I have put off writing about the food in Cuba not because I’ve been saving the best till last, but because, alas, for the most part it lived up to its reputation of being uninspired.
In the early days of communism, the only restaurants were official ones controlled by the government. The private restaurants called paladares were an underground workaround (Cubans are very creative at finding workarounds) with just a few tables, usually in the cook’s home.
They were legalized in the 1990s, but were kept small and tightly controlled. Under Raul Castro, the rules relaxed about six years ago; as a result, there has been something of a restaurant boom. Many paladares have expanded, taking over buildings or larger spaces and become more professional. I suppose that is welcome progress for the country, but without the added spice of illegality and the speakeasy feel of knocking on an anonymous door, they now could be restaurants anywhere.
Rather average restaurants, I’m sad to report.
We were told that the paladares we visited in Havana were among the best. They were certainly all very attractive and welcoming, but the food was merely … fine. There was a boring sameness to the menus, which mostly featured huge portions of shrimp, Caribbean lobster and fish (usually overcooked). Vegetables and side dishes were lackluster.
We did have one sophisticated and beautifully presented meal at La Guarida, a lovely third-floor space in a 100-year-old building made famous as the setting for the 1993 Cuban movie “Strawberry and Chocolate.” It has justly earned its reputation as one of the top restaurants in Havana.
I thoroughly enjoyed our elegant lunch there (their fish dishes were terrific), but I confess I much preferred the one we had later that week at Finca Agroecologica, an organic farm/paladar in Viñales, a couple of hours west of Havana. (Actually, the phrase “organic farm” is a redundancy in Cuba — one of the few advantages of it being such a poor country is that no one can afford fertilizers and pesticides, so all farming is pretty much organic.)
At the Finca, I finally got what I was craving — an abundance of simply cooked fresh vegetables in every conceivable form.
As we sat at long tables on the covered patio, a parade of dishes arrived to tempt us, all harvested from the intensely farmed-raised garden beds that climbed the hill below us. After a fruit juice “anti-stress” cocktail — which we were invited to spike from the rum bottle on our table — we proceeded to a bowl of delicious vegetable soup, chock-full of squash, potato, yucca and other yummy tropical vegetables I couldn’t quite identify (but had no trouble at all consuming).
By itself, the soup would have been plenty for lunch, but it turned out to be just the appetizer. It was followed by a vast array of salads and vegetable dishes, including beets, cabbage (both cooked and raw), green beans, cucumbers, roasted peppers, greens, carrots, squash, yucca, yams, okra, polenta and, of course, black beans and rice. Heaven!
Just when I didn’t think I could squeeze in another delicious bite, they brought out the main courses — lamb, tuna, grilled chicken and succulent roast pork. I managed to sample a tiny scrumptious nibble of each, though where I found room to put them I have no idea.
I believe there was a dessert after that, but by then I was in a food coma and oblivious.
It was an amazing meal, and evidence of how well Cuba could feed itself — if it could only figure out how to do it. Unfortunately, they haven’t got the knack yet. Despite its fertility and large amounts of agricultural land, Cuba imports more than 70 percent of its food.
It doesn’t have to be that way. And if a visionary agronomist named Fernando Funes has anything to say about it, Cuba could become a leader in sustainable farming.
Next time, I’ll tell you about our second farm visit (and lunch) that week, to his 20-acre Finca Marta on the outskirts of Havana, where he is combining traditional low-tech methods with modern ideas in a model that could transform Cuban agriculture.
I’m hoping that his influence spreads before you get to Cuba.
With any luck, his twice-weekly produce deliveries of fresh-off-the-farm produce to 25 paladares in Havana will inspire the chefs and he’ll spark not only a farming revolution, but a culinary one, too.
Ceviche with Avocado and Mango
For the most part, the rather dry fish and seafood I ate in Cuba did not leave me craving more when I got home. But one exception is the ceviche I had at La Guarida.
Theirs incorporated a lot of avocado and was very mild (I did not encounter hot peppers in Cuba, or even cilantro), but I didn’t take good enough notes to reproduce it. Instead, I am giving you my spicier version, which you can tweak to your liking.
1/2 pound halibut
1 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 red onion, thinly sliced into half moons
4 scallions or 1 spring onion, finely chopped
6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1-2 serrano or jalapeno chilies, seeded and finely chopped
1 Tbsp. chopped cilantro
1/2 cup fresh lime juice (6-10 limes)
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1 firm avocado, cut in 1/2-inch cubes
1 ripe mango, cut in 1/2-inch cubes
Lettuce leaves or tortilla chips for serving
While you are prepping the other ingredients, put the halibut in the freezer for about 45 minutes, until it is half-frozen. (This makes it easier to cut.) Then cut it into 1/2-inch cubes.
In a nonreactive bowl, mix the onion, scallions, garlic, chilies and cilantro with the lime and lemon juice. Toss the fish with the salt and add it to the bowl. There should be enough juice to completely cover the fish (if not, add more lemon juice). Cover the bowl and place it in the refrigerator to chill for an hour, stirring occasionally.
When it is cold, and the fish has turned opaque, it is ready. Stir in the avocado and mango. Serve on lettuce leaves or in martini glasses.
Makes 4 servings.