What’s the Matter with Cuba(n Food)?

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Welcome to 2012!

From the explosively good flavors of the Basque country, I hopped on a plane and flew to the always impressive diverse culinary scene in New York City. Call me crazy, but I feel like every time I go back there, the food options have gotten quirkier, more specialized, and more particular, hitting every note on the taste bud spectrum. Hell, it even hit notes I didn’t even know existed! And that’s the amazing thing about the cooking tradition in a place where pretty much no one is from the land they stand on. Centuries of cultural mixing, clashing and swirling around in such a concentrated space, and VOILA! You really do get the great American melting pot.

But that’s a whole other story. After four unbelievable brunches (sigh… how I miss thee NYC brunch with your kooky cocktails, poached eggs and pancakes…), I found myself in what just might be the exact opposite of NYC’s flavor spectrum- Havana, Cuba.

Havana would be impossible to capture in this posting- the city is vibrant above and beyond any I’ve seen before, with music coming out of the cracks in the sidewalk, the crumbling walls and the peeling paint. The streets are bustling but unlike in NYC, the chaos doesn’t breed anger. Artists’ studios spill onto the sidewalk, and – yes – old couples dance salsa together on the square at sunset. The stereotype is all true: Havana is a city of resplendent and vivacious culture!

But if you don’t know already, there is also a widespread rumor that Cuban food is bad. There is practically no debate about it in fact: the consensus is that it is simply bad, and bland.

Now, as an avid lover of rice and beans and friend plantains, I assumed the rumors were being spread by prickly tourists who simply can’t appreciate the local food. On a mission to prove the world wrong, we tried food at a state restaurant, a semi-private restaurant, a resort, at the historic Hotel Nacional and even got to try a typical Cuban home cooked meal. But I have to admit, the rumors were pretty accurate: the food was bland. And overcooked. Consistently.  And yet, Havana, much like New York City, has a history as a port and as a crossroads, where cultures wove in and out, creating a diversity of culinary traditions. Cuban cuisine traditionally ranges from Spanish-imported paella and ropa vieja (braised beef), to lobster drenched in mojo (garlic and butter sauce), to simple ham and cheese sandwiches. In fact, I’ve had the chance to taste some old fashioned home cooked Cuban picadillo (a ground beef dish with olives and raisins among other ingredients to the chef’s liking), and it’s unbelievably good!

So what’s the problem? After a fair amount of research, there would be two arguments. One is that they simply like bland food. (…..not convinced? me neither. But Google it, you’d be amazed how many people come up with this conclusion). My hypothesis however, which was confirmed by some websites, is that spices are expensive and difficult to access, discouraging their use in appropriate amounts. With such an interventionist state, a lot of food products are rashioned. Beef, for example, can only be served at State run establishments for example. Perhaps it comes as no surprise therefore that the typical street food is none other than hamburgers and pizzas. Wait, were we talking about New York or Havana???

Of course, there are exceptions, and in all fairness, we were only there for a few days, so lord knows what goodness was waiting for us around the corner. The highlight? Paladar la Guarida, where the dishes are creative, well prepared and tasty yum yum! Not to mention the setting, which is absolutely surreal, with its crumbling walls, abundance of antique posters and decorations, and beautiful chandeliers. And to give Cuban cooks credit, the products are fresh, the food is prepared fresh, and when it’s served to you with such TLC, well… let’s just say that in the absence of packaged flavors, Cubans figured out how to add their own variety of spice.

Where to go: 

Paladar La Guarida, of Fresa y Chocolate fame, is one of the better restaurants in Havana. It is situated in the most breathtaking building structure- that lone is worth the visit.

Casa Colonial – a Casa particular (like a Bed and Breakfast) where the hosts will make you great breakfast of fresh whole fruit, fresh pressed juice, fresh baked rolls and eggs-as-you-like-em. They will also make dinner on request- we had chicken with congri (read: rice cooked together with black beans), plantain chips and salad. Such a homey relief after the devastation of the Varadero resort food!!

Where NOT to go: 

El Museo del Chocolate. Now, I am a full out chocoholic. Yes, I’m a bit picky, but in an emergency, when a true craving hits, just about anything goes. And yet, I found myself incapable of finishing their hot chocolate, and spitting out their stuffed dark chocolates. Believe it or not, they put in WAY too much rum!! Please trust me on this one. The 20 minute lines are not worth it. Skip it.

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