Dining in Cuba

Man walking in Plaza del Christo Biting into a malanga fritter dipped in honey, I moan and nod my appreciation to my husband, Josh, who is busy doling out portions of lobster and pineapple ceviche and Galician-style octopus.

When I packed my bags for our weeklong vacation in Havana, I hesitatingly included a pepper grinder. I had been warned that the food in Cuba tends to be bland and according to some, downright bad. With an executive chef husband and a passion for food, I erred on the side of caution. If there was no spice, I would be prepared.

But it’s our first dinner in Havana and my fears have already been assuaged. Sitting on the second-floor balcony of Castropol, a restaurant and nightclub overlooking the Malecón seawall and ocean beyond, there’s no need for additional seasoning. The Galician-style octopus is succulent and grilled to perfection. The lobster ceviche is tender and beautifully executed and presented: thin slices of pineapple mixed with lightly marinated lobster meat are mounded atop a circle of phyllo pastry and garnished with coriander. As for the malanga fritters, they’re a pleasant surprise – the outsides of the battered root vegetable are crunchy and slightly salty, the inside soft and gooey with an unusual yet tantalizing flavour. With honey for dipping, they vanish within minutes.

Over the course of the week, all my prior conceptions about Cuban food vanish. While Cuban cuisine might not be full of chili peppers like their Caribbean cousins’, the traditional dishes are packed with taste – garlic, onions, cumin and other flavourful accents are commonplace. Why is Cuban food derided by the Canadians who vacation here? I blame all-inclusive resorts. Imagine living at a hotel in Canada and eating nothing but the buffet, morning, noon and night. Great food needs to be sought out, and we discover that there’s no difficulty finding delicious options throughout Havana.

One evening, we pass a small restaurant on our way home and decide to pop in. Located on the Plaza del Christo, El Chachullero de Tapas lures us in with its cosy atmosphere. Racks of empty wine-bottles line the shelves and old revolutionary postcards decorate any wall space not already filled with enormous black and grey abstract canvases. It’s the type of restaurant that could be in any city, and the chalkboard out front advertising $2 mojitos, cuba libres and piña coladas is more than we can resist.

Our first pleasant surprise is the pineapple juice we order for our daughter, April. When our mojitos appear, her juice is missing and I look over to the bar where I see a blender whirring. The bartender fills a glass with pale yellowish liquid, which is presented to April with a pink, bendy straw. I mentally note to try a piña colada later.

We order three mains: lobster frícase served with tomatoes, onions and green peppers in a honey and cumin sauce; sautéed chicken with onions and green peppers in garlic sauce; and chicken brochettas. Each is served in a terracotta dish and accompanied by shredded cabbage, lettuce and carrots and three little crusty rolls. After a mouthful of the chicken, I don’t want to share it as we’d planned. I notice Josh eating the lobster with similar gusto.

While the mains are exceptional, what truly caps the meal is dessert. There is only one option: flan. And it is the best flan we’ve ever eaten – the perfect firmness and just enough caramel sweetness.

“One each next time?” Josh asks, scooping up the last crumbs. He orders another cocktail and asks for the bill. The entire meal comes to CUC $20 – roughly the same in Canadian dollars. Bellies full and exhausted, we amble down the street to our casa.

We awake each morning to a glorious sight. The breakfast table in the sunny closed-in terrace is laid with a platter of fresh fruit, the likes of which I have not seen since my childhood in South Africa. Papaya, guava, sweet red grapefruit; lady finger bananas that not only taste entirely different from the massive long-haul variety we get up here, but even have a smoother texture; watermelon, and best of all, great fan-shaped slices of sweet, juicy pineapple. Having vowed to eat local last winter, the last of the summer’s berries had quickly vanished from my freezer. So after months of nothing more tropical than the Quebec apples that survive the long cold winter, I am in fruit heaven.

The breakfast main course arrives: warm crispy rolls, eggs done to order, and slices of ham, cheese and fresh tomato. There’s coffee for Josh, tea for me, and hot chocolate for April. Each morning a different variety of homemade juice – always a blend of those on the platter – is served.

But to truly see what Cuban food is, we make a trip to Havana’s biggest market. The Mercado Cuatro Caminos is located just south of the city centre and worth a visit if you’re interested in seeing and sampling unusual and delicious fruits and vegetables. While all Cubans receive monthly rations, these comprise mainly of rice, beans, eggs, coffee and other dry staples. Fresh produce has to be procured by other means. Entering into the darkened market building, the enormous room dedicated to produce is a maze of colour. We pass piles of guavas, tangerines, papayas and limes. I point out a stall selling fresh cacao pods, and carefully read the signs accompanying strange small orange and red fruits (mamey santo domingo), as well as various tubers that have been cut open to reveal bright pink flesh (seso vegetal). April insists that we buy her some watermelon, and the woman at the stall cuts it for her with a machete, passing the dripping red fruit into her outstretched hands.

Sticky and pleased with our discoveries, and laden with a shopping bag of produce to enjoy, we head back to Old Havana for lunch. Where we will eat is not yet decided, but I’m not worried. For a family that travels to eat, Havana is bound to have more surprises in store.

If you go:

Getting there:

Sunwing Airlines offers direct flights at discount prices. Air Canada also flies to Havana via Toronto.

Where to stay:

To book a room in a Casa Particular (Cuban Homestay) search www.havanahomestay.com or www.casaparticularcuba.org. Rooms run CUC $25- 35 per night for double occupancy rooms (CUC is currently on par with Canadian dollars). Breakfast and dinner can usually be requested for $5 and $10 respectively.

Where to Eat:

Castropol: Malecón #107; Tel: (+53) 861 4864

Mains CUC $3 – $12. This social club is a favourite for Cubans and tourists alike. The second floor restaurant serves Cuban, Italian, Chinese and international cuisine.

El Chanchullero de Tapas: Calle Teniente Rey (Brasil) #457A; Tel: (+53) 862 8227

Mains CUC $3 – $4.50. The best value and ambience we found in Havana. Delicious main and cocktails and a decent wine list.

La Casa Julia: Calle O’Reilly #506A; Tel: (+53) 862 7438

Mains CUC $8 – $10. One of the oldest family-run restaurants in Old Havana, they serve delicious large portions of traditional Cuban food with rice and beans and vegetables or salad. Service is extremely friendly.

Mercado Cuatro Caminos: Calle Maxino Gomez. Open 7am – 5pm Tue – Sat; 7am – 2pm Sun.

Built in the 1920s and covering a whole block, you can see habaneros buying live goats and hens, eat take-away meals and peruse the abundant tropical fruit and produce on display.

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