We’ve just arrived back in the world of telecommunications from a month wandering about Cuba with Mama Possum. Cuba for us was bright colours, hot sun, the sound of horses’ hooves on paved roads, constant music, green mountains, blue seas, very fast Cubaño Spanish, and fruit growing everywhere. Cuba is a magnificent country, particularly if one can escape the tourist bubble and slip out into the “real world” a little. We also found it a challenging country, not in the least for its cuisine.
As our previous post on resourcefulness suggests, we found the affordable food in Cuba not quite to Possum tastes. Cuban food is largely greasy, meaty, and sugary. There are, however, a few things that we really love about Cuban food, and we will tell them to you here.
Our favourite culinary thing about Cuba is its fruit. Historically, Cuba has long been known for its abundance of delicious fruits, and it didn’t disappoint.
Being in the tropics with large areas of fertile soil, Cuba grows a huge variety of delicious fruits that can be bought for a few pesos in any municipal mercado, from small piles in people’s front doorways, or from roaming vendors that ply the streets with push carts calling out in that instantly recognisable global street seller’s nasal voice “Haaayyyy… Aguacate! Aguacate! Guayaba! Guayaba!”. Probably about 90% of our diet in Cuba was fruit, as this was by far the most readily available wholesome food. In the north and west of the island, mangos were in season while we were there, and were by far the best and biggest we’ve eaten anywhere in the tropical world (and we’ve eaten a lot of mangos in a lot of tropical places). In the south, avocados and guavas were the fruit in greatest abundance; in the far east it was perfect bananas in every shade of yellow, green and red. In amongst these abundant staples were all sorts of other fruits, from coconuts and carambolas to soursop and mamey sapote, and we simply ate as many as possible.
Surprisingly, for home sourdough bakers, we also really enjoyed Cuban bread. The bread in Cuba is soft and white and not at all like a hearty sourdough, but is made with decent quality, unbleached flour and seems free from sugar and preservatives. Unlike most white bread we’ve eaten, Cuban bread didn’t make us almost instantly hungry from super fast metabolism of simple carbohydrates. Perhaps the flour is processed relatively simply, so the starches within it retain more of their natural complexity, thus taking longer to digest? Also, curiously, Cuban bread didn’t aggravate Mama Possum’s arthritis as much as wheat bread usually does. Bread in Cuba is baked in small panaderias (bakeries) throughout day, so is always super fresh. People collect their daily allowances of bread in big bags from the panaderia, or from bicycle panaderos that roll around the streets with stacks of fresh bread rolls in crates on the back of their bicycles. We would go to the panaderia in the early morning to buy a handful of warm rolls for breakfast. Sometimes, despite the shelves full of freshly baked bread, there would be none available to buy as there was no surplus beyond the allocated quantity for each regular customer with their state ration booklet. Fortunately there seems to be a panaderia every few streets or a panadero on a bicycle around every corner, so we were never short of bread on which to spoon huge amounts of avocado.
Cuban streets tend to smell of baking bread and roasting coffee. Cubans drink a lot of coffee. They drink it thick and sweet from tiny cups, seemingly all day. In the cities, people sell coffee through the front window of ground floor terrace apartments, and passers by gather around to buy a quick cafecito for a single peso. Cubans are justifiably proud of the quality of their coffee, and there is a delightful Cuban custom of welcoming any guest in one’s home with freshly brewed coffee. This was a challenge to our caffeine-sensitive systems, but Cubans are such generously hospitable people that we gradually built up a tolerance to caffeine as we so loved this custom (and the Cuban coffee).
Although most of our diet in Cuba consisted of fruit, complemented with fresh bread and avocado, we did manage to find a little Possum-friendly protein from time to time. The simple Cuban dish “congri” involves black beans and rice cooked together with a few spices. Wherever we could find a basic little family restaurant, with a menu priced in the local moneda nacional currency rather than the convertible peso “tourist currency”, we would buy congri. (A tip for thrifty travellers: restaurants and other establishments that price things in the convertible peso currency often have items priced the equivalent of 30 times the price of the same item in an establishment using the local Cubano currency, so get your hands on some moneda nacional if you’re travelling on the cheap and/or want to eat where the locals do). Congri usually costs a few pesos, fills the belly, and is satisfyingly tasty. Mama Possum and I were invited for lunch to the home of a wonderful lady called Jelena who cooked us congri and revealed its simple secrets.
First, cook the frijoles negros (black beans) in a pressure cooker; drain and rinse (read this recipe first, to get tips on how to best prepare beans for optimal digestion).
Second, fry onion, garlic and cumin in a little oil until the onion and garlic are nice and soft. If you like, you can add a few tomatoes and chillis here too, and experiment with your favourite spices.
Add the onion mix to the pot of beans with rice and more water. Cook together until the rice is done.
Congri is generally served with fried sweet yellow plantain, pieces of sweet potato, and slices of crisp cucumber. We love it with a huge piece of avocado as well, as avocado makes everything better.