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Greasy, fried, ubiquitous and sometimes surprisingly tasty Havana street food, while not for the weak hearted, offers an intriguing mixture
A young girl walking down the street dressed in her school uniform—short mustard or burgundy skirt, and white blouse—braided hair, trainers, backpack and licking a popsicle or an ice-cream cone is an everyday scene in Havana. The same as for a distinguished-looking gentleman, one elbow on a window sill or a small stand sipping his coffee from a thimble-sized cup. Or the mulata who walks slowly swaying her hips and biting a pizza pie enclosed in a piece of manila paper.
Havana has a great variety of fast foods which are sold from stands, windows, wheelbarrows and baskets that hang from the vendor?s arm to people on the street who are out for a stroll or on their way home. Street traders wander about hawking their merchandise in the same manner as peddlers of yesteryear who sold vegetables and fruits. This is the case of the peanut vendor, whose paper cones filled with peanuts are a common sight at the doors of movie theatres, fairs, festivals, parks, everywhere and anywhere.
Street stalls offer a mixed selection of foods: sweet or salty, solid or liquid. The most common of these foods include ?Cuban? pizzas—a thick piece of dough with a thin layer of well-seasoned tomato sauce and cheese sprinkled on top; ham sandwiches or bocadito de jam?n, which is made of cured ham well stuffed with bacon plus a dab of mustard, ketchup or mayonnaise; instant refreshments and natural juices; peanut cones; small guava pastry pies; and ice-cream.
There?s a wide assortment of fritters, which Cubans are very fond of: churros: dough that is deep-fried and later cut into finger-size strips; chicharitas de pl?tano, paper-thin slices of plantain fried in oil; frituras de malanga, grated taro mixed with egg and crushed garlic, also deep-fried; and tostones, fried flattened pieces of plantain, crusty on the outside and tender on the inside. But there?s no question about it: one of the tastiest tapas is the pan con lech?n, a roast pork sandwich sprinkled with the juices of the roast. The kiosks in the proximity of the Institute of Technology in the outskirts of Havana serve the best pan con lech?n I have ever tasted. And the typical pan con minuta, a fish fillet coated in a batter of flour and egg and fried, is spiced up with a sauce made of vinegar, garlic and onions which is sprinkled on the bread slices.
Other street foods include papa rellena, a ball of mashed potatoes—filled with seasoned and fried ground meat—which is later breaded and fried until golden brown; minced chicken, fish or meat croquettes, also breaded and fried; pan con frita, or frita al plato is the patty between two slices of bread or plain; fried chicken, sometimes marinated in a sauce of garlic and bitter orange juice; tamales, those small packets wrapped in corn husks containing a paste made of ground or grated tender corn seasoned with garlic, onion, tomato, pimiento, cumin and bits of fried pork, are a favourite for a day at the beach.
Other favourites sold at street stands include pan con bistec, an appetizing pork steak fried with garlic and onions between two slices of bread. Also in sandwich style is pan con chorizo, a highly seasoned pork sausage with paprika that gives it its characteristic red colour; pan con tortilla, a simple omelette on bread; ham and cheese sandwiches; hot dogs; and pan con queso y guayaba, thick guava jam and a slice of cheese on bread. Chicharrones de empella, the crisp residue after frying the skin of pork are also sold on bread, while chicharrones de viento, or puffed cracklings, are sold in paper cones.
The so-called ?cajitas? (literally, ?little box?) also have a large following thanks to its manifold applications: lunch at birthday parties; cold or hot meals to be eaten at the beach; fast food from street stands; or even part of a wedding banquet. These ?cajitas? are brown and approx the size of a thick pocket book, and when bought on the street are usually filled with either a pork steak, a smoked pan fried pork chop, a slice of roast pig, fried chicken, or mutton stew, served with white steamed rice or congr? (rice cooked with beans); vianda* (usually cassava, plantain, sweet potato or taro) fried, or boiled sprinkled with garlic sauce; and sliced tomato or cucumber. If the cajitas are intended for a festive occasion, the contents change to include a piece of cake with a guava or coconut filling and a meringue topping; a cold macaroni salad, small party-size croquettes and pastries.
Among traditional Cuban desserts you have guava pastries; sometimes small tarts with guava marmalade or coconut filling and sometimes small triangles of puff paste filled with guava jam, both which should be eaten warm. These are my personal favourites and the best are the ones sold at the Horchater?a in Old Havana, right next to the Torrelavega cafeteria on Obrap?a Street between Mercaderes and Oficios.
Desserts are very well-liked in Cuba—for centuries a leading sugar-producing country— and a wide variety is sold on the streets. The popular turr?n de man? is sold in small bars in two different forms: a hard nougat-like candy made with roasted peanuts mixed with honey and caramel, or a fudge-like candy made from ground peanuts and sugar. Other sweets include turr?n de ajonjol?, or sesame seed nougats; cremita de leche made with cooked milk and sugar; coquitos, crunchy grated coconut and sugar; yemitas, a combination of egg yolks and syrup; boniatillo, a paste of mashed sweet potato cooked in syrup and sprinkled with powdered sugar; capuchino, a small cone-shaped sponge cake soaked in syrup; merenguitos, or baked meringues; tartaletas, tartlets filled with grated coconut cooked in syrup, or melitones, small tarts filled with coconut cream and butter; se?oritas, or millefeuille, puff pastry layered with a filling of cream and topped with powdered sugar; masa real (literally, ?royal dough?), a no-frills dry type of cake with a thin layer of guava jam filling; torticas de Mor?n, a kind of crumbly cookie made with flour, shortening and sugar; brazo gitano, a jelly roll filled with cream or marmalade.
And now we come to the ever-popular ice-cream, which in Cuba is served in cones, cups or between two thin slices of cake and are very creamy; and the duro fr?o, ices and glaces which are made simply of fruit juice, sugar and water. With such suggestive names as rizado de chocolate (chocolate curls) and coco glace, the best creamy ice-creams in Havana can be found at Coppelia, the famous ice-cream parlour located on the corner of 23rd and L Streets in El Vedado.
And to quench the thirst, there?s a huge variety of beverages, from brightly coloured instant refreshments to fruit milk shakes, the most popular being guava, mango, banana, papaya and mamey. Another shake-like beverage—although it does not classify as such —is champola which is made by stirring the pulp of soursop with sugar and milk. Natural fruit juices made from oranges, pineapples, mangos, guavas, papayas or tamarinds are both very popular and delicious. A satisfying drink that is also very popular is guarapo, which is the juice of the sugar cane squeezed on the spot by means of a specially-made contraption that hasn?t changed one bit since colonial days. And of course there?s Cuban-style coffee, a strong, black brew served in very small cups which only costs one Cuban peso.
Prices range from one Cuban peso for a glass of instant soft drink or roasted peanuts, for instance, to 15-30 Cuban pesos for a ?cajita? (24 Cuban pesos are approx equivalent to 1 euro). All around the city and during daylight hours you will always find food stands selling in the local currency, especially in the proximity of secondary schools and universities, train stations, hospitals, the Barrio Chino, Calle Obispo in Old Havana, or agromercados (markets selling fruits, vegetables, hams, and mutton and pork meat). Street hawkers are also popular around bus stops and movie theatres. An infallible way of knowing the quality of the product is the number of people waiting in line to be served.
* Vianda in Cuba has become the collective term for root vegetables, such as potatoes, cassava, sweet potatoes or taro; and other vegetables and fruits, such as squash, plantains and chayote, or mirliton, which are normally eaten fried or boiled.