Tempting Fried Empanadas (photo courtesy of http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Empanada)
In the last few months, the Obama administration has been working toward reducing the Cuban economic embargoes and relaxing the travel restrictions to Cuba for US citizens. Even though it will be a while before Americans can visit Cuba more freely, this seemed like a good time to get a head start on becoming familiar with and appreciating Cuban food and restaurants. Cuban food is an especially interesting cuisine, as it has both Caribbean and Latin American influences. Cooks and restaurants in Cuba are, unfortunately, severely limited by a scanty and unpredictable food supply. Although, out of necessity, this situation has created many creative and talented cooks, dining choices for tourists are generally limited to government-run restaurants, which can be uneven in quality, and home-based family restaurants known as "paladares". Government restaurants are ubiquitous, but paladares are seldom advertised and are generally found by asking locals and following vague directions until you arrive at what looks like it couldn't possibly be a place to eat. This is usually a private residence at the end of a dimly lit alley, which you enter through a crumbling doorway, until you find yourself in a tiny room with a few mismatched tables and chairs (paladares are not allowed to have more than 12 seats). These places seldom look very promising, but often serve some of the best, most original and freshest food in Havana.
A Plate of Boliche (photo courtesy of http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Boliche.jpg)
Although Cuba is famous for its 50's era cars, it is sadly also known for its 50's era restaurant offerings such as Boeuf Bourguignon, Sole Veronique and Chicken Kiev. Not that there's anything wrong with these classics per se, but in the hands of unmotivated and generally unenthusiastic government-employed cooks, they usually appear at the table overcooked and over sauced. They also offer tourist standbys such as pizza, cuban sandwiches of ham, cheese and pickles, and lots of cheap Cuban rum (presumably to make you forget about the food). At the paladares, you're more likely to find the Cuban classics well known to North Americans: Carne or Pollo Asada (meat or chicken marinated in sour orange juice and cooked slowly over a wood fire), Ropa Vieja, meaning "old clothes" in Spanish (marinated and shredded beef or occasionally, pork), empanadas (meat, fish, chicken or cheese stuffed turnovers) or Pescado Grillé or Frito (grilled or fried fish). Learning to make a sofrito, a mixture of onions, cilantro, peppers, garlic, oregano and parsley is essential to Cuban cooking, as it is the base for many of the aforementioned dishes. Traditional side dishes include moros y cristianos, meaning Moors and Christians in Spanish (black beans and rice), fried yucca (manioc) and plantains.
Tres Leches Cake (photo courtesy of http://whatscookingamerica.net/History/Cakes/TresLechesCake.htm
In addition to these standbys though, you are likely to find very interesting and imaginative dishes, as the cooks at these home kitchens have few government-imposed creative restrictions other than food availability. It is possible to eat wonderful, fresh, delicious and inexpensive meals at paladares, including rich and creamy soups made from local mangoes and calabazas (pumpkins), Boliche, a kind of garlicky pot roast and sausage dish, and a plate of picados (a tasting platter of various appetizers), tasajo (dried beef), fried malanga and Yucca (edible tubers) and tiny fried whole fish with a delicious spicy dipping sauce. Cuban desserts and breads are also delicious, made fresh daily, and use two things that are plentiful in Cuba: rum and sugar. My favorite dessert, Torta de Tres Leches (cake with three milks), is a fantastically rich and moist dessert, soaked in evaporated, condensed and whole milk, then doused with dark rum. Another popular dessert choice is creamy flan (caramel custard), made with coconut, rum and served surrounded by fresh tropical fruit. These family run restaurants are especially impressive given the limited food supplies, unpredictable electricity and water services and the challenges of preparing meals for many customers in small dark kitchens, but Cubans have learned over the years to overcome such challenges, and the result is a meal that reflects their insuppressible spirit and sense of inventiveness.
Juicy mangoes for sale (photo by Luis Bastardo)