Food Matters: Finding life lessons in learning how Cubans cook
“The Great Cuban Soup”
1 pound bone-in chicken parts (thigh, leg, breast)
1 pound boneless pork, cubed
1 onion, chopped
2 red/green peppers, chopped
1 sweet potato, cubed
1 calabaza squash, cubed (may substitute butternut or acorn)
3 ears corn, kernels cut
1 head garlic, minced, in olive oil
¼ cup white vinegar
¼ cup white cooking wine
1 ½ teaspoon white pepper
1 ½ teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon oregano
2 bay leaves
2 teaspoons salt
Season meat with spices; let marinate while preparing vegetables. Place all ingredients in a large pot. Add water to cover. Bring to a boil, then simmer 20-25 minutes, until meat is cooked. (If using bone-in chicken breast, shred meat and return to pot). Simmer another 30 minutes, until flavors meld and broth thickens. To serve, divide chicken parts and stew among plates. Ajiaco will keep up to five days refrigerated or one month frozen.
I was warned to brace myself.
“Cool city … food sucks.”
This is the summary offered by every single person I told about my first foray to the timeworn city of Havana, Cuba.
First I remind them that I care, and write, about plenty more than just food — cooking, eating, exploring markets, perusing menus, reading cookbooks, editing recipes, and meeting badass chefs just happen to represent a substantial area of personal obsession. Travel is next on the list, followed by art, culture, and history. Which is why I could not pass up an opportunity to jet to Havana two weeks ago with a photographer friend, who spends time there every spring and waxes poetic about the capital’s faded, crumbling beauty and perseverant people.
Besides, how could the cuisine of an entire island nation really be “no bueno” across the board? “A lot of beans and rice,” was another common refrain. This blanket statement drew my suspicion; when seasoned properly, simple food is good food. I planned to maintain an open mind.
I set off on the 45-minute flight from Miami with a hearty mission: Find out what Cuban food is all about.
Culture shock was immediate — and intense. As widely reported, hitting the dusty streets of La Isla Grande is to step back in time. Imagine entering a country to realize that there are essentially no stores from which visitors might buy snacks or supplies. You might discover an old lady selling random sundries such as plastic combs and lighters from a tiny folding table on a street corner, but a hunt for sunscreen could span days. Some public restrooms — say, in a dilapidated midrange hotel, one of few Wi-Fi hotspots in the area since internet access is under strict government control, along with food—lack soap and toilet paper.
Hungry in La Habana? Better seek out a restaurant or paladare — a privately owned eatery, which operates without typical government restrictions and often located within a home; these sprouted up during Raúl Castro’s decade of unsuccessful economic reforms — because convenience stores and food vending machines don’t exist here.
What folks who’ve visited Cuba never seem to mention is WHY the food “sucks.” The answer is obvious: Resources are in short supply. Food production is low and unstable; a 2017 report from a Spain agency indicated that Cuban agriculture is among the lowest performing of all Latin American countries. As much as 30 percent of food is lost during harvest and collection, plus another 27 percent forfeited during shoddy distribution. Cuban farming — on degraded soils with pest and disease problems, with little technology advancement for storage systems and supply chain management — is estimated to cover only 20 percent of the population’s need. Recently, Cuba Commerce Minister Betsy Díaz announced that supermarkets will restrict goods even further, offering certain items only on the ration card (launched post-revolution in 1959).
One man, who led us through a labyrinthine complex of unlit tunnels to arrive at his two-room abode, mentioned lining up at the mercado for rations of milk and chicken. He goes first thing in the morning, in the hopes of avoiding the long line — a growing issue in recent weeks since the Venezuela crisis. That translates to less aid for communist-run Cuba, which relies on imports for some 70 percent of goods.
The situation is grim. So when I was invited to dine in the home of an economist who works in publishing, I leapt at the chance.
With longtime friend and historian/writer Lázaro acting as translator, Manuela explained that she would be preparing “a very old, traditional Cuban food … to give a deeper view of the real Cuba.”
After covering her dining room table with plasticized cloth — her tidy kitchen much too small for us three — she set down a bowl of whole vegetables (starchy yucca, malanga root, and plantains to make appetizers, plus sweet potato, squash, red pepper, onion, shucked corn), a plate of chicken and pork, and spices, vinegar, and cooking wine. Through broken translation I understood that she didn’t own many kitchen tools nor preferred big knives, thus she began to peel the vegetables by hand with a serrated steak knife.
While cutting corn kernels from cobs — easier to eat, she said, than keeping chunks of cob whole — Manú explained why she wanted to share her recipe for ajiaco, known as “The Great Cuban Soup.” (Variations are also popular in Colombia and Peru.)
“We are living here in Cuba without many contacts with the exterior world,” she said, sighing in the way I had come to expect after talking with weary Cubans for a few days. “This allows us to share the culture with the outside, and people of different countries. To get closer to the culture.”
A brothy stew made with whatever vegetables and meats are available plus plenty of white pepper, cumin, and garlic (“the king of Cuban cuisine”), ajiaco represents the mixing pot of Cuban culture, heavy on African and colonial Spanish influence. “You can go through the streets and smell this dish (from home kitchens),” Manú said. “It requires a balance of ingredients — and time — so it’s unusual to find this dish in a restaurant.”
Though she looked the part of a telenova star, dressed elegantly in a sleek black skirt, billowy white blouse, black flats, and hair coiffed into voluminous waves, Manú took her role as culinary instructor seriously. I sat transfixed as she peeled that entire bowl of vegetables with a single steak knife, dumped a spoonful here, or a coffee scoop there, of supporting staple ingredients, and even cracked an egg for malanga fritters over the back of a fork. My attempts to help were shrugged off. In fact, I was urged to relax.
As the ajiaco simmered on the stovetop for close to an hour, Manú and Lázaro shared their frustrations and hopes for the future. “Cubans began to dream of business, travel, but everything changed,” Lázaro said, a sentiment I heard often. “Cuba is a very strange place because of political systems, because of history. We have many troubles in the economy. We have a great problem with agriculture. Farmers are not producing enough. But Cuba is changing.”
Despite rain outside open windows, the kitchen was insufferably hot. When Manú returned to the table to set down a multicolored tablecloth, I noticed her makeup was melting under beads of sweat. My brow was damp, too.
Manú, naturally, remained unruffled. “To know Cuba, you have to suffer in this hot weather,” she quipped. “To know that Cubans are suffering all the year.”
One taste of the complex, savory stew — the very definition of a whole far richer than the sum of its parts—offered a revelation. Ajiaco isn’t just a national dish. It is a symbol, Manú said, “of possibility, that allows us to open our eyes.”
“Without any exception the worst snow storm known since the advent of the railroad west of Leadville has been raging over the crest of the continental divide since last Thursday,” asserted the Aspen Tribune on January 31, 1899.