CUBA! A week in Havana has left me delighted by the sights and sounds but dismayed at the deplorable condition of what was once a glorious city. We stayed at Hotel Nacional (in the above photo on the left) perched on a rock wall overlooking the Gulf of Mexico.
The classic 50’s cars, some in in faded yellow, green or blue and others hot pink and cherry red, somehow still in pristine condition, add a certain charm, as do the narrow winding streets and wonderful old buildings with overhanging balconies, columns and arches.
However, most of the beautiful buildings and mansions are neglected, with peeling paint and crumbled facades. It’s easy to envision how beautiful and vibrant Havana must have been in its heyday. It’s hard not to feel protective of this island nation which has been under communist rule for over 50 years. The people are poor but warm and friendly. This is a food blog though so I will just leave it there and show you how I ate my way through Havana.
Cuba is known for its coffee, cigars and rum (The Bacardi family is from Cuba.) but we also found the food to be delicious. “Cuban cuisine is a fusion of native Taino food, Spanish, African, and Caribbean cuisine. Some Cuban recipes share spices and techniques with Spanish and African cooking, with some Caribbean influence in spice and flavor. As a result of the colonization of Cuba by Spain, one of the main influences on the cuisine is from Spain. Along with Spain, other culinary influences include Africa, from the Africans that were brought to Cuba as slaves, and Dutch, from the French colonists that came to Cuba from Haiti. Another important factor is that Cuba itself is an island, making seafood something that greatly influences Cuban cuisine. Another contributing factor to Cuban cuisine is the fact that Cuba is in a tropical climate. The tropical climate produces fruits and root vegetables that are used in Cuban dishes and meals.”(Wikipedia)
We were with a large group so found the food served in the hotels to be underwhelming but had delicious meals when we ventured into smaller restaurants, many of which were private homes or villas that served food. A typical Cuban breakfast is eggs and ham, or even a grilled ham and cheese sandwich. Rice and beans, and pork are the main staples and eaten at most meals. People that live on the coast also eat fish and seafood. Tropical fruit is gorgeous and abundant. It seems that locals eat what is available and affordable.
My days began with lovely Cuban coffee, eggs and some form of rice and beans and a variety of fruit, papaya. guava, banana and grapefruit. I have also included a photo of the very traditional Cubano (grilled ham and cheese) which is also often eaten in the middle of the night when it is called Medianoche.
Although Cubans rely on their government ration and almost everything is owned by the government, we were surprised and pleased to see so many entrepreneurs. Many locals set up impromptu produce stands, presumably with produce from their gardens, or barbecues with a variety of goodies along the streets and highways. The above photo on the right is a store in Old Havana where locals buy staples like rice and beans when they get their ration every month.
At Playa Santa Maria, outside of Havana, we had a delicious Mariscada seafood platter with lobster, Dorado (mahi mahi) and fried banana and sweet potato at a beach ‘restaurant’ that some enterprising locals set up with umbrellas and tents. The table next to us ordered a most interesting red snapper that almost looked like it was going to swim away. They were kind enough to let me take a photo.
Cubans eat a variety of fruits and vegetables, plantain, cassava, banana, potato, yuca, calabeza and sweet potato that are boiled, fried or baked. At Mediterraneo HaVana, which is a private home turned into a Cuban Italian restaurant, another sign of local entrepreneurship. I ordered a very delicious Pargo (red snapper) with tomatoes and olives and Spinach Croquettes, although most croquettes have beef or pork which is not on GMD. (They do love their fried food)
We also had honey lime chicken, black beans and rice ( I could live on this), fried sweet potato and plantain chips, all typical Cuban foods.
Old Havana, the original ancient city core of Havana, is a charming paradox of very old and a very little bit of new (thanks to outside investing it is being refurbished). It is reminiscent of The French Quarter in New Orleans, or rather what it could be if it were completely refurbished and filled with thriving businesses.
We had drinks at the hotel where Hemingway liked to stay when he was in Havana, before he bought a house in the country, and then had dinner at Café Del Oriente in Old Havana, touted as one of the best the city has to offer. One of the dishes we enjoyed was a beautifully prepared fish and octopus carpaccio.
We had a wonderful time in Cuba, however, it is very much a third world country. You can’t drink the water (like in Mexico), cell phones don’t work (unless you rent or purchase one that does) and they don’t take American money or credit cards. It would be nice to see our relationship with Cuba restored which would greatly improve the quality of life for the locals. Sorry, I have no recipes to share today, however, Wheatless Wednesday will feature a complete Cuban meal. Adios!