his) that we’re lucky. Far luckier than most here in Havana – ni habla of those in the provinces. We travel so can import parmesan and pine nuts, sesame oil and ginger root (see note 4). We have internet so can scour for recipes when the corn is ripe or there’s a bumper crop of cabbage. What’s more, about 18 months ago we moved from our shitty cinderblock box facing a cigarette factory to a little apartment on a shady block. In the old place, even my cacti died, fatally intoxicated by the nicotine and other pollutants. Now, we’ve got year ’round basil and cilantro in the cooler months growing on our sun-flooded balcony. My herbal success encouraged me to try my hand at bell peppers and tomatoes. It’s touch and go…

Still, in weaker moments, when my “psychological hunger” takes on a New York state of mind, I miss bagels and sushi horribly, and regular slices and puri (see note 5) only a bit less. If you’re headed down our way, feel free to pack a care package – especially if it’s edible!


1. If Cubans are dependent on any one single ingredient, it’s tomato puree (the one item that never goes missing from stores). Known simply as ‘puray’ it’s in everything from eggs and soups to casseroles and cocktails – the Cubanito is a tropical Bloody Mary, technically tomato juice and rum, but can just as easily by watered down puree and rum. On any menu, anywhere in the world, if its shrimp/lobster/octopus ‘a la Cubana’ it means swimming in tomato puree.

2. What up with major cereal brands and bastardized spelling? Seems like kids these days need all the English-language help they can get, starting with breakfast.

3. But it’s not only the emigrants for which the out-of-reach meat holds allure: putting knife and fork to ‘carne roja’ is a mania for traveling Cubans and their beef-based stories are legion. I have more than one friend who returned from Argentina with gout and still get dewy eyed re-living their Southern Cone food moments. I watched as another friend of mine, an artist of note, devoured a 24-ounce steak in a swanky New York bistro, only to vomit it up soon thereafter. My own body has grown unaccustomed to the richness of red meat, so that these days I can only handle a few ounces at a time. And oh the ensuing flatulence! I’m my own biological weapon.

4. If customs confiscates any of my food upon my next arrival, I will be coming for you readers!

5. I’m fairly certain Cuba is the only in the country in the world without a single Indian restaurant. Can anyone name another?



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25 responses to “Survival Skills for Cuban Cooks – Finale

  1. All’amatriciana with a bouillon cube?! Dang, girl–if there were an International Desperate Expat Cookoff, I think you would win the blue ribbon!

  2. Stacy

    Wonderfully written and fabulously informative. As if we’d expect anything less…

  3. jems

    Kewl Post!

    I have been a follower of Cooks Illustrated for years. I feel for you because of the shortages, but that very circumstance has made me one talented cook (even if I do say so myself!) I am planning a trip to Cuba early next year, so I will chat with you further on exactly how to pack. I am looking forward to more posts about Cuba, you’ve got me HOOKED!

    • That’s the thing about this place – whether you love it or hate it, the island becomes an addiction.

      Glad to hear you’re planning a visit! I always tell people: come, have fun, experience, talk to people and draw your own conclusions.

      Paz! (y comida!)

  4. This series must find a place in “HiH.”

    I believe there are probably ingredients in Cuban cooking that are intangible and go unmentioned. The ingenuity, creativity and ability to “punt” when needed. That adds an extra flavor that can’t be attributed to anything but the love and dexterity of the chef.

    And if I could send you a care package of t-bone steaks, I’d do it in a heartbeat.


    • WAM – do you mean in Here is Havana the never ending short novel-in-progress or the blog that pays nothing, distracts me and keeps me out of trouble?

      Awwww. If only Omaha Steaks shipped to Havana!

      But the good news on that front is that the US and Cuba have resumed talks to resume regular postal service between the 2 countries. As it is now (and has been for decades) any mail coming from there to here has to go through a third country. So my Cooks Illustrated subscription gets sent through Panama and my GOOD subscription goes through Jamaica or something. (don’t know GOOD? check it out NOW:

      Seems postal relations can be as complicated as conjugal ones and there are a lot of security and other issues to work out. Still, you can send me stuff to my PO Box – sometimes it arrives, sometimes it doesn’t!

      My experience with sending letters and cards from here to there seems better than sending from there to here. You folks get my mother’s day cards??


      • Funny you should say that. My folks sent an “Omaha Steaks” package of meats to yours truly to celebrate my landing a job (at last!).

        But if I could have forwarded the package to you, I would have. I have access to steak year ’round. I now feel meat shame.

        This is good writing, and you should include it in your magnum opus. It’s an essential piece of the pie; how a shiksa from Westchester (I know how you hate that) forages for din-din in the (embargoed) tropics.

        I, for one, have never received a Mother’s Day card from you. However, had I received one, it would have vexed me considerably.


      • So how WERE those steaks?! My tastebuds can live vicariously!

        Thanks for the continued support of my writing – we’re totally flat broke and the next guidebook doesnt come up until late 2010, plus my book coming out in december only earns royalties after lots and lots of sales (luckily, I get a good % once I pass the advance). Oh! Thanks for asking. Its called Great Destinations: Guatemala (Countryman Press)

        And Im headed over to COWA now. Check it out people:

      • P.S. I’m curious about your reaction to today’s post on COWA.

  5. jems

    Does that mean if I sent something to your po box you’d get it? (looking for a box to send stuff) Oh yeah, po box number?

    • Ah Jems, were it only so easy….I receive letters, postcards and (sometimes) my magazine subs. Since Bush II (around 2004), service has taken a nose dive and I no longer receive my stuff with any regularity. We’re hoping reecnt talks bw Cuba and USA on postal service will help, but until then….its bouillon cubes for us!

      Thanks all the same!

      !buen provecho!

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  7. Great Blog, Mate! I am constantly on the watch for new and interesting sites and info about speakers… which is what led me here. I certainly plan on visiting again! Adios

  8. I’ve just discovered your blog yesterday and, although I know I’m just rushing through your posts, I just can’t stop reading (I started from the beginning, May 2009). I’ve been tempted to comment on each of your posts and I’ve refrained from doing so because I felt I needed to calm down and write in a more relaxed, orderly way. I’m afraid I won’t be able to do that anytime soon, so I have to ask you this before I read your whole blog: have you already published the book? Being a book-lover, I’m so eager to go through the pages more slowly than I go through the posts, between translation projects, telephone calls and other endless distractions!

    Also, thanks for making my love for Cuba/ns go even more deeply. I wish I was there too, but at least I can read you.

    • Welcome Iralia! And thanks for all your kind words .

      No, no book (yet). The problem is, we’re poor. Totally hand to mouth, check to check. Lots of stateside debt (student loans at 40 is a cruel cruel joke….), plus Cuba is expensive even following my golden rule for a happy life (keep overhead LOW). So, although Ive received so much great feedback since I launched the blog and I would love love love to write a book – my month in Haiti with the Cuban docs is ever present, nagging for me to put more pen to paper/fingertips to keyboard, plus some of those Cuba books out there are quite awful! – I just can’t figure how I would keep food on the table while I was writing it. The hubby’s peso cubano salary ain’t gonna cut it!

      Know any agents? publishers?

      Keep reading. Keep traveling. Spread the word!

      • I wish I could help. Right now I’m hating my office job as translations editor/reviser: I want to go back to Cuba for another week at least! If only I could freelance from there… I would spend a month, or even more.

        Loved your last post. I think it’s “aZabache”.

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  12. El Cubanito

    Hi Conn,

    Hey do u ever go food shoping at some of the top food store in Havana? THere are some excellent markets like LA PUNTILLA at corner Street A and 1st Avenue, Miramar, SUPERMERCADO 70 at 3rd Avenue and 70th Street, Miramar (This used to be a good market to shop but last year when I went it was rather empty.), CENTRO COMERCIAL PALCO at 5th Avenue and 188th Street, Miramar is (I usually shop here for my food) and finally MERCADO CUBALSE at 5th Avenue and 42nd Street, Miramar. Granted the do not have bagels and some of us like. I am a New Yorker I do miss my bagels on Sunday, but I have survived without them.

    • When I can ($$ and transport depending), I go to these places. Palco is a bit of a scene for me – too tiny, shoppers are too pushy and most of the products are way expensive – but it is THE place to get top end/rare goods and products. the other good ones are Galerias Paseo (Linea y Paseo) and PALCO Casa de Verano (next to Cira Garcia). But none of these places have bagels, tofu, tortillas, artichokes, swiss cheese, and a thousand other things I crave!!

      By the way: anyone coming to Havana can learn all about these ‘supermercados’ mentioned by El Cubanito in my iapp Havana Good Time. [sorry for the shameless plug – have to keep plantains on the table!]

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