Tag Archives: vegetables

The Cuban Food Question

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]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?

Notes

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!

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Filed under cuban cooking, Cuban economy, Cuban idiosyncracies, Travel to Cuba

Keeping in Line, Cuban-Style

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It was Sunday and it seemed like the whole neighborhood was out getting their coffee and Times. When we entered the bagel store – a cubby hole joint so Jewish it’s closed on Saturdays – a scrum of hungry New Yorkers clustered around the display case of smears. They may have had sleep in their eyes, but these natives had sharp elbows; both safety and common courtesy required we not cut in front of anyone. But where was the front? Where was the “line?”

“We have to start implementing el último here,” my sister said as we loitered awkwardly on the fringe of the amorphous mass.

“Who’s last in line?!” I boomed to everyone, no one and someone – exactly who, I wasn’t sure. Once I had my answer and we knew where we stood, I dedicated myself to studying which of the 57 juices for sale struck my fancy.

—–

El último is an institution and key survival skill on this side of the Straits. It’s one of those inventive measures that is at once simple and brilliant – in short, pure Cuban.

I don’t need to tell you that lines here can be long. It’s an enduring cliché of the one party state and waiting on those lines is a daily reality for me and my neighbors. Mastering el último, therefore, is obligatory.

Here’s how it works: when you come upon the scrum at the bank/bus stop/ice cream parlor/bakery, the first thing you ask is ‘¿quien es el último?’ Who’s last in line?

We accomplish a lot with these four words. Everyone knows immediately the line’s sequence which instills instant order to an inherently disorderly affair, plus it allows us to abandon the line concept altogether. Once you know who you follow by taking the último, and once someone shows up to take the último from you, there’s no need to actually stand in line. The system gives us the freedom to disperse and loiter, catch some shade or take a load off.

Taking and giving el último was one of my very first lessons Here in Havana (the other was never, ever trust the guy weighing your produce). I loved its elegant simplicity and how it allowed me to slip seamlessly into local practice.

It took me a bit to get the second part of el último – the part where you ask ‘¿detrás quien va?‘ Who are you behind? This follow-up phrase to who’s last in line? is every bit as important as ascertaining who you follow in the first place. Consider what happens if I take el último from you, but suddenly your lover putters up in a Polski or you get fed up and decide to walk (as if! but let’s just suppose). Your disappearing means I now have no idea who I’m behind. Your exit leaves me in the lurch, poised to screw up the heretofore well-ordered procession.

It’s common courtesy (admittedly in shorter and shorter supply these days it seems) when you’re ducking out of line to let the person behind you know. As in: ‘I’m outta here. You’re now behind the compañero in the Yankees cap.’

There are those who ignore lines here entirely. Typically they fall into two categories: Cubanos descaraos (ingrates) and pushy foreigners. Both boil down to feeling superior, like their time is more important than yours and so they’re entitled to jump the line. I know people like this. Their attitude is: ‘fuck it. I’m not waiting in line.’ I find their behavior distasteful – especially as I blow 20 minutes waiting to change money.

There are others who are just line spastic. These folks typically show up and wait patiently, but without ever taking or ceding the último, throwing a wrench into the works. My husband falls into this category (another major motivation for me to master the system as quickly as possible once I landed on these shores).

Clueless foreigners also form part of the line spastic phylum. They just don’t know, poor dears, and so screw up the system with their ignorance. With that mix of pity and paternalism with which many Cubans view foreigners (as if we are all just big inexperienced kids; as if we’ve collectively just fallen off the turnip truck), they usually just let them pass to the front of the line. They do it in good humor mostly, chalking it up to ingenuousness and our general non-Cuban state of being.

Then there are those who don’t have to take el último. These folks go straight to the front of the line like an entitled or unknowing foreigner. Women with babies and blind folk usually fall into this category and pregnant women always do. Or so I thought…

—–

It was September 2008 and Cuba had just been walloped by a duet of hurricanes. The aftermath was dramatic, the future uncertain: 10% of the nation’s GDP had been swiped away by the 193 kilometer an hour winds and it was unclear how well the country was going to pull through. It felt like that moment when the ref is standing over the boxer, sweat and blood pooling on the mat, and the crowd is holding its breath as the count goes to 3, 4, 5. Was there any fight left?

Fresh food was nowhere to be found in Havana. The agros were empty, the stalls streaked with the mud of long gone squashes and string beans, cukes and yucca. When some produce finally started dribbling into the city it was rationed: 2 pounds of plátano macho per person for instance or one calabaza a head. Lines were as long as I’d ever seen them, anywhere, anytime.

We took the último in two lines (another benefit to the system: by marking your place in this manner, you can do double duty, waiting in two lines at once, even though you need not be present in either once you give ‘el último‘) to buy our coveted one head of cabbage. Both lines crept forward. After 45 minutes, we began to wonder if the supply would hold out until our turn. We stood on tiptoes to see how many cabbages were left. We could wait all day if need be – we couldn’t remember the last time we had a fresh vegetable. ‘Will they run out?’ people were commenting around us. The line grew restless as the mound of white-green globes grew smaller.

¿¡El último?!‘ someone shouted from behind.

¿Última persona?‘ they repeated.

¡YO!‘ shouted a broad-chested guy dressed head to toe in white.

¿Detrás quien va?’

‘Her,’ he responded, pointing to an elderly lady with hair dyed that same purple they use to stamp meat in the States.

People on that line were quiet, too quiet. They weren’t making conversation to pass the time like nromal. It was unusually tense.

‘Seventeen people to go,’ the woman behind me whispered, counting heads with a crooked finger.

We stood there like cattle watching the cabbage mound dwindle. Some looked at their watches with the raised eyebrow and pursed lips that in Cuban means ‘Dios mío, carajo.’ The line grew tight all of the sudden, with some energetic shuffling up towards the front.

¡Embarazada!

¡EMBARAZADA!

‘Pregnant woman coming through!’ the lithe mulatta shouted as she walked to the front of the line. We looked at her. We looked at the cabbage. We could see loose leaves at the bottom of the container. The supply was dangerously low.

‘Pregnant?! My ass you’re pregnant!’ someone near me said.

He was right: she didn’t look en estado, but that’s often the case…initially. But by cutting the line, she’d crossed a line – that line dividing survival from just giving in and lying there on the mat while the ref counts 6, 7, 8…We’d been here over an hour and in strolls (supposed) mom-to-be claiming her right to forgo el último.

These Habaneros were having none of it.

¡La cola, la cola! someone shouted – did she need to be told there was a line as long as the Malecón?

‘How pregnant are you?’ another person asked – as if a woman who would lie about her gestational state wouldn’t lie about how far along she was.

‘Get to the back of the line!’ shouted another. ¡Estás collao!

While people argued with her, the cabbage ran out.

The crowd dispersed, heads hanging, plastic bags slack.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Living Abroad