Friday, June 22, 2012

What Cuban Cuisine Would Be If There Had Not Been Fidel

What Cuban Cuisine Would Be If There Had Not Been Fidel
By Viviana Hurtado
Published June 22, 2012
Fox News Latino

Talk food and politics with Cubans and you're bound to get into hot
water -- but Guillermo Pernot, chef-partner of Cuba Libre restaurants,
has dived right into this bubbling political and culinary stew.

Talk food and politics with Cubans and you're bound to get into water
hotter than that which divides the South of Florida from the island.

Most will gingerly tip toe around the topic, or just avoid it -- unless
you're Guillermo Pernot. Chef-partner of Cuba Libre restaurants, he has
dived right into this bubbling political and culinary stew.

He liberally dishes out a provocative theory: that the flavorful, heavy,
and simple foods known throughout the world as Cuban cuisine are
actually a cultural relic, a palate frozen after one of the world's
longest ruling strongmen Fidel Castro overthrew the Batista government.
The food we eat, argues Pernot, is that of recipes that stopped
evolving after Cuban refugees left, some more than half a century ago.

"What would Cuban food be if Fidel had not been in power?" asks the
Argentine-born chef who came to the U.S. as a teenager.

That question came to him during culinary cultural exchanges to Cuba,
which follow his Cuban-born wife's Quaker humanitarian trips. He
returned, leading tours of cultural foodies, with the group heading
straight to Havana paladares or small "restaurants" owned by Cubans and
located in their homes.

"The first time I ate at a paladar, I couldn't believe the intensity of
the food," he said. "It was delicious and not what I expected."

I met him in his Washington, D.C. restaurant, which has always reminded
me of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride in Disneyland -- in other words,
kitsch galore with faux balconies above a side bar accented with wrought
iron, palms that sway under large ceiling fans, and waiters in
guayaberas -- the iconic tropical dress shirt revered alike by ol'
school Caribbean men like my Papi and Brooklyn hipsters.

Not even the flimsiest dinghy vying to safety cross the Florida Strait
for the U.S. would sink -- Pernot runs that tight a ship. Sous chefs
need to trade their Crocs for Sauconies to keep up with rapid-fire
orders, sometimes emphasized with the quick snapping of fingers. It's
easier to control a gas range than flaring tempers right before the
dinner rush. No wonder so many reality TV shows focus on chefs and the
drama of a kitchen.

We were also minutes from a special food series called "Pop-Up
Paladares" featuring Cuban chefs Pernot met in Havana, including chef
Alain Rivera Santana of Havana's Doctor Café, and invited to the U.S. to
cook with him.

This is when both men would try answering the question of Cuban cuisine
without Fidel, although it means messing with some of my all-time-food
faves -- mouth-watering ropa vieja, comforting arroz con camarón, and
crispy tostones, staples I will always find in Miami's Little Havana

I decided to challenge them with a barrage of questions backed up by a
growling belly.

With every bite I went overboard, savoring hints of the familiar:
merluza al escabéche, fresh cod in vinegar-chile sauce with lamb tongue
and beet salad followed by canelones de cangrejo: fresh corn pasta
cannelloni stuffed with sweet chili crabmeat.

We feasted on grilled yellow fin tuna in a Malta honey reduction with
ruby red grapefruit and lavender supremes. Pernot and Rivera arguably
saved the best for last: sopa de mango, chilled mango soup, with Cuba
Libre's rum ice cream.

Like the subtle touches of fine extra-virgin olive oil in each savory
dish, politics permeated the dining room.

The guests asked how the regular people of Cuba could afford to buy
grilled tuna when shelves in markets stand bare.

Pernot tried to keep the focus on food, but Alain subverted his host for
a moment, answering honestly: "Regular Cubans don't have this meal.
They don't have the money."

A bit shy and soft-spoken, he admitted being blown away by the
blast-chillers that cool food in seconds, a kitchen staple in U.S.
restaurants he had never seen, much less used and that probably couldn't
fit in his home kitchen.

Rivera also told us some recent policy changes have allowed paladares to
expand from seating a dozen to more than three times that number, that
some don't serve rice and beans, and that Havana's #1 lunch item is pizza!

Maybe food is more dynamic that the politics that expelled whole peoples
or the memories that keep them trapped in that moment.

Maybe we are more resilient than the policies that rule us.

Maybe the change that everyone's been waiting for is already happening.

To learn more about Cuba Libre Restaurant's Pop-Up Paladares and
culinary tour of Havana scheduled for the Fall, click here.

Viviana Hurtado's blog The Wise Latina Club has won "Best Politics
Blogger" awards by LATISM and Blogs by Latinas. She is a regular
columnist for Fox News Latino. You can follow her on twitter at:

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