A week ago a British journalist told me that “Cubans don’t eat well.” It was a comment based on his limited experience of a first-time traveller to Havana who had eaten in very few places, barely an impression not reasoned caused by the dishes he had in those places; but I felt a certain distress, of wounded pride, and I retorted alleging that, on the contrary, Cuban food is very delicious and its seasoning is exquisite. However, a few hours later a restaurant on the Avenida del Puerto discredited my opinion as well as the prestige of Cuban gastronomy.
The food we were served in that restaurant has the uncertain taste of the so-called airplane food, but without the friendly smile of the flight attendant. And I thought to myself whether it was just the product of chance that we went to the wrong place because of lack of knowledge or if it is simply difficult to find in the network of Havana restaurants the true flavour of Cuban and international cuisine. Then my memory travelled to the past.
In the time machine
I have forgotten the details of the first time I ate in La Bodeguita del Medio, but I remember well the occasion, years later, in which I went with a girl I wanted to impress, and I achieved it: Martínez sat a few minutes with us and it was like being at the same table with Rick/Bogart in his tavern of Casablanca. The rest of the story is known and is enough to conquer an empire: very white rice, sleeping black beans, roast port, cassava with a garlic and oil-based sauce, lettuce…with the seasoning, the dressings, the flavour bequeathed to us by our grandparents.
Almost a quarter of a century later, I entered La Bodeguita…and I barely stayed five minutes. Not only did the prices on the menu scare me off, but also the evidence of the absence of Martínez as well as of the flavours and aromas that made that former cheap restaurant on Empedrado Street a bohemian and tourist cult to now turn it into just a folkloric postcard.
While in La Bodeguita…I got to know the cathedral of Cuban food, in the Taramar Restaurant I ate the best paellas of my life. Those paellas served in clay casseroles, full of meats, chicken, fish and seafood, at a laughable price, are only found in my dreams and I have started to doubt if they really existed or if they are just an illusion.
The Habana Libre’s Polinesio Restaurant is another of my oneiric obsessions. The fried rice and barbecue chicken served there have been lost in time for me, they fell into a black hole, and they moved to another galaxy which I cannot contact. Perhaps the real bodies of El Conejito, El Cochinito, La Carreta, El Emperador, La Torre, Monseñor…are also inhabiting that place, because, among us, only their ghosts exist.
In another way – through a fire – the Moscú Restaurant disappeared. That fire is still blazing in my memory because its enormous room had become my favourite spot. In its premises I discovered the flavour of caviar and I became addicted to salmon. Never again have I seen in a Havana restaurant the abundance and quality of the dishes – very cheap – served in the Moscú, or the special energy that circulated in its spacious space, which included a fabulous bar. An age was burned down with the flames that set it on fire.
Landing in the 21st century
The food our grandparents bequeathed us, that mixture of Spanish and African cuisine, is impossible to represent in the daily table. Too many products are missing to achieve it; meanwhile, the health and vegetarian food fever hasn’t caught on here. And whoever wants to put it into practice has even more limitations than the meat-eating people. Vegetarian restaurants proliferated last decade in the capital, but a while later they disappeared and no one speaks of them.
The concepts on food have been so modified in recent years that food has become a subject of study of high interest for medicine, social sciences, culture. Books and magazines are flooded with theories on this. Under the current perspective, our traditional ways of eating are not healthy. That would be another reading of “Cubans do not eat well.”
However, paradoxically, last year, in the centre of Manhattan, a few blocks from Time Square, I ate in a Cuban food restaurant, full of typical Cuban dishes, though some with outlandish names. Among others: themostclassic of Cuban beans (black bean soup); Cuban hearty chicken soup (chicken soup); fried plantains; fried, boiled or mashed cassava; rice cooked with black beans; garlic shrimps; and paella (native to Valencia but adopted in Cuba during the years of Spanish colonisation, according to a free translation).
The flavour of those “Cuban” dishes served in the Big Apple are only close those who know our palates, but the restaurant is full all the time of a colourful and festive crowd of Latino, U.S. patrons, as well as from other parts of the world, while a “Cuban music” group provides the entertainment in the restaurant. A Cuban waiter told me that the site forms part of a chain and they are all successful. So? In New York they also don’t eat well? (2016)
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