In spite of spending six months studying in Cuba in the late 1990s, I didn’t really know the island’s “traditional” cuisine until I first moved to Miami in 2002. That’s because my field studies came on the heels of Cuba’s “Special Period.” Access to food supplies was still limited, and most Cubans were so eager to ward off a bout of hunger they overloaded their plates with every simple protein and starch they could find – fried eggs, fried Malanga, fried potatoes, beans and rice, hot dogs, and even pizza.
Today’s Cuba visitor will find a far more diverse and well-balanced array of food options. Whether you’re planning a trip to Cuba or simply savoring one in your dreams, the new cookbook “Paladares: Recipes Inspired by the Private Restaurants of Cuba” can help get you there. The colorful hardback’s 150 recipes are nestled between hundreds of images by photographer Megan Fawn Schlow depicting Cuban food and restauranteur profiles written by award-winning food critic Anya von Bremzem.
Together, the book’s collaborators teach readers everything they need to know about the return of Cuban classics such as ropa vieja (‘old clothes’, aka shredded beef), picadillo (spicy ground beef) and lechón (roasted suckling pig), as well as the art of the island’s most celebrated spirits: the mojito, the daiquiri, and the Cuba Libre. At the same time, it details how – in spite of the constraints of the U.S. embargo and the glaring lack of a Cuban wholesale market – Cuba’s culinary creatives still manage to infuse their restaurants with lighter fare and fusion dishes.
The book highlights this with recipes such as ceviche with mango and black-eyed peas, avocado salad, okra curry with papaya, and just about anything containing, oddly enough, blue cheese. Even traditional Cuban croquets – usually made with chicken, fish, or pork – get an upgrade with this French fromage, as does what is quickly becoming my favorite late-night Havana meal option: pumpkin cream soup with blue cheese crumbles.
Thanks to the book’s meticulous investigation into the most promising new paladares, I found that soup at the festive bar of Old Havana’s shabby chic bistro O’Reilly 304, located at the address of its name. I didn’t have to wander far for desert, because the book noted that owner José Carlos Imperatori also owns the appropriately titled El Del Frente (The One Across the Street), where I found plenty of room for an almond tart and a glass of sauvignon blanc upstairs on an airy deck, enlivened by a laptop livestreaming music from radio stations around the globe.
One thing the globally minded will surely note is that many of the so-called “traditional” Cuban recipes hail from the madre patria. For example, Casa Pilar makes a succulent Spanish salmorejo – gazpacho with serrano ham – and Catalonia-inspired tomato bread, also enhanced by serrano ham. Meanwhile, don’t let the name O’Reilly 304 fool you. Its lightly-fried papas bravas (spicy potatoes) are so perfectly crisp and peppery on the outside, and so soft and warm on the inside that they rival the best tapas of Spain’s celebrity chef José Andres (who offered praise for the cookbook).
But few of Cuba’s creative establishments can compete with the artistic flavors and ambiance of Sasha Ramos and Rafael Muñoz’s El Cocinero between Havana’s Vedado and Miramar neighborhoods, just past the end of the Malecón. Adjacent to the popular Fábrica de Arte (Art Factory), an old cooking oil factory-turned-multi-platform-arts-and-entertainment venue, it incorporates the factory’s 200-foot smokestack as its entrance. The fine-dining establishment uses virgin olive oil, herbs, and yes, more blue cheese to slay visitors with a mouthwatering filet mignon and a coconut flan drizzled with organic Cuban honey.
Some Cubans – including the young hipsters who now tend the bars of these delightful haunts – may have been born too late to remember the hunger and vitamin deficiencies that plagued those first post-Soviet years. But the creators of “Paladares” see the island’s ever-growing restaurant scene as a sign of hope for a more diverse and flavorful future.
And if you ever get nostalgic for the simple life, not to worry. Salted fried plantains and malanga fritters still reign at these new Cuban bistros, on the dinner tables of everyday Cubans, and in the first few pages of “Paladares.”