Cuban Cuisine: From Riches to Rags (Part III)

Dariela Aquique

“Congris” the Cuban way of preparing rice and beans.

HAVANA TIMES — Cuba’s culinary traditions are also reflected in our music. Allusions to food can be found in many popular songs (recall such catchy refrains as “quimbombo sliding o’er dry cassava”, “Olga’s tamales are sure spicy”, “stay outta the kitchen, my man’s cookin’”, “bread and codfish” and “put some sauce on it”).

Not only do we like to eat well, we also like to eat quite a lot. Come New Year’s, most Cubans aren’t satisfied with roasting a single leg of pork and want to prepare a whole piglet (preferably on a stick, over a slow fire).

You won’t often see a Cuban main course with only a side of vegetables. No, the common thing is to accompany the main dish with plenty of rice and fried or boiled root vegetables (served in large fountains, not small, decorative plates).

Food decorations consist of a series of details designed to give dishes an attractive appearance. It stems from the idea that, if the food isn’t served in a suggestive way, it could leave the diner indifferent. This is not the case when it comes to Cubans.

According to haute cuisine manuals, if a dish doesn’t have a natural appearance, it will prompt people to reject it. It is also said that, if its ingredients do not suggest contrast or harmony, it will be seen as insipid and that, if it does not give rise to a feeling of abundance, it will cause dissatisfaction. This last element is what Cubans care about the most.

Food decorations have changed dramatically since the beginning of the 18th century, when multi-colored, extravagant and inedible things such as wax, tree leaves and wood were used to adorn servings.

Today, Cuban cuisine presents simple decorations, made out of the very food served. They are also markedly minimalist in their designs. Generally speaking, Cuban cuisine isn’t lavishly adorned and many of dishes are served in the very receptacles where they are cooked.

Many privately-run cafeterias and restaurants have sprung up across Cuba with the granting of licenses for the self-employed. Cities and towns are now filled with restaurants, taverns, cafeterias, snack bars, food kiosks and junk food stands. There is also no shortage of hawkers.

Taxes are high and getting one’s hands on food supplies rather difficult. The new class of private food businesses which has emerged in Cuba can be divided into two groups:

Those who wish to remain competitive and work to guarantee the excellent quality of their offers and services (these are generally larger establishments, such as restaurants and bars), and those who are only interested in profits and have standardized not only the quality, but also the quantity of the food they offer.

Often, one will get servings with less than ideal quantity of the ingredients needed for their preparation, or with dishes that are too expensive for their size.

These establishments often sell smaller pastries, fried foods, pizzas and other products and use small glasses to dispense beverages, shakes and juices. This policy of making more with less seems to be sound from the point of view of earnings, but it leaves customers rather unsatisfied.

People, however, seem to have accepted this, making excuses for these establishments with phrases such as “times are changing”, “times are tough”, or, worse still, “what can you say, they’re trying to get by.”

That is how the eating habits of Cubans have changed over time. Eating as much as they would want isn’t easy, and being moderate in their servings leaves them a bit unsatisfied. What can we do? Perhaps it’s time to put gluttony aside and eat less, healthier food, don’t you think?

And so we’ve seen Cuba’s cuisine go from riches to rags in the course of several decades.

Dariela Aquique

Dariela Aquique: I remember my years as a high school student, especially that teacher who would interrupt the reading of works and who with surprising histrionics spoke of the real possibilities of knowing more about the truth of a country through its writers than through historical chronicles. From there came my passion for writing and literature. I had excellent teachers (sure, those were not the days of the Fast-track Teachers) and extemporization and the non-mastery of subjects was not tolerated. With humble pretenses, I want to contribute to revealing the truth about my country, where reality always overcomes fiction, but where a novel style shrouds its existence.

One thought on “Cuban Cuisine: From Riches to Rags (Part III)

  • Reading Dariela’s series on Cuban “cuisine” almost makes me forget how boring Cuban food in Cuba really is. While living there I could not count the many times Cuban breakfast meant simply bad coffee and bread. Cuban lunch was that horrible pizza sold on the street for 10 Cuban pesos and dinner was congris, tomatoes, yucca and whatever morsel of fresh meat you could find that day. Jams and jellies (mermalada in Cuba), fruit drinks, butter, scrambled eggs, oatmeal and cream for coffee were luxuries that I often enjoyed but only because I had plenty of my own money. Yet even for me, a beef steak, fresh whole milk or strawberries was a rare treat. If you really want tasty and authentic Cuban food, go to Miami!

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