When I heard that my fellow Lonely Planet author Conner Gorry started a blog about her life in Havana, Here is Havana, I immediately invited her to participate in my guest post series. Reading Conner’s article made me want to pack my bags and go back to Cuba immediately. I hope you’ll enjoy the read as much as I did.
EATING IN CUBA: GO LOCAL OR GO HUNGRY
Here in Cuba, mangoes (and mamey; see 1 in Notes below) come into season with the first real rain. It’s our rapture – a rebirth and redemption for deprived palates. For seven or eight months we suffer without; not even the thought of mangoes crosses our mind (see 2 in Notes below). If it did, we’d weep with longing for that deeply sweet fruit. Then suddenly, one long-awaited day, it’s not only raining, it’s raining mangoes. The biblical deluge of these sensuous orbs upon our kitchens is reason for great rejoicing and stuffing ourselves silly with the things.
A mound of mangoes for sale at Havana’s Tulipán market for about 8 cents a pound
Cuban tradition holds that the first ferociously hard rain in late May – the downpour when you run out and shower in the fat drops, getting soaked to the bones so you’ll have good luck that year – is when mangoes and mamey come around. Mangoes hang low from the trees. Soon, piles of them appear at the markets. When you see sinewy old raisin men angling wheelbarrows of mamey through Havana’s potholed streets, you know avocados are next. Can you imagine nine months with no avocado? It’s like going through an entire human gestation period deprived of the meaty green delicacy.
So maybe you’re not a mango or avocado fan and had never even heard of mamey until today. The point is, where I live, if it isn’t in season locally, you go without. This translates into long months without lettuce, tomatoes, or parsley and periodic famines of green pepper, spinach, eggplant, carrots, and more. We endure because we must and substitute when we can – anyone who has been here in the dead of summer is already overly intimate with the cabbage-cucumber salad that pulls us through the lean times. If nothing else, being a nation of locavores gives us something to look forward to.
Sadly, due to climate, culture, and politics (see 3 in Notes below), some fruits and veggies are simply unavailable; if it isn’t grown here, you’re just shit out of luck. That means no broccoli, artichokes, asparagus, zucchini, or mushrooms ever. Add to the list strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, kiwi, cherries, peaches and every nut but the humble maní (peanut) and you begin to get the picture: in Cuba, being a locavore isn’t a lifestyle choice, it’s a survival strategy.
Butchers in Cuba wear surgical scrubs; here they cart in the meat to the Tulipán market
Having farmers and fisherman in your social circle is another integral part of that strategy and I’m fortunate enough to enjoy both. Red snapper and king mackerel are staples in our freezer and my husband appeared on our doorstep last week bearing a plastic bag dripping blood off a freshly killed rabbit from Dad’s back 40. My father-in-law’s backyard farm is bountiful, availing us of eggs, arugula, basil, fennel, tri-color radishes, squash, bananas, and yes, mangoes, avocados and even the odd mamey if he doesn’t harvest them all for himself. That the good Reverend counts how many fruits are on the tree gives you an idea of the mamey’s allure.
I’m both blessed and seven-years-in-residence savvy. For those just dropping into Cuba for a week or three, eating here at all, not to mention well, can be disconcerting if not downright frustrating. So that you may stay well fed, here is some of my tried and true advice for eating in Cuba. !Buen provecho!
So You Don’t Go Hungry…
• Be willing to eat pork and its by-products. If religious or dietary considerations prevent it, go to Plan B: chicken, chicken, and more chicken.
• Never sit down at a state-run restaurant famished – archetypical slow motion service may find you keeling over the stained tablecloth dead on the spot.
You can never have enough of the tasty manzano mango
• Keep some Cuban pesos on hand at all times. This will allow you to buy bread, peanuts, fruit milkshakes, yogurt, pan con bistec (pork filet between a slab of bread) or the heartier cajita (literally ‘little box’ that comes with a filet, rice and beans, and a hint of salad), and other tasty vittles whenever hunger strikes.
• On a related note, always carry a plastic bag (known here as a jaba, nylon, or Cubalse) for when you run across a market or someone selling fruit or food in the street. These bags also come in handy for squirreling away snacks from the buffets at all-inclusive resorts and the abundant bread and fruit provided at breakfast at casas particulares (private homes that rent rooms).
• Look for lodging with an equipped kitchen and stock up at the local veggie market/fish monger/dollar store for supplies.
Okra is a beloved staple in Cuba
• The black market is a fact of life here and your friend – especially if you have a kitchen. From independent peddlers you can buy shrimp, lobster, ham, cheese, potatoes (otherwise unavailable except via the ration book), and more.
• Import your favorite munchies: nuts, dried fruit, granola bars, candy, jerky, granola, whatever floats your boat, because you’ll be left high and dry here otherwise.
Where to Eat (see 4 in Notes below)
• State restaurants have improved measurably since I arrived (and immeasurably since I was first here in 1993) and are worth a meal or three. Some of my top spots include: La Ferminia (especially for the $18 all-you-can-eat mixed grill served in the garden) and La Vicaria nearby where you can eat well for $6 per person in a less opulent but still pleasant garden; the pizzerias in Parque Almendares or Hotel Kohly; El Templete on the Malecón (best for appetizers and dessert); Restaurante Prado y Neptuno, which has fresh salads and tasty Italian fare, but a lamentable clientele of young working girls and their over-the-hill johns; and El Yasmín, a new Middle Eastern restaurant in the middle of nowhere but worth the trip. The restaurants in the Hotels Parque Central and Saratoga are recommended high flyin’ options.
• A slew of semi-private restaurants run by associations (these make up the bulk of eateries in Chinatown, which is more like China Alley it’s that small) are another good, safe bet. In the town/alley I like Tien Tan (the one and only place I’ve seen tofu on a Cuban menu) and Flor de Loto, though it was much better when it first opened – an all too common affliction among Cuban restaurants. There are also Spanish and Catalan associations with restaurants; the better ones include Los Nardos which has servings so big you won’t eat again for two days and El Castropol which has an enviable balcony-overlooking-the-Malecón location and a terrific grillmeister. Finally, the Union Francaise de Cuba on the corner of John Lennon Park in Vedado has three dining rooms serving different cuisine – my preferred spot is the top floor grill with views over Havana’s famous verdant neighborhood.
• The country’s finest dining can be found at a handful of private Havana restaurants, so when you’re craving an imaginative, well-prepared meal in elegant surroundings and are ready to splurge head to La Fontana; La Esperanza; La Paila; or our all time favorite Decameron.
• For dessert, (because let’s face it, it’s all about the dessert), the 90-cent triple layer chocolate cake at Café Escorial on the Plaza Vieja is divine and the fresh fruit sherbets (known as glacés) at Artechef are unforgettable. At first, we couldn’t get enough of the coconut number served in half a coconut shell. Then we moved on to the pineapple glacé, likewise served in a hollowed out pineapple half. But lately, there’s a new addiction in the mix: mamey glacé. Who said mamey was only for milkshakes?!
1. Mamey is a funny little fruit known as zapote in the eastern parts of the country. A bit of an acquired taste that becomes addictive once your palate adjusts, mamey is rarely just cracked open and eaten. Instead, it’s saved for making a milky, frothy fruit shake that’s heaven in a glass on a hot day.
2. This isn’t entirely true. Many Cubans (especially those with a big, prodigious mango tree or two in their backyard), spend a couple long, hot summer days canning mango puree for the long dry stretch that starts in late August and goes through May.
3. For nearly 50 years, the United States has subjected Cuba to a full economic and financial embargo which has crippled all forms of exchange between the two countries. Although Cuba now imports food from the US to the tune of US$500 million annually, this is largely limited to grains, beef, chicken, and processed goods (read: peanut butter and Pringles).
4. Very few Cuban entities have websites, but a good guidebook should list the restaurants cited below. The online Cuba Restaurants Guide is another good source for restaurant information.