Is Cuban Cuisine Disappearing in Cuba?

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Lechón with rice and beans, and fried plantains from Palacios de Los Jugos in Miami (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Before I visited Cuba, I had familiarized myself with its cuisine in Cuban restaurants in Miami and at my boyfriend’s parents’ home, where his father cooks traditional Cuban classics every time I visit. After returning from Cuba, it was clear that those are the two main places where Cuba’s traditional dishes survive and thrive: in Cuban restaurants in the U.S. and in the homes of Cuban ex-pats.

I stayed in Havana for the entirety of my trip, and I ate primarily at “paladares,” or privately run restaurants that sometimes operate in Cubans’ homes. For years, the Cuban government forbade all private businesses, meaning that only restaurants run by the Cuban government could take root.

The easing of restrictions that allowed for the establishment of paladares is still relatively new and occurred after Fidel ceded power over to his brother Raul back in 2008.

But  Cuban cuisine is not what it used to be in its birthplace.

Every time I go to Miami I eat lechón. It’s unavoidable. It’s the labor-intensive roast pork dish Cuban-Americans eat on Noche Buena (Christmas Eve) and when they’re celebrating anything really. But I didn’t see this go-to Cuban dish once on a menu in Havana.

Palacios de los jugos
A variety of Cuban dishes at Palacios de los Jugos (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

I spoke with Lillian Guerra, a professor of history at the University of Florida who has visited Cuba several times over the past few decades. She wasn’t surprised that I couldn’t find lechón in Havana because, as she explained,“in the cities people don’t know how to cook it. They don’t have an oven to cook it in. All they can do is fry it or cook it on the stove somehow. Cooking lechón requires specialized knowledge and a place to do it.” This knowledge has been better preserved in Cuba’s rural areas according to both Professor Guerra.

And even when people are lucky enough to have ovens, they oftentimes were made in the decades before the revolution. For instance, the part of her family that still lives in Cuba has two ovens, but they were built back in 1947.

Ropa Vieja from Jardin del Oriente in Havana

Fortunately, I was able to find another of my favorite Cuban dishes while I was there, ropa vieja, a stringy beef dish, cooked in a tomato-based sauce with bell peppers and spices.  The version I had at a paladar called Jardin del Oriente in Old Havana tasted like the ropa vieja I’d had in Miami. But sometimes restaurants have to adapt to some of the realities in Cuba and adjust their menus as a result. When my boyfriend visited last December, he had a version of the dish that was cooked with pork, most likely the result of a beef shortage.

Scarcity of ingredients in Cuba is quite common. At the Cuban bed and breakfast we stayed at, we enjoyed a big breakfast every morning that included bread, eggs, fresh fruit (of varying quality), and even flan. But some mornings butter was conspicuously absent from our breakfast spread.

Breakfast spread at a Cuban Bed & Breakfast in Havana (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Butter is one of the many ingredients that will disappear from ration shops and markets in Havana without notice. Oregano, a standard herb used in many Cuban dishes has all but disappeared. Lemons and limes– same story. “The regular disappearance of certain foods out of nowhere, people don’t have an explanation for it, the government doesn’t give it to them. It’s an artifact of the planned government,” says Professor Guerra. “In Cuba there’s a joke about it, when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan they couldn’t find the Taliban. In Cuba simultaneously eggs, the main source of protein on the island, disappeared…they call a food item when it disappears the Taliban.”

I experienced this phenomenon as a tourist only a handful of times, and that’s because tourist dollars are vital to the already ailing Cuban economy. For the average Cuban though, many staple ingredients and meals have disappeared from memory.

Professor Guerra has assured me that there are many Cubans who are trying to keep Cuban cuisine alive. “People retain little archives in their head of what they need to make these dishes,” she said. Remittances in the form of hard-to-find ingredients also help. Her family members oftentimes remind her to pack cumin and oregano when she visits.

Meanwhile there’s all this talk that Cuba is undergoing dramatic changes that are moving toward more prosperity and greater freedoms for individual Cubans. According to NBC South Florida, President Obama said a couple weeks ago at a fundraiser in Miami that the U.S. “must continue updating its policies toward Cuba,” hinting at our half-century long trade embargo on the island that many believe shares responsibility in crippling the island’s economy.

Until that changes, I’ll go to Miami for lechón.