A standard Havana wisecrack credits the Cuban revolution's three great triumphs --health, education and culture - as having been achieved at the expense of breakfast, lunch and dinner. Without a doubt, the combination of food shortages and state-run restaurants have produced some remarkably undistinguished cooking over the last forty years, especially for tourists condemned to dining in hotel buffets and even in the some of the more famous traditional watering holes, now owned by the government. But the legalization of the dollar and the opening of privately owned restaurants known as paladares (literally, "palates" from a Brazilian television series in which the heroine opens a restaurant called Paladar) have sparked a renaissance of authentic criollo cuisine, traditional Cuban home cooking. Here's what to look for.
Despite a traditional agricultural economy in which food crops have been neglected in favor of export sugar cane cash crops, Cubans have inventively combined Spanish, African and Caribbean traditions and ingredients into a unique and characteristic cuisine. Chicken, pork, lobster, fish and, to a lesser degree, beef and lamb are the meat staples; black beans, rice, yucca (cassava), malanga (sweet potato), boniato (yam) and plátanos (plantains) are the leading legumes and starches.
Cuban cooking ennobles lowly ingredients. The plantain, for example, el plátano, often confused with the banana, has a thousand and one lives in a Cuban kitchen. Cut diagonally and fried when ripe; when green, sliced in thin wafers and fried or chopped in thicker wedges, pounded and refried as tostones or plátanos a puñetazos (punched plantains). You can boil them green or mature, mash them with a fork, dress them with olive oil and crisped pork rinds for fu fú; or fill mashed plantains with picadillo (ground meat) and melted cheese for a pastel de platano, plantain pudding, tropical shepherd's pie.
Salsa criolla (onion, tomato, pepper, garlic, salt and oil) and mojo (garlic, tomato and pepper)...are the main sauces.
Cuba's menus are as playful and picturesque linguistically as they are in ingredients. Moros y Cristianos (literally "Moors and Christians", blacks and whites) is a combination of frijoles negros y arroz blanco, black beans and rice). Ropa vieja (literally, "old clothes") is shredded beef, also called aporreado de res (bashed beef), recooked in a criollo sauce. Plátanos a puñetazos (punched plantains) are thick slices of plantains, partly cooked, taken out and whacked flat with a fist before returning to the pan to finish browning. Mariquitas are thinner slices (lascas) of plantain, fried and salted.
Arroz congrí is white rice con gris or "with grey", frijoles negros dormidos (literally "put to sleep", black beans cooked and allowed to stand until the following day) or, as in the more Caribbean, less Spanish, eastern end of the island, Congrí oriental is rice and red kidney beans.
At the Mercado Agropecuario, (mercado campesino or farmers' market) at the poetically named corner of Ánimas y Soledad (Souls and Solitude) in Centro Habana, you can find plantains, boniato, ají cachú, peppers, squash, tomatoes, garlic, frijoles, malanga, mamey, guayaba, corn, corn flour. The market is no overflowing cornucopia, but the essentials are there: viandas (tubers), vegetables and fruit. Prices reflect areas of scarcity: a head of garlic costs ten times more than an onion; a pound of malanga is half as expensive as a pound of frijoles negros.
AMOR, named for a Cuban pop singer, is on the third floor of a early 20th-century townhouse. The elevator alone is worth the visit, a virtual museum piece that lets you out into a lavish setting from an earlier era: candelabras, music from the first half of the century, giant sofas, heavy silverware. The menu offers an anthology of cocina criolla: chicharritas de platano (mariquitas); tostones or platanos a punetazos; congri; yuca con mojo; chicharrones de puerco; masas de cerdo (morsels of pork) in mojo criollo -- a sauce of garlic, pepper, tomato, onion -- the "mojo" concept, like the famous "mojito" of mint, sugar, rum and soda...from the verb mojar, "to moisten, to wet"...as in "to wet one's whistle.
LA GUARIDA is another excellent paladar in an equally intriguing setting, up an ancient masterpiece of a stairway in an early 20th-century Centro Habana apartment building. Picturesque enough to be used for filming sequences of "Fresa y Chocolate", the 1995 Oscar-nominee Cuban film, this cozy spot serves a full range of Cuban specialties: aporreado de res, langosta mariposa (butterflied lobster), all accompanied by freezing Cristal, Cuba's light lager beer.
Yet another paladar, LA ULTIMA INSTANCIA at Calle D #557 (between 23rd and 25th streets) is a tiny treehouse-like hideaway in a side driveway with a jungly spiral staircase twisting up through a powerful bougainvillea into an equally vegetated dining room and kitchen. Along with the inevitable but always good frijoles negros con arroz there is ropa vieja made with lamb and cordero estofado con vegetales, a lamb stew made with malanga, boniato, carrots, onions, garlic and turnips.
Food conversations turn quickly to the vicissitudes of supply and resupply, a constant Cuban theme : 100 heads of garlic for 100 pesos, an opportunity ($5); friends in from the country with a payload of frijoles negros tiernos (tender black beans), an event to tell about, albeit in whispers - black market black beans. Res (beef) and pernil (ham) are dollar store items, until recently off limits to Cubans, now just cripplingly expensive. Meanwhile, in the hall outside the kitchen, four dozen well cleaned potatoes are carefully arranged, well ventilated and gleaming, awaiting their respective moments of glory.
La Caldosa is a universal favorite, the all-purpose-Cuba-in-a-pot soup or stew of chicken, onions, garlic, oregano, plantain, squash, yam, carrots, potatoes, malanga, butter, ham...all left to simmer slowly. Pre-revolutionary desserts include specialties such as guayaba con queso or queso con timba, from timber, or the wooden boxes cheese was once shipped in, or mermelada de mango con queso... a salt-sweet-tart combination.
Chicken is a great Cuban staple, nowhere better prepared than at Havana's renowned Aljibe restaurant, the capital's top spot (outside of the Paladares) for criollo cooking. Pollo al Aljibe at the eponymous restaurant is roast chicken in a sauce made from chicken skin and bitter oranges.
Cubans are normally entitled to two chickens a year on their ration cards, one at Christmas and another on the 26th of July (commemorating the attack on the Moncada Barracks and Castro's Movimiento 26 de Julio.) Pollo al bloqueo (chicken à la blockade) was a popular chicken recipe during the Special Period, after Soviet support and trade ceased and Castro declared a national emergency belt-tightening regime.
Day 1: Take a chicken, skin it, boil it, make soup from the stock...adding viandas: potatoes, tomatoes, carrots, yuca, boniato, tamale, maybe some pasta, corn or rice. Day 2 : golden brown the actual pieces and parts of the chicken and serve it in a salsa criolla ade of tomato, red pepper, onion, aji. Day 3: take the chicken skin and sautee it until it's crackly hard - chicharrón de pollo, serve with white rice. Day 4:: crack the chicken bones and suck out the marrow.
Cuba also has regional cuisines. Baracoa, for example, on the eastern tip of the island, closer to Haiti than to Havana, has tamales made not of boiled corn as in the rest of the island but of mashed plantains, stuffed with spicy pork, wrapped in a banana leaf and roasted over coals.
Santiago de Cuba and the eastern end of the island are more Caribbean than Spanish or Afro-Spanish. Baracoan cuisine uses more spices than central or western Cuba, along with local specialties such as coconut and chocolate. Food is typically cooked in coconut oil and lechita (coconut milk) and the whole town of Baracoa becomes musky when the evening cookery begins.
Local Baracoan dishes include bacón, a plantain tortilla filled with spicy pork, and tetí, a small, orange fish caught in the river estuaries between August and December. Rice is yellow not from saffron but from annatto seeds, also used to color butter; "Indian bananas" are boiled in their salmon-colored skins and dressed with garlic and lime juice. Cucurucho is a sweet made of coconut, sweet orange, papaya and honey.
Mothers' Day in Trinidad, the lovely colonial city on Cuba's southern coast is a day devoted not only to mothers but to women in general and to outrageous flirtation, perhaps even ahead of baseball the Cuban national sport and pastime. Expansive "FELICIDADES!!" are lavished on every woman of remotely child-bearing age or presumed vocation. Pargo are running in the Gulf of Mexico and they have arrived just in time for Mothers' Day. Men with ten-to-twelve pound pargo (red snapper) on large platters emerge from restaurants all over town, roasted by sons in big restaurant ovens and carried home for a feast of "pargo a la criolla": 1-Marinate pargo in lemon, onion, garlic and a touch of salt; 2-Place in earthenware vessel with a small amount of butter spread over the bottom: 3-Cook for three minutes on slow heat, turning quickly several times; 4-Cover casserole and allow pargo to steam/cook/simmer until done. Serve to mother, spouse or other fertility goddess with an exuberant and irresistible "FELICIDADES!!"
Cuban music is laced with food imagery: If music be the food of love, (or vice versa) play on. Even the sound of a Cuban kitchen - chopping plantains, punching tostones-- is often redolent of guaguancó, Afro-Cuban music rich in percussion originally played on boxes and anything at hand. Cuba's torrential musical offering frequently features mouth-watering lyrics, from the island's first great 1930s international hit , "The Peanut Vendor" to "El bárbaro del ritmo" ("the rhythm animal") Beny Moré's song about the marranito (little pig) he lovingly teases about becoming jamón (ham) and chicharrón (pork crisp.
Cuban romance is all about the palate: a babe (male or female) is a pan (bread) or a pollo (chicken) and an irresistible one is "pa' comérselo" (good enough to eat). Piropos (flowery compliments) are relentlessly culinary: "Wow! If you cook the way you walk, I'd scrape the pot"; or "Oof, you're so brown you're crunchy"; or (on a sunny day) "Hey where's your umbrella?" - "Say what?" - "Don't bonbons melt in the sun?"
And then there's the endless repertory of Cuba's many aphrodisiacs such as guarapó, sugar cane juice, or the crocodile tail served in the Zapata wetlands...