You know how they say that travel changes your soul one trip at a time. Well it certainly did for me with my most recent visit to Cuba. In addition to it being my very first time in a communist country, I also had one of the most real and grounding trips of my life. I have a lot to say about Cuba, Havana in particular, where my friend and I stayed the entire time. But since this is a food blog, I will cut right to the food.
Cuba, as you may know is a country that has been socially and financially cut off from the rest of the word for decades. That also includes minimal to zero exposure to the world’s culinary scene. The understanding of cuisines, cultural influences in food, gastronomy, everything comes from the little contact Cubans have had with tourists, and from documentaries and books they have been able to get their hands on throughout the years. Needless to say there is some confusion about International foods. To give you an example, the quesadillas we ordered one day came with pesto sauce, and our Lobster Enchiladas without any tortilla. What I admired however, and what blew my mind was the ability Cuban chefs have to emulate and explore creativity in offering International cuisines despite their limited understanding. I sensed that Cubans have a certain desire to provide hospitality, which was apparent even as they take a stab at cuisines they have never themselves tried. To me that is commendable! Pushing the envelope sort of blind and yet not giving up. With their attitude, I have a feeling these Chefs would do very well with the right tools and training.
I must also interject that I did in fact eat the best Pesto Infused Ravioli I have ever had, in Cuba. Who would’ve thought that my best Italian meal would be in a country that has been isolated from the world? But I did and it was wonderful. The pasta was house made, tender and flavorful and the pesto also made in-house was carefully folded into each ravioli so that every bite could emit a burst of its sweet, savory taste.
The next surprise on my list was the Mahi-Mahi Ceviche I had, and which my friend and I mutually declared as the best ceviche in the world. I’m a seafood blogger so rest assured I have had my fair share of ceviche to make an educated comparison, but this was out of the world! Cuban chefs care about plating their food, and while they may not know all the condiments that exist in the world, they surely understand that food needs to have visual appeal. This bowl of ceviche was pretty looking; served on a bed of rich, green lettuce and traditional Cuban crackers. The fish was of excellent quality; tender, and mixed in well with lime juice, salt, onion, habanero, and a little all spice. Peruvians would be proud!
At that same restaurant, we ordered their Passion Fruit (Maracunja) Mojitos which was another highlight of the trip. Real fruit infused Cuban Rum with lots of mint and a generous pour. One jar could get you drunk!
Throughout out trip, we got to try a lot of traditional Cuban foods and some staples in our meals such as Congri (beans and rice), fried plantains and avocado salad. I learned that simple foods can be exquisite depending on the quality of the produce, which spoke for itself in all these dishes.
But my big discovery from Cuban cuisine was a tree root called Malanga. Cubans love their Malanga; the taste of which is nutty and similar to Taro Root. Malanga in Cuba is prepared in every way possible- ground into floor, mashed or cut and fried. We had the pleasure of eating Malanga fritters with a garlic and corn coating served with a honey–garlic dipping sauce. The fresh, abundant garlic flavor in the fritters absolutely balanced the ‘blandish’, earthy taste of the starch, and together made them irresistible. We also tried a bowl of the Malanga cream soup, which is another delicacy for Cubans. The soup had an entirely different flavor from the fritters, but was also delicious. Plus, once we learned that Malanga has medicinal properties including being a hypoallergenic, we were on a binge!
And finally, the Albondigas, which came filled with sticky rice and raisins and were doused in a beautiful chickpea and tomato sauce. While I haven’t ever tried Italian meatballs, I can imagine these could give them some stiff competition. Anything that has a pescetarian or vegetarian version is a winner for me. The Albondigas I could tell were prepared with much care, and were mildly crispy on the outside, preserving the gooey inside filling of rice. The sauce was delectable with hints of saffron, a spice Cubans love!
We ate well on our trip and the biggest lesson for me as a foodie was that there are no boundaries if you have a true passion for food. I only wish I had written this blog on a full stomach because now I want to go back to Cuba for my next meal!