Sunday, December 6, 2015

Our Gal in Havana

It's hard to write a food blog in a country that A) doesn't have much of a cuisine and  B) doesn't have much food.  But since our B & B has a kitchenette with a good set of pots and pans, dishes and utensils I've been learning how to make meals in Cuba.

Here's the market close to where we're staying considered one of the biggest and best in downtown Havana.  It has two parts.  One with fresh fruits and vegetables as well as meat.  The other has state subsidized food staples.

The veggie section hasn't got a huge selection although there's always lots of great tropical fruit and all sorts of root vegetables - sweet potatoes, yams, yucca, malanga which are included in every main meal and called "viandas".

In the meat section there's pork - just pork.  No chicken.  No fish.  No beef.  In fact, all beef is controlled by the state and is for export only.  You can face a fifteen year jail sentence if "they" catch you with beef in the freezer!

Here's the subsidized section.

Everyone has a ration book which corresponds to this list and more.

  So, for the month of November, you're entitled to buy rice @ .25 - (one U.S. penny per pound) up to 5 pounds.  Black beans @.80 or three U.S. cents per pound up to 10 ounces - strangely they use pounds and not kilos here - 1/2 litre of oil per month and also 10 eggs per person per month. - four U.S. cents each.  You can purchase more of these items but at a higher rate.  If they have it.  My landlady just told me she'd spent the morning looking for sugar - and they grow it here.

There's also subsidized toothpaste, cigarettes and this - subsidized rum.

There's a chain of subsidized ice cream parlors throughout Cuba called
Coppelia.  When we tried to buy a cone here we were escorted into a small, air conditioned room where it was explained that Cubans wait on line for two hours or more to get an ice cream cone for 5 pesos (approx. U.S. 20 cents).   We could purchase a two scoop cone for $2.85 in what they call "convertibles" which is tied to the dollar and is what most tourists use.  In the markets we pay in "convertibles" but receive change in pesos known as "moneda nacional" - it's devilish hard keeping them apart.

Putting a meal together requires ingenuity.  There's a small corner shop that sells frozen chicken parts - but not always and where from - who knows.  You can buy beer at another corner shop, and you feel very clever when you discover a small pastry shop that sells decent whole wheat bread.  Even bottled water is a hit or miss proposition and you quickly learn that if you see it - stock up!

This is the swankiest - and only - real supermarket in the city.  Most of what they have is imported from Spain.  Once again, if you see it, grab it, because that Italian spaghetti or the Spanish sheep's milk blue cheese will be cleaned out by the next day.  I'm still trying to figure out what that guy buying fifteen jars of pequillo peppers was going to do with them.

Here's the spice section of the supermarket - notice how many "no's" have been pasted onto the list.  I've come to believe that the country's motto, "Patria o Muerte", should be changed to "No Hay".

But down the street from where we're living is a very good restaurant where you pay in "convertibles" and you can get all sorts of things ordinary people can't buy. Three types of fish - snapper, grouper and marlin; three kinds of steaks; an excellent wine list were on the menu this week.
How do they do it? The government is desperate for cash and so allows these places to purchase these exclusive items knowing that most of the business will come from tourists providing the foreign exchange they are so desperate for. Feel like a swim after your bottle of white wine and shrimp salad? Saunter over from the bar to the pool at the Melia Cohiba - a partnership between a Spanish chain and the Cuban government - and laze away.

So what do the Cubans get when they eat out?
Here's the menu and it is always, always the same.  On the left hand side a list of sandwiches - bread with ham and cheese, or roast pork or Spanish omelette, etc.  On the right hand side are a list of so-called pizzas.  Margherita - with ersatz cheese and sweet tomato ketchupy sauce or with onions, or peppers or ham and pineapple.  You can see the pizzas coming out through the pass way on the bottom left.  Bruce will have one of these when he's starving but I would rather walk around with an empty stomach.

What they do have is absolutely delicious fresh juice.  You can buy a litre and a half for just over two dollars.  There's guava, mango, limeade, pineapple, orange, tamarind, mandarin and watermelon - all just scrumptious.

Despite all this deprivation or maybe because of it, the Cubans have become very clever at getting around the regulations and supplementing the limited supply.  My landlady at our B & B offered me some incredibly good smoked ham - not the crappy processed kind.  When I asked, "Lillian, where can I buy some of that"?  She told me that someone she knows who lives about two hours outside of town sent it to her.  And when I inquired about buying fish she told me she knew some fishermen and she got hers from them.  Even at the market, men have sidled up to me and, as if doing a drug deal, have furtively shown me a bag of frozen shrimp they've somehow gotten hold of.

So here's our contribution to this great Cuban tradition.  Want some ice in your house-made mojito? 
The salesgirl at the only housewares store we've seen said yes, they used to have ice cube trays but not now.  Bruce spotted a pile of plastic egg containers from Turkey which we've now converted into an ice maker.  "Muy inventivo" said the cashier.