Not having been a good eater in Havana, other than at breakfast in my San Lazaro BnB, I asked some of the Habaneros that I met in the city about their eating and drinking habits, which follow below.
But the Lonely Planet ‘Cuba’ Guide gave me some background as to the eating culture of the country too, reminding one that Cuban housewives were restricted by rationing in the 1990s, which influenced what they could cook for their families. The guide shares that innovative chefs have risen to this challenge, and that there is an increasingly improved supply of foods. Just eight years ago private restaurants were allowed to open, and to expand from the original limit of only serving up to twelve persons.
Literally and figuratively Cuban food is a stew of recipes and food traditions from Spain, Africa, France, and other Caribbean islands. Indigenous foods include sweet potatoes, guava, green bananas (plantains), Congri (red beans and rice cooked together with spices), and sofrito (a sauce made from tomatoes, with onions, pimento, garlic, bay leaf, and cumin), which is married with a meat or fish type and cut, depending on what is available. Fish varieties available in Cuba include tuna, lobster, crab, prawns, swordfish, and snapper. The national dish is ‘ropa vieja’, spicy shredded beef.
Cuban Rum ‘Ron Superior’ has its origin in Spanish immigrant Don Facundo Bacardi Massó, using high quality sugar cane to make a fruity, crisp and delicate aged rum under the Bacardi brand name. A fall-out with the Castro government saw the Bacardi brand and family flee to the Bahamas, and all that remains in Cuba is its most elegant Art Deco building in Old Havana. A secondary brand Ron Caney is drunk by the locals. The Havana Club rum factory was established in 1878, by José Arechabala, and this family too fled the country after the revolution, the Cuban government seizing the brand trademark. The brand makes up 40% of the country’s alcohol market. The country has more than 100 rum factories.
Rum is made from molasses, a by-product of sugar cane. Rum masters oversee the production, and they need to have a minimum of 15 years of rum-tasting experience. They are aged from three to fourteen years, and differ in colour from dark, golden, to white. While Cubans drink dark rum neat or on the rocks, it is the tourists that drink rum in their mojitos and daquiries, with white rum. A Blogpost about cocktails will follow.
Caridad (left) lives below the San Lazaro BnB in which I stayed, in the same building, and is a mother figure in the BnB, being one of two staff on duty most days, making the breakfast and cleaning the rooms. She has an endlessly long ponytail reaching to beyond her hips, not having cut her hair for 25 years. She has a husband and two sons, and they share the apartment with her mother, a dog, two parrots and two tortoises, she shared proudly.
I asked about breakfast first, and it tends to be a roll with an omelet inside, hot milk, and coffee. She admits to being a coffee addict, and I see her drinking it during the day at work too. An interesting liquid she calls tea is one she makes from the daily left-over pineapple skins, which she boils at low heat on the stove.
I asked about a dinner routine, imaging that she may have a dinner menu rotation, but that is not how things work in Cuba. It all depends on what is available meat- (mainly pork or chicken) or fish-wise, and which meat cut is available. They eat unusually early, at 18h00. The foundation of the dinner is one of two choices:
#. White rice and black beans cooked together, making the rice go black. This is combined with fish (fried as a fillet) or with boiled pork.
#. Yellow rice is coloured with a spice ‘bijol’ we could not get the English translation of, and is eaten with chicken. As an alternative, it could have additionally or separately lobster, and sausage added.
With these two options could be served sweetcorn, a salad made with tomatoes, onions, avocado, cucumber, and cabbage, again based on what is available from the fruit and vegetable vendor. I tried yuca, which resembles a potato, topped with red onion, at Caridad’s house (right). Fried green bananas (main photograph) is an absolute staple, and taste delicious.
#. Caramel flan
#. Rice and milk pudding with cinnamon (pic left)
#. Cooked green paw paw, firmer in not yet being ripe, in a pudding or cake
#. Bread and milk pudding
#. Stewed guava
Alain Barrios Chévaz is the Day Manager of the BnB, and lives with his mother, sister, and son. As he only gets home from work at about 19h30, they eat between 20h00 and 21h00. No one in the family likes fish. They eat mainly white rice and black beans, a meat, and he might have an omelet with this too. And he loves banana chips too, which I tasted at the well-known Hemingway Bar El Floridita, absolutely delicious.
Alain sent me the photograph of his family dinner, with red beans, pork, fried green bananas, and avocado.
Their favourite desserts are:
# Rice pudding with milk
#. Bread and butter pudding
#. French Toast with a sweet topping and cinnamon
#. Green paw paw pudding
Both Caridad and Alain mentioned Malanga, a Cuban root vegetable, which I had heard mention of a number of times, and which a waitress at a restaurant showed me on her phone. I subsequently was able to photograph the real thing, related to the potato, in a vegetable shop. It is called ‘tarot’ in English.
When Alain gets home, he may have a dark rum with the local version of Red Bull and ice. He makes his mom the odd Mojito. Caridad’s husband drinks local Cuban beer.
Cintia Guevara (right, below)is the receptionist at the MariSuri Dance School. She wrote about her meals as follows (edited by me) :
‘Hi Chris, I’m going to try to do the diet list. For me it’s not like I plan what I’m going to eat, I just eat what I have, for example, the breakfast for me it’s almost non-existent, I never have time for that, but when I have it, I prefer a glass of yogurt and a little bread with white cheese or a natural omelet, if we don’t have yogurt we change it for a juice, there are people that prefer milk.
The lunch is the most important for me. Sometimes I eat what was left over from last night, I cook an extra chicken thigh, or a pork steak, sometime just a burger, or a croquette. The most important for you to know is that almost all Cubans eat 3 times a day: breakfast, lunch, and the dinner. The last two must consist of:
1- rice and beans/morish rice/yellow rice that is something like pillaf or paella
2-the main course: a fried egg/omelet/chicken/pork
3-something fried: banana fried, potatoes or sweet potatoes fried
4-salad:tomatoes, cucumber, lettuce, cabbage, avocado
Sometimes instead of the rice and the main course we have just the plate that we call yellow rice, that comes with chicken or sausage or bacon, or whatever is in the fridge’.
Gracias to these three Cuban family representatives for sharing their meal information with me.
Chris von Ulmenstein, WhaleTales Blog: www.chrisvonulmenstein.com/blog Tel +27 082 55 11 323 Twitter:@Ulmenstein Facebook: Chris von Ulmenstein Instagram: @Chrissy_Ulmenstein