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Tanja Buwalda, a warm Irish Cubaphile and self-confessed food nerd who works with Esencia Experiences, offers crash courses in Havana’s complicated food story including a day trip into the countryside on a Harley to a small farm, including lunch with the farmer, and an exploration of Havana through its street food. From the barrio to the embassy district, she knows the best churros—deep-fried doughnuts; the best Cuban biscuits; and the best pan con lechón—slow-cooked shredded pork in aromatic vinaigrette on a soft white bun.
She builds in visits to organopónicos—Havana’s urban vegetable gardens carved out of vacant state land from the 1990s onwards to solve problems of food supply and distribution. These days, permaculture devotees travel from all over the world to check out these high-yield projects, part of Cuba’s urban wallpaper. At Tulipán market there are basketball-size papayas, vast yucca, oranges, tomatoes, green peppers, every kind of dried bean, garlic, green beans, lettuces and horseradish. At 19 y B market, the ‘El Mercado de los Millonarios’ frequented by expats and owners of bed and breakfasts and paladares, you can find exotic fare for Cuba: green chillies, ginger, ready-made salads, quail eggs, cauliflower and broccoli (little encountered, unbelievably), beetroot and fresh herbs; even olive-infused goat’s cheese. There is, however, no guarantee the same products will be available tomorrow—and seasonality rules.
“No fruit or vegetables are imported here,” says Tanya, “so when you take a tomato home and bite into it, you are tasting Cuba—heat; red, rich copper soil; hand-grown food with little machinery—all of that is captured. I’ve tasted eight types of mango here.”
Buwalda has learnt a lot about cooking in a Cuban way—slowly. “I have learnt to use a pressure cooker, to soak beans a day before, then, the day after, to use those same beans to make a soup or a casserole. I have learnt to sit my meat in marinade for a long time, and to wait patiently for my fruit to ripen. I never throw anything out. I go to the market daily and buy for that day, or recycle leftovers. Cooking here is a metaphor for life. My life, like my cooking, has slowed right down.”
Glossary Arroz con leche Batido A sweet, creamy rice pudding infused with cinnamon. Milkshake made with ice cream or, more commonly, milk and crushed ice, and tropical fruits like mango, pineapple, papaya or guava.
Cafecito Chicharrones Cuban espresso: punchy, strong and served in a tiny cup. Fried pork skins, often sold in a twist of old Granma newspaper sheets.
Comida Criolla Croquetas Cuisine created in Caribbean/Latin countries during the Spanish colonial period—a fusion of Amerindian, Spanish and African. Ground ham, pork, chicken or even tuna fried in a light batter.
Cuba Libre Daiquirí A highball cocktail of cola, lime juice and white rum. White rum, lime juice and sugar served with crushed ice.
Flan Frijoles negros A rich custard pudding poured into a pan and topped with caramelised sugar then baked. Black beans cooked into thick gravy with garlic and spices and served over rice.
Frituras de malanga Mariquitas Grated malanga (a root vegetable) rolled with egg, garlic and lime and then fried. Plantains sliced extremely thin, then deep fried like potato crisps.
Mojito Mojo Criollo A highball cocktail of white rum, sugar (or sugar cane juice), sparkling water and yerba buena (Cuban mint). A commonly used marinade of sour orange (naranja agria), garlic, onions and spice (oregano, cumin, bay leaf).
Moros y Cristianos
(also known as congri). Bistec de Palomilla Black bean and white rice cooked together with a sofrito (see below). A thinly sliced or pounded steak cooked in lime juice, garlic and onions.
Ropa vieja Sofrito Literally ‘old clothes’. The dish consists of beef shredded and stewed with tomatoes, onions, garlic, green pepper and spices. Sauce of onions, garlic, green peppers, cumin, bay leaf and oregano, sometimes with pork belly.
Tamales Tostones Corn huskes stuffed with ground corn dough mixed with spiced pork. Thick slices of green plantain, fried, flattened, refried, and served hot and salted.
Yucca A Cuban root vegetable usually boiled and served as a side dish in a lemon and garlic marinade.
Lydia Bell is a travel journalist with a deep interest in – and love of – Cuba. She has worked at The Australian newspaper, at the Financial Times, at the Daily Mail, Reuters, British Airways’ High Life magazine and remains a Harper’s Bazaar contributing editor.
March 2014 This article formed part of the March 2014 issue of What’s On Havana The definitive monthly travel & culture guide to Havana Download our current issue of What?s On Havana, your definitive travel, culture and entertainment guide for all things happening in Havana, Cuba?s bustling and enigmatic capital city. We include features from around Cuba written by the best international travel writers covering Cuba. Our monthly online digital magazine is also available in Spanish and French.
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