Exploring Cuba’s simple, yet tasty, fare
Chef Lilliam operates La Cocina de Lilliam out of her home in Miramar. (La Cocina de Lilliam)
Much of Cuba appears to be stuck in time. Vintage American cars roll past crumbling Spanish-style buildings, songs made famous by the Buena Vista Social Club drift from open windows along the street, and life seems to have changed little since the late 1950s, when Fidel Castro came into power.
Similarly, the nation’s cuisine – based on a diet of rice, beans and meat – remains steadfastly traditional. Food rationing laws that began in 1962 to mitigate national shortages also made obscure spices or raw ingredients hard to find, and thus stunted Cuba’s culinary evolution.
But throughout the years, local chefs have perfected the art of simplicity, serving up fresh, tasty and proudly Cuban fare. Meals are presented with home-cooked care and hospitality, often accompanied with live music and views of the lush island, lapping waves or the happening streets of Havana.
About six miles outside Havana, in quiet Cojímar, is La Terraza de Cojímar (Calle Real 161; 537-793-9486), a seafood restaurant that opened in 1925. Ernest Hemingway penned The Old Man and the Sea here, and visitors can tour his nearby home. Hemingway also frequented the restaurant and it is rumoured that he was inspired by La Terraza’s calm ocean view and the sea breeze that passes through the restaurant’s large, open windows. Try the restaurant’s Cuban take on paella, a hearty Spanish rice and seafood dish, along with a “Hemingway daiquiri” with citrus juices and white rum.
La Bodeguita de Medio, a classic restaurant in Old Havana, is worth a stop more for its lively atmosphere than its food. The walls of the restaurant (Empedrado 207; 537-867-1374), which opened in 1942, are covered with the scribbles and signatures of past patrons, and a live band is often plucking, drumming and singing within. The menu is filled with familiar Cuban dishes like ropa vieja, shredded beef in a Cuban Creole sauce, and marinated pork, fried for good measure. The restaurant is now an international chain with locations from Spain to Australia.
After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Castro enacted a law allowing small family-run restaurants (paladares) to exist in private homes. Now, La Cocina de Lilliam, a restaurant that chef Lilliam operates out of her home in Miramar, and serves up some of the more inventive dishes in Cuba. In the island’s capitalist era, Miramar was Havana’s wealthiest neighbourhood; the bright exteriors of many impressive properties are faded and deteriorating, but still beautiful.
Guests sit on a leafy patio lined with a handful of tables and a guitarist strums nearby. Cuban standards like pulled meat and fried plantains are distant at Cocina de Lilliam, but the menu still relies on traditional, simple ingredients. Fresh breads, garlic knots and various dipping sauces emerge at the start; platters of Spanish meats and cheeses are followed by dishes like chicken, cheese and peach crêpes, succulent grilled fish and spiced yucca.
One place where the Cuban simplicity shines is at the country’s most famed sweet spot, Heladería Coppelia (Calle 23, at the corner of L; 537-832-3450), where locals and tourists queue in Cuba’s heat for ice cream. The 1994 movie Strawberry and Chocolate from Cuban director Tomás Gutiérrez Alea immortalized the famed outdoor ice cream parlour, though it has been popular since opening in 1966. The ice cream is light, sweet and flavourful, the perfect accompaniment to the often-intense Cuban heat, and comes with a vanilla wafer-like cookie. If the line stretches for blocks, which is not uncommon, do not despair; it usually is the line for locals on the Cuban peso, while people paying with the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC), the Cuban currency most visitors use, purchase their ice cream at the adjacent location.