Cookery, Globe, Latin America, Lifestyle

The new Cuban revolution is culinary

The music of Shamshad Begum spirals up the walls of the building and blends with the aroma coming from the kitchen.

 

 

Mario López Goicoechea

 

 

la nueva revolucion 4At one of the tables a family tastes the samosas and bhajis that a waitress offers as apetisers. There is a slight aroma of incense. A statue of the god Krishna adorns the entrance of the building.

However, the aforementioned scene does not take place in an Indian restaurant in alternative Islington or yuppie Camden, but right in the heart of Nuevo Vedado, in the city of Havana.

Throughout the last two decades an interesting phenomenon has been taking place on the largest of the Antilles islands. Cuba, already famous for the revolution that had brought Fidel Castro to power, has little by little become a culinary paradise.

Paladares, private restaurants largely run by members of the same family, have sprung up like almond blossom in spring.

Clandestine and illegal at first, these private alternatives to the state service have revealed the creative talent of the Cubans.

And it is not just Cubans. For example, Fernando, the owner of Bollywood, the restaurant mentioned at the start of this article, was born and bred in London.

la nueva revolucion 3This man of Sri Lankan descent, skin tanned due to the Caribbean sun, admits that the idea to establish a paladar in Cuba came to him after seeing the changes to the former Soviet Union and China.

Based on his experience at a similar establishment in Punta del Este, Uruguay, 17 years travelling to Cuba and staying on the island for extensive periods and his success as a chef with Cuban friends, he did not think twice and decided to open Bollywood on the 26th of December 2011.

The menu mainly consists of Sri Lankan and Indian dishes. And in that it is the first contribution of this type of more specialised cuisine.

It not only offers the Cuban diner a distinctive option, but also one with a cultural subtext. The Sri Lankan recipes are usually spicier than Hindu recipes.

Delicacies like this would earn supporters in metropolises like London, New York or Madrid, but in Cuba Fernando has been facing an almost constant battle since the beginning.

la nueva revolucion 5The opening of his paladar was a success at first with a clientèle mainly consisting of diplomats, ambassadors and Cubans who had experience of this type of cuisine during trips abroad.

However, with difficulties promoting the business and a conservative taste among Cubans, the future of Bollywood is uncertain in spite of the excellent quality of the menu.

It is the same dilemma that is affecting the Beduino, another private restaurant located on calle 5 between 4 and 6, Vedado. In contrast to Bollywood, whose location is removed from the bustle and tourist traffic, El Beduino is near several renowned hotels such as the Melia Cohiba and the Riviera.

However, there is little publicity and the establishment largely depends on tourists, some of whom are Americans (the Discovery channel recently broadcast a report in the United States about the paladar) and others are from Francophone regions.

la nueva revolucion 2Focusing on the Arab world, its culture, customs and traditions, El Beduino also offers a menu that is far removed from the usual Creole recipe of arroz congrí [rice and black beans], roast pork, yucca with garlic sauce and fried bananas.

This restaurant, run by Odalys, presents the customer with a great variety of food, from falafel to couscous there is great care and skill in the preparation of the dishes.

That is the other factor that differentiates the private restaurant from the state restaurant: the attention to the final product.

Bruno, the owner of La Terraza Romana is in complete agreement. A Cuban citizen since 1988, he has noticed how the private sector is winning the battle against the government-run sector.

la nueva revolucion 1The main reason is the adaptability of the private sector and the care put into the creation of the food. At the same time La Terraza Romana sometimes makes pizzas and its diners go to  see this in action. Its clientèle is also mainly foreign and given its geographic position, calle 29E between 74 and 76, Marianao, it is no surprise that this paladar does not count on good trade.

In spite of everything, the quality of the food assures that La Terraza Romana is full every day.

Also constantly full is the Mesón de Sancho Panza, located in calle J between 23 and 25, flanking the Don Quixote Park, the renowned gentleman who gave literary fame to the chubby squire Sancho Panza. The paladar also has very well-deserved fame.

Run by Grethel, a sculptor by trade, this restaurant offers a mainly Spanish menu and does not need much publicity since it is situated in one of the more populated areas of Havana.

Like the paladares mentioned earlier it imports many of the products that it uses in the preparation of the recipes. The staff that work in the establishment come mainly from the gastronomic school of Havana.

la nueva revolucion 6The phenomenon of the Cuban paladares is not new, but the specialisation of many of them is.

The owner of Bollywood as well as the other owners of private restaurants agreed with the argument that the economic uncertainty and purchasing power of the Cubans (the average wage does not exceed £10 a month) are the main dangers they have to confront.

Even so, there is instilled in these owners a feeling of optimism that slightly nullifies the adverse reality. It is the feeling that far from the profits that the establishments can make, the cultural contribution is going to have a great bearing on the development of Cuban society.

 

(Translated by Claire Donneky – Email: claire.donneky@ukgateway.net)

 

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