Tuesday, 31 January 2012

General Comments About Food in Cuba

So we had a great time in Cuba. We both loved it a lot, especially the people. I hardly met a one who wasn't awfully nice, even the ones who tried to scam us. (It is definitely a bit trying to be a tourist in a third world country. We were obviously foreign, and so obviously rich, and therefore we were targets for constant sales pitches and scam attempts.) In spite of that, as I said, we loved it. It was so warm, so sunny, and the architecture was beautiful.

We had been told by a lot of people before we left that the food in Cuba is bad. Not true! We were told the food is plain, and repetitive. That is true. Of course it varied a bit from place to place depending on who was cooking and what they were charging, but in general we ate well. My sister-in-law described Cuban food to us before we left as "very food-like". She was right.

We started off every breakfast, as above with plates of fresh fruit, peeled and sliced and presented without further embelishment. Why would it need it? It was lovely fruit.

In addition to fruit breakfast included hot coffee with hot milk, and toast or pastries. This casa particular, in Havana, (en el Vedado) provided some pretty fancy little pastries, different ones every day from a bakery. As far as I could see, there was next to no home baking in Cuba. Very few people have ovens. On this day there was also guava paste. The other places we were at just supplied toast and jam. Then, everyone offered eggs, usually as an omelet but your choice. After a few days Mom and I had to drop the eggs. They were just too much.

Something I had never had before is Malanga. It is more commonly known as eddoes in English, and it is very much like taro. Here Mr. Ferdzy is about to eat some malanga fritters in one of the fancier restaurants we went to. But most Cubans don't do anything fancy with malanga, and don't regard it as anything special. It's pretty common, and I suspect it's always relatively cheap and available, meaning it gets eaten a lot regardless of how you feel about it. A bit like Canadians used to be with rutabaga.

This is an absolutely typical Cuban meal, as served to tourists, anyway. It starts with fried meat (top right corner), rice and beans, boiled malanga, tostones (fried plantain), more rice and beans, and sliced tomatoes and peppers. Lightly marinated onions are used as a garnish. All of these items came up again and again, with minor variations. I loved the tostones, and this was one of the best malanga dishes we had. It had been cut in pieces and simply boiled, but in salted water which gave it a better flavour than most we had.

This was an absolutely typical salad. There was always shredded cabbage and leaf lettuce, and tomatoes. Then there was often onions, cucumber and/or carrots. This one also had canned beans, which we got a few times in salads. Dressing was always oil and vinegar, salt and pepper. I have read a number of comments claiming there isn't any pepper in Cuba. In fact there was always ground pepper at every table I ate at, but it wasn't black pepper, it was white pepper, so I think a lot of people are simply failing to recognize it. Salads were consistently fresh and good, and it was a pleasure to be able to eat them, and all the fruits, without fear of danger due to bad water quality.

The seafood was fantastic. This was grilled shrimp and lobster tails, along with a few tostones. The shrimp were superb. The lobsters were more like giant shrimp than like Canadian lobsters, and my Mom and Mr. Ferdzy both liked them better than Canadian lobsters. Heretics! Ingrates! Traitors! Although I admit I'd be very happy to eat either.

At one point we stayed in a small apartment that had a "kitchen" and I had a go at doing some cooking myself. There was a single burner hot-plate, with a choice of hot, hotter and hottest, so my efforts at cooking rice with vegetables were a bit fraught. I did manage to produce something edible and even tasty, but it was touch and go. The above is a really typical market selection. There were large white onion, small red onions, and garlic everywhere. Perhaps half a dozen common peppers, almost all sweet. And those tomatoes were really quite ripe. For some reason the Cuban tomatoes we got were generally redder on the inside than on the outside. We confirmed there are a number of varieties of tomato grown in Cuba, but the ones we had were all very similar in flavour; acidic and juicy but not seedy. Very nice, actually.

In addition to buying almost all their baked goods - and I can't tell you how many times I saw people walking down the street carrying a cake - on a plate, not wrapped - there were food vendors all over the place. This guy is selling a selection of small pastries I believe.

We talked about what kind of business we would have if we were Cubans. (Yes, we are weird.) We decided that home-made potato chips would be the way to go. We did see ONE guy in Havana selling home-made chips and popcorn, but only the one, and after we had come to our conclusion. But we saw people roaming the streets selling all kinds of things, from yucca, beans, strings of onions and garlics, to breads and pastries.

The national dish of Cuba seems to be pizza. There are little shops all over the place, many of them out of what is someones front living room. This one was near our apartment in Cienfuegos, and had exceptionally good pizza. Also a common item to sell out of your front room was ice-cream. We got some for 4 pesos a scoop. Yes, it was a small scoop. But dudes... that's 14 cents. (I wont' get into the money here, but there's 2 kinds of money in Cuba: real pesos, used by the locals, and soak-us-we're-tourists money, known as C.U.C.s. Hijinks and hilarity ensues.)

A peek inside. Unfortunately I was at the wrong time to get them coming out of the oven. Very plain; little sauce, no seasoning, just a sprinkling of cheese. And yet, very tasty somehow! And the price was hard to beat. I believe these might have been about 12 pesos - about 48 cents. A bit more expensive than average - they seemed to run from 7 pesos to about 12.

More shrimp! I ate them at every opportunity. I was surprised to discover they were likely farmed. They were firm, sweet and flavourful, everything I associate with wild shrimp. Definitely not like the farmed shrimp which we get here in Canada, which are always bland and soggy. I have given up getting shrimp here at all, they are always such a disappointment. These ones were in a lovely sauce, with sour orange juice and tomato sauce. They were described as "camarones enchiladas" meaning shrimp in chile sauce. The chiles are plainly very sweet mild ones; and this is nothing like a Mexican enchilada sauce.

And there were are, eating the shrimp. We went out for a day trip towards the end, and Jorge, our taxi driver, took the picture. He brought us to this restaurant because he and his family had stayed at a nearby resort, and he had eaten here before. An excellent choice! Many thanks to Jorge, Cesar, Janila, Acelo, Felongo, Emilio, Carlos, Jorbel, Eduardo, Tania and Adrian, and all the many other Cubans whos names have escaped me, who's kindness and generosity made our trip such a pleasure.


Jerry said...

Nice post! Did you collect any tomato or other seeds? I guess they wouldn't do too well in our climate :(

Ferdzy said...

No, I didn't save any tomato seeds. I do have some pigeon peas - which I even declared! - and some peppers which, er, I didn't. My hand-bag doubles as a shopping bag and they got lost in it during our shopping expedition. Somehow they did not show up during customs inspection either. They are sitting on the counter drying now. Whether they will actually germinate remains to be seen.

Anonymous said...

i am confused because your blog is suppose to be about local foods but maostly focuses on time you spend in cuba--disappointing and not enough picturess of your food

Ferdzy said...

Hi Me;

I've only got about 40 posts that are not about local food, and that means that there are about 1150 posts that are about local food. Check the side index if you are looking for a particular ingredient or a particular time of the year (by month).

Thanks for commenting.