February 17, 2011 at 10:15 AM | by femmefatale | Comments (0)
With President Obama working to lessen Cuba Travel restrictions, the
focus on future trips to the country is growing wildly. A Jaunted
special secret correspondent just returned from a period in Cuba, and
she'll be sharing her impressions of the country, the people and their
hopes all this week.
In my last post on Cuban food I quite rightly dissed cocina Cubana and
its partner in crime comida criolla for its unimaginative, repetitive,
lukewarm drudgery. But I wasn't being entirely fair to the Cuban
restaurant scene: I didn't mention paladares. For there are glimmers of
hope appearing at the Cuban table, at least if you're a tourist with a
wad of Convertible pesos and the latest Lonely Planet guidebook.
Paladares—privately-owned restaurants, run mostly in people's living
rooms or in crumbling and unlikely-looking mansions like the one
pictured above—have brought spice to the Cuban menu. Legal since 1993
but operating clandestinely long before that, they're obliged to serve
only Cuban home cooking (rice, beans, pork) and no beef, so as not to
compete with the uncompetitive state-run restaurants.
The fact, however, that they're privately-run means that cooks are free
to experiment and respond to their customers' taste buds, just like in a
real country. So in paladares I feasted like a Cuban piggy on giant
spicy shrimp, herby marinated fish fillets, Chinese-style fried rice and
homemade coconut flan. Believe me, after a week eating at state-run
restaurants, this is gourmet stuff.
Some go so far as to hail paladares as the source of a sweeping movement
optimistically termed Nueva Cocina Cubana (New Cuban Cuisine). But it's
not really new, and it's not really cuisine. It's just well-cooked and a
little more varied than the slop served in state-run eateries.
It was, they say, a hugely popular 1980s Brazilian soap opera Vale Tudo
('Anything Goes' in Portuguese) that sparked off this culinary
revolution. If you saw Cuban TV—two fuzzy channels of government
propaganda and hand-me-down, low-budget soap operas from struggling
Latin American countries—you'd know it doesn't take much to be popular.
The plot goes like this: A near-destitute mother starts cobbling
together a few cents each day selling sandwiches on the beaches of Rio
de Janeiro. Soon she opens her own restaurant, which she calls Paladar,
meaning 'palate' or 'taste' in Portuguese. That's it.
That Cubans can be inspired by a story of a middle-aged woman who saved
herself from near-destitution by selling soggy sandwiches says a lot
about the national psyche. And, perhaps, the food.