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Tommy, Let me tell you about Cuban cuisine

Tommy, Let me tell you about Cuban cuisine

Dear Tommy

I have owed you a letter for quite some time. I’m not sure when or how this letter will get to you, but let it be known that I’m writing it from Cuba con todo mi amor. I want you to be here so badly- I found one of the 3 pictures that exist of us together and keep thinking how you would love the insanely cheap and delicious street food.

I’m still going through my existential life crisis but I think if I don’t get a real job we need to open some sort of Argentenian/Cuba/Southern fusion bed and breakfast. Let that sink in for a minute.

Remember how we had to make the “stop talking about food” rule? I’m going to shoot that to hell. Let’s talk food. I’m going to tell you everything you ever wanted to know about Cuban cuisine.

The first thing about food is that it’s a pain in the ass to get. Humberto, our program director, says that Cubans biggest problems are breakfast, lunch and dinner. Grocery stores aren’t grocery stores- they’re a badly stocked bastard child of a Dollar Tree and a gas station convenience store. You might be able to buy a few dry goods there, a carton of milk and box of soap. To get the fresh stuff, you gotta go underground.

Around the corner from our apartment in a literal hole in the wall in the middle of a sketchy-ass hood is a fruit and veggie stall. You can buy guavas, cabbage, cukes, pineapple, strange native tubers (malanga e yucca) and (ew) papaya. It’s cheap as a Vietnamese hooker- usually about $3 for several pounds of produce. And this is good produce too. None of that creepy bloated genetically modified and tasteless stuff we get at home. Tiny peppers absolutely pop with flavor and the bananas actually taste like bananas, not like banana-flavored cardboard.

Let’s move on though. Next to the fruit stand is a small window with bloody pieces of butchered pig hanging from hooks. Think Sweeny Todd. Pork is the national meat—it’s ubiquitous (but strangely there isn’t any bacon). Our housekeeper brings in chickens sometimes that I think (read: know) were freshly strangled in someone’s backyard.

Speaking of chickens, around the corner from the meat’n’fruit stands is the egg lady. You go to her house, holler that China (our housekeeper) sent you and, if you pass the test, she’ll sell you eggs, usually at least three dozen at a time.

But my friend, I know how much you love street food and that is the real highlight of my gastronomical adventures. On the street where we live is a quaint stand where you can buy ropa vieja, an ample portion of beans, rice, salad and a creamy banana batido for less than $3. The stand is attached to someone’s house and the food is served on their china. You can always opt to get it to go, but if you don’t bring your own plate or container it will literally be dumped in a plastic bag. Usually we stand at the counter, listening to the workers blaring Madonna mix with the reggaeton seeping out of the neighbor’s house.

When we’re up for a slightly longer walk, we traipse down the street 8 minutes to a stand that would probably get a single digit rating from the Department of Health.

The stand has bars on the windows. Though no amount of iron can keep the bacteria from escaping, I give them an “A” for effort. You can get pizza or a ham and cheese sandwich from there but their specialty is (surprise) a pork dish called lomo ahumado. It’s a tender, juicy smoked piece of pork that comes with at least a half pound of greasy black bean and rice congri, cabbage and cucumbers dressed in vinegar and a banana, all for less than $2. You eat it at a free-standing table or take it to go in a cardboard box or old Styrofoam meat tray. Sure you’re risking dysentery, a parasite or worse eating at these kinds of places but the food is absolutely incredible and for the price, I really can’t complain.

There’s not a whole lot of variety. Most places sell the same combination of pizza, spaghetti, burgers, and some variation of pork, rice and beans. Even when we ate at el Aljibe, a place that Anthony Bourdain visited and made famous, the meal was extremely simple: chicken, rice, beans and salad. I think it’s the simplicity that makes it so delicious and the fact that most of the ingredients are so incredibly fresh. Sure, there are no balsamic reductions dressing the pork or peach curries for the rice but the food here really isn’t bad.

I can’t wait for our reunion (and to give you one of your gifts- just let it be known Cuban hip-hop is the theme). Te mando un abrazo fuerte.

August 2011

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