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Photo: Otmaro Rodríguez
Photo: Otmaro Rodríguez

Cuisine Joins the Alluring Handbook of the Tourist Boom on the Island

Tonight nothing will save Miguel Roldán from bad manners. He will literally suck his fingers after having wolfed down the last garlic bread roll with butter with which he cleans the plate of lobster, whose sauce is magnified with an exquisite Chilean white wine.

“This here can stand alongside what there is over there,” he says, after enduring the last of an opulent experience.

We open the map. Here is La moneda cubana Restaurant in colonial Havana, and over there, New York, the city where Roldán has been living for more than 20 years after evading the dangers of several borders, taking courses in gastronomy y becoming a gourmet bordering on obesity.

Like many others, Roldán is impressed with his incursions to paladares recommended by friends or Internet portals. “When I left in 1994 there wasn’t glimpse of offers. They were very few and almost all were state-run,” he comments to OnCuba Travel.

Photo: Alain L. Gutiérrez
Photo: Alain L. Gutiérrez
Photos: Alain L. Gutiérrez

A BABEL OF FLAVORS

Almost from one day to the other, the explosion of private restaurants has turned Havana into a Babel of flavors. Ergo, also of cultures. And beyond. Its standards have been climbing the degrees of demands. Now the long-standing, the extravagant and the capricious – Roldán is a summary of all of them – can have a bit of luck and feel like at home. Vegans and vegetarians the same, although still at a lower rate than the omnivorous.

There’s more: a bit of modernity in the re-functionalization of the spaces, all of them local. As a rule, in the hands of designers, visual artists and construction workers, the details are seen to, an exercise of expertise and refinement absent for decades in the urban landscape.

Photo: Alain L. Gutiérrez
Photo: Alain L. Gutiérrez

LA MONEDA CUBANA’S LUCKY CHARM

A few meters from the baroque Havana cathedral, La moneda cubana Restaurant is famous among U.S. cruise passengers. When they finish their walking tour they are a throng of travelers with ferocious appetites invading the former store of provisions and liquor that met the demands of the travelers from the port in the early 20th century.

The restaurant is elegant, efficient, methodical. Impeccable in its pace, in one hour it is capable of assimilating up to 250 guests from the starter to the dessert. Even if some of them are lactose or gluten intolerant or vegans and vegetarians.

José Alfredo Pedroso, head of service of La moneda cubana, a robust young mestizo, manages the technical tips in English, French, German and Russian and he studied gastronomy and has experience as a waiter. He proudly shows the marble shelf where the eight distinctions awarded to the house rest, among them London’s 2013 International Quality Crown Award and the New York 2014 International Quality Summit Award. The last one, the Geneva International Star for Quality, was awarded a few years ago.

“We have a very typical Cuban menu,” he certifies. “Pork pot roast, shredded meet Cuban style, roast chicken and the classical black beans or rice and beans cooked together and the fried plantain or yucca with garlic and oil-based sauce. Also gourmet haute cuisine fish, octopus, seafood dishes and famous dishes from some countries.”

That plasticity and sophistication of the gastronomic services amazes, captivates and raises the prestige of the Cuba destination placing a miscellaneous culinary offer in the pituitaries of millions of tourists.

SUSHI AND AN EXTENSIVE GEOGRAPHY

In the capital’s metropolitan area, the culinary cartography covers several continents and in some places there are chefs native to the country in question. Thus clients can partake of, among others, Arab, Brazilian, Californian, Chinese, Korean, Scandinavian, Indian, Slavic, Iranian, French, Lebanese, Peruvian, Russian, Italian and Japanese food.

In relation to the latter, there are options. Located on one of El Vedado’s streets, the sober Fuumiyaky is a sequela of another similar one owned by the Tejeiro family, the Pp’s Teppanyaki.

“The idea was my uncle’s, who lived many years in Japan and had knowledge of the country’s cuisine and culture,” says Israel Tejeiro, owner and chef of the Fuumiyaky.

With cheaper prices than its similar ones in Europe or the United States, the Fuumiyaky attracts a clientele comprising the staff of the Japanese embassy, Chinese and Vietnamese businesspeople on the island, and Cubans curious to see how a teppanyaki table functions – the clients observe the entire preparation and cooking process of the dish on an iron grill -, or taste the sushi after watching Japanese films and series.

“There are days in which we bring out season dishes combining Cuban cuisine with the Japanese, making some fusions for the not too risqué public,” says the young chef, who doesn’t stop looking for Japanese culinary literature to be up to date.

Like many paladar owners, the absence until now of a products and supplies wholesale market is still the principal reproach and the principal demand, since commercial imports by private individuals is forbidden.

RESCUING THE TRADITION

For Michael Y. Park, from the New York Times, “At first glance, the problem wouldn’t seem to be a shortage of places to eat…from Spanish-style seafood to Japanese sushi, reflecting the desires of a public with an increasingly cosmopolitan palate.”

As Cubans would say, Park discovered lukewarm water. There are antecedents that today’s exquisitenesses did not come out of a magic show’s top hat. In the Havana of the 1940s and 1950s, there existed restaurants that were more than capable of having someone get on a plane in Caracas, Mexico D.F. or New York to exclusively quench their appetites.

“That can be rescued,” journalist and historian of Cuban customs Ciro Bianchi hopefully bets. He recognized that, out of the profusion of paladares, more than half a thousand in Havana, “in the long run only the best will remain,” since the economic Darwinism will take care of sifting them.

HEROES AND VILLAINS

Is Cuban food being respected or forged in these paladares?

“There are all kinds of things,” responds Bianchi and he extolls the rescue of traditional dishes thanks to many of those restaurants. Visited by the Obamas during their stay in Cuba in the spring of 2016, San Cristóbal, for example, “has brought back dishes from Cuban cuisine that were actually lost or forgotten.”

By filling a “void in national gastronomy,” according to Bianchi, these services have been sealing the deficits in culinary offers of a tourist industry that demands a great deal of specialization and that started out, in the late 1980s, still wounded by ideological iconoclasms.

“When the revolution triumphed we wanted to erase everything from the past and we even threw out our hotel menus. Together with this we wanted to disappear that Cuban food established in the books,” argues Silvia Mayra Gómez Fariñas.

Author of some ten published cooking books, among them La comida china en Cuba, written with Sino-American writer Jen Lin-Liu, this agriculturist is all passion when she defends the island’s gastronomic heritage, inherited from Spanish, French, Chinese and African cuisines and which has resulted in a charming miscegenation that many still don’t know, look down on or distort.

“The Manual del cocinero A has 36 bibliographic references and none of them are Cuban…. You graduate cooking foreign food, not the traditional Cuban food,” complains the activist who has been involved in many academic controversies with executives of the Federation of Culinary Associations of the Republic of Cuba, of which she is also a member.

Another of the nonconformists is a great gourmet of the old guard: 78-year-old writer Reynaldo González.

“With the successive crises and shortages, the culinary culture has been greatly depreciated with improvised attitudes and with remedies instead of recipes,” the winner of the 2003 National Prize for Literature says in a telephone conversation with OnCuba Travel.

An erudite in everything he talks about and writes, González affirms that the term resolve has become “a sort of talisman of Cuban popular culture” and that, extrapolating cuisine, those involved “resolve meals that resemble traditional recipes.”

The bad practices are shared by Cubans on the island as well as those abroad. “I’m always amazed, in restaurants of Cubans abroad, by the amount of condiments that are not proper of the dish, to show an overabundance. That disorder has contaminated many paladares, but also the food offered by the state-run restaurants, which are empty.”

In 1999, Casa de las Américas’ publishing house brought out Échale salsita. Comida Tradicional Cubana, a book of recipes written by González, who had among his best friends Nitza Villapol, the great guru of national cuisine who, given the perennial shortages, practiced a sort of gastronomic alchemy for decades on her TV program Cocina al minuto. “She also did a mending cuisine,” recognizes the novelist of Al cielo sometidos.

Photo: Alain L. Gutiérrez
Photo: Alain L. Gutiérrez

WORD-OF-MOUTH A LA INTERNET

Last May, three books from the Artechef publishing house of the Federation of Culinary Associations of the Republic of Cuba won in Beijing the Gourmand Awards, cataloged as the Oscars in cooking.

Cuban Country Food, by Eddy Fernández and Miriam Rubiel, won the Winner Gourmand World Awards in the category of Local Cuisine; Qué cocinaré hoy, by Luis Ramón Batlle, won it in the section Home Cooking; and El donaire de los vinos, by Martha Señán, was awarded in the category of books on food and drinks.

Cuba still doesn’t have a Michelin guide. On the other hand, the word-of-mouth works at vertiginous speed and some sites and blogs in the digitosphere, local and foreign, have created a space for promotion, annotations and mapping of the offers.

Now any Cuban can have on his/her cell phone an app of the www.alamesacuba.com portal, through which they have access to weekly updated information about types of food, prices, zones, house specialties, the chefs’ suggestions, location and reservations.

The bilingual www.cubapaladar.org also operates with similar services. For Rodrigo Huaimachi, founder and director of the site, it is the only non-profit digital platform that does culinary critique, in addition to having Cuba’s biggest gastronomic directory and two types of rankings.

A DETECTIVE IN ACTION

One of Cubapaladar’s detectives is a public man. A film critic and author of several books on the seventh art, Frank Padrón punctually hands in a sort of holistic review about the restaurants he visits. Solicitous, Padrón agreed to OnCuba Travel’s questionnaire.

In terms of tradition, does there exist a haute cuisine in Cuba, taking into account that the great difficulties of the local food market conspire against it?

It has been said that our cuisine it not very wide ranging, or rich; just a few distinctive dishes, but it is clear that that is not by far all the Cuban cuisine. Now there is also talk of “creative cuisine,” “molecular” and attempts are made at a Cuban gourmet that in my opinion is not always achieved (since it is frequently an imitation of foreign cuisines, like for example the French) but in the final analysis, the “haute cuisine in Cuba,” apart from its orientation, depends on those who make it: the simplest menu recreated by a good cook (and that we do have in abundance) precisely becomes that: the very haute, important cuisine.

Beyond the ownership legal framework, what factors have enabled that explosion of paladares in Havana and the entire island?

The fact that Cuba has known a migration and tourist flow since the 1990s has encouraged specialization and creativity. You can see that we already have, like any other big city in the world, all types of restaurants; many chefs have studied abroad and have returned to work in other people’s or their own businesses. This has enriched private restaurants (the state-run one are a bit on a standstill, but that is already another subject), which however hasn’t saved them from improvisation and neglect and that’s where you stumble on elementary mistakes in service, infrastructure and the worst: the food’s quality.

Many are asking how Cuba, with its permanent food production deficits and the state’s padlock on commercial imports by private businesses, can place on the table such an alluring gastronomic menu.

Well yes it does, and I can only find the answer in something that is well-known: Cubans’ inventiveness, their daring, their capacity to resolve problems, of finding solutions in the bottom of the well. They get products in the famous black market, they find private suppliers and create their own wholesale market, and they even import products from abroad. For example, in a Santiago de Cuba cooperative specializing in the Spanish stew called fabada, they are able to get people to send from Spain the indispensable saffron and, without having to go too far, in a Japanese one located in Nuevo Vedado, a friend who went with me and has eaten in others of its type in several parts of the world, was surprised with the abundant and sophisticated menu, to which the owner offhandedly answered him: “all the ingredients come from Miami.”

Is there a sixth impartial sense beyond the obligatory ones to interfere in these extremely subjective matters? Is there ever a moment of confusion in your cerebral chemistry?

It could be. It happens with the other arts, there are times when all the accumulated experience and that sixth sense, or I don’t know how many extra senses a critic requires for his work, is not enough. One feels defenseless or at least confused in the face of the artistic event, and one reaches the definitive opinion just with reflection and serenity.

For you, which would be the most extravagant or the most unthought-of paladar of all of them?

Well the one that survives despite everything.

Photo: Otmaro Rodríguez
Photo: Otmaro Rodríguez
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