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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.