This much-maligned cuisine deserves another look and another helping
Hola!say our amigos since we returned from Havana. After that, one of the first questions is, did you find any good food?
For decades Cuba has been saddled with a reputation for mediocre-to-lousy food, at least as far as tourists were concerned. Wandering Whistlerites, whod book a cheap package to Varadero as far back as the early 1980s when this beach idyll was just beginning to catch on as an easy, sun-splashed getaway, would invariably come back complaining of heavy cottonseed oil on everything, rubbery chicken everywhere and nary a piquant spice or fresh guava in sight.
The nasty U.S. embargo on Cuba, in place since 1960, which means bare shelves, rationing and long line-ups in food stores, coupled with the communist touch of indifferent state-run restaurants and attempts to control tourists coalesced to over-shadow the rich and righteous culinary legacy of Cuba.
Oigame, I mean, heres the second biggest island in the Caribbean, with a lineage from Spain and Africa. This should be a food paradise and it is at least it is if you work at it just a little. That means if you go on an all-inclusive, start by getting past the buffet troughs that attracts the 300-pounders like flies.
Once you get out the door of your self-contained resort, which is where most Canadians park their pale butts, walk east or west along the narrow isthmus to the centre of Varadero. Thats where youll find small, charming Moorish-style hotels, where Habaneros have been staying for decades, and small local restaurants that can knock your sandals off.
Barracudas, a diving school-cum-restaurant with a spotless eatery right on the beach under a palapa-style roof is pretty hard to miss. Here, el jefe the chef, not the Chief, a gourmand nonetheless but one unlikely to cook for the likes of you and I dishes up a perfectly cooked whole grilled snapper for about $12, complet , and a ceviche appetizer swimming in lime thats so delicious and generous it could satisfy as an entrée ($4).
Down the road on Avenida Primera, an unpretentious local hangout attracts the owners hip teenagers and their friends, who fall into sweet song when the equivalent of Guitar Doug makes the rounds. The house specialty: lomo ahumado , delicious loin of pork smoked to perfection, tender inside and crispy outside. Look for a line of basic tables filled with noisy Cuban teenagers and, the big tip-off, an old 50-gallon drum cut in half and tuned into smoker.
Like most smaller family-run places, if you dont see it on the menu, ask. I had a hankering for tostones, those crisp little fried patties of plantain that can be addictive (see recipe below). They werent on the menu, but our camerera found a couple of plantains in the back and had el jefe whip up a platter of perfect tostones for a buck.
As you can see, while it aint a give-away, Cuban fare is still pretty inexpensive for the privileged likes of you and I. Things can get a little complicated, however, because of the two-tiered money system. Tourists are expected to use convertible pesos (or CUCs), which are pegged to the U.S. dollar (1 CUC = $1 US).
Locals use the national peso, which converts at about 25-26 pesos to the U.S. dollar. These you can buy at Cadeca, the national exchange bureaus sprinkled everywhere. The complications arise because everything dollars, pesos and CUCs are called pesos.
One tip for independent travellers: the American buck definitely stops here. As of November 2004, the U.S. greenback is no longer accepted on the streets of Cuba, plus it gets hit with a 10 per cent levy when converted to CUCs. No other currency is taxed like this, so take your loonies and be glad.
In tourist-saturated Varadero we couldnt find a soul who would take our national pesos, but in Havana, theyre useful for picking up a hand of baby finger bananas or guavas at a market or for buying street food like the ubiquitous smoked pork on a bun the equivalent of a Cuban hamburger yours for a mere two pesos (one thin dime).
Not even the local Varadero bakery on main street would look at a national peso, but pastries are so reasonably priced in CUCs that you dont blink an eye. Your figure and palette will be happier if you stick to the simpler items guava paste mini-turnovers are the big seller as this bakery, which may well be state-run, has yet to figure out how to make their fancy-pants pastries taste as good as they look.
To compensate, try the ice cream parlour next door. Cubans are fanatics for good ice cream and this buttery-rich stuff is why. Fabulous gooey sundaes in a hand-made waffle cup can be yours for about 50 cents.
Down the street, grilled chicken served with garlic sauce and red rice awaits you, along with a tall cool mojito steeped in fresh mint.
And thats just the start we havent hit the nightspots in Havana yet, where well take a jaunt through street stalls, a Tudor-style restaurant and a home-run paladare that looks like something from an Anne Rice novel.
Until then, try this easy recipe for Cuban-style tostones and prove to your pals how good Cuban food can be.
Cuban recipes say to use green plantains, but at our house, we prefer semi-ripe (yellowish) ones. One plantain makes enough tostones for two. Cut pieces about 1.5 inches long and remove the skin. In a heavy skillet heat about 3 tbsp. oil on medium. Cook the plantain chunks on all sides until golden. Remove and drain them on paper towels, and take the pan off the heat. Use wax paper or a paper bag as a wrapper and flatten the pieces into patties about half-inch thick. Soak them in warm salted water for about five minutes. Pat dry and reheat your pan. Add more oil if need be and fry the patties on both sides till golden brown. Drain and serve. If you feel really lazy and youre using riper plantains you can just mash the plantain chunks in the pan to form little patties. Either way, sprinkle with salt and serve hot. Bueno!
Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who likes the free salsa served up with Cuban food.