18 Sep Bring Cuba’s Famous Paladares Home with These New Cookbooks
“When people visit Cuba, they love it. But somehow, you always hear, ‘Well, the food wasn’t that great…'”
Cynthia Carris Alonso smiles and shakes her head. She is the writer and photographer behind a notable new cookbook, A Taste of Cuba, and she can’t believe how wrong people are.
I recently spoke with Carris Alonso about her latest work — a conversation that inevitably turned to broader questions about Cuban cuisine, the impact and idiosyncrasies of tourism, and misinformation about the country she has spent so long documenting. Hers is one of a recent wave of cookbooks examining the traditional recipes and contemporary gastronomy of this nation in flux: a growing draw for travelers, and Travel + Leisure‘s Destination of the Year in 2015, but still vastly misunderstood and clouded by confusing government policies and lingering suspicions.
“Back in 1992,” she says, “I started documenting Cuba as a photographer and journalist. I was there during the era of Elián González, the groundbreaking visit from Pope John Paul II.” Remarkable photographs from her 20+ years in the field are featured in her first book, Passage to Cuba: An Up-Close Look at the World’s Most Colorful Culture. But despite increased access and interest in the island, she knows that there are stories yet to be told.
“I knew there was a great culinary movement happening,” she says, concerned by the misconceptions about Cuban cuisine. “It’s not just black beans and rice.” (Though, she adds, the black beans are often great — Michael Calvo, the chef at El Atelier, adds cloves to the mix). “You’ll find Spanish influence in the north, French influence in the south, and a large West African influence from the Yoruba community, especially in Old Havana.”
The Cuba she has seen is one of young chefs and entrepreneurs who draw on a rich and diverse cuisine influenced by centuries of colonialism, immigration, and passed-down knowledge of indigenous plants. Dining in Cuba is anchored by the country’s vast network of paladares, or privately owned restaurants; officially illegal in the Soviet era, these establishments have become an indispensable part of the social fabric in the age of economic reform.
Compelled by Cuba’s rising restaurant scene — and the growing interest in food as a guiding principle for travel — Carris Alonso and her Cuban-born husband, José Luis Alonso, planned a culinary research trip. They toured the country’s preeminent paladares, doing oral history work with the chefs and gathering favorite recipes, new and old. During her travels, she found “high end, elaborate, sophisticated cooking” and “internationally-trained chefs cooking traditional Cuban recipes, sometimes with a twist.”
These stories, photographs, and dishes are collected in A Taste of Cuba — “the recipes are exclusively from Cuban chefs cooking in Cuba” — which is organized by region, each chef and business owner telling the story of their restaurant in their own words.
Converting well-loved recipes and colloquial measurements into modern format was not always easy. Valerie Feigen, recipe tester and Carris Alonso’s culinary collaborator, emphasizes the amount of translation involved. “Not just language, but metrics, ingredients. One recipe called for a ‘coffee-cup-full’ of olive oil — I had to experiment to figure out that the coffee cups are very small there.” Plus, the agricultural and geopolitical landscape in Cuba means some inherent differences in availability of ingredients. “Some things aren’t the same,” says Feigen; “the sugar is different, beef is scarce in certain areas, and everything is organic by default.”
Their work has paid off. Inside, you’ll find old favorites — ropa vieja, fried plantains — and one-of-a-kind preparations, like the Bebida Anti-Estrés from Finca Agroecologica el Paraiso, a sustainable farm near Viñales, or a tomato-prosciutto terrine served at El Atelier, in Havana, once host to Michelle Obama.
With these recipes, the authors hope to show Cuba as a real place where real people live (and cook, and eat) and dispel some of the fear that is clouding U.S. perception. Despite the whispers, says Carris Alonso, “it’s not difficult to visit Cuba right now. It’s on a ‘dangerous countries’ list somewhere because they had to pull people from the embassies — but there’s actually a new legal travel category called ‘Support for the Cuban People.‘” Eligibility, she says, requires avoiding establishments and hotels with ties to the military and spending money only to support individual Cuban business owners.
While information remains scarce (the embassy website mentions this in passing, and a travel advisory remains in effect) one thing is clear: U.S. travelers are still going to Cuba, and there is a world of deliciousness waiting for them.