By Lucia Lopez Coll
HAVANA TIMES, June 5 (IPS) – With no previous warning but with absolute discretion, Madelaine Vazquez Galvez has “entered” almost all Cuban homes. Her televised Saturday afternoon visits are anxiously awaited by those people (mainly women) who have the responsibility of cooking for their family, an often-undervalued task.
Madelaine’s recipes are an appetizing way to vary daily meals; starting with a better use of foods we’ve known all our lives and those that are readily available.
The inescapable need to cook with what is available on the island was one of the factors that compelled this engineer in social nutrition technology to continue the work begun by others on the TV program Con sabor (With flavor).
“I think traditional Cuban cooking can become more stylish and healthier, because we have aromatic plants and soil able to produce many more foods, which can contribute to creating a culture of knowing what to eat,” says this concerned woman. She has dedicated a great part of her life to sharing this indispensable knowledge for improving the Cuban diet.
“This does not mean that we have to scrap what is traditional, which unquestionably contains great wisdom, just like the cooking of all peoples. In our case, this is summed up in the consummate formula of beans and rice, whereby the amino acid spectrum is supplemented, though we need to diversify and incorporate other foods.
“Though it might seem paradoxical, in the preparation of the program Con sabor my sources come from traditional Cuban cuisine: from the books Do You Like… and those of Nitza Villapol. However, my final recipe is the result of stylization that integrates new flavors. Nevertheless, to get real acceptance of these recipes, it’s necessary to travel a long road, in company and with the support of other institutions and organizations, until reaching the desired objective. That’s not easy in Cuba, or any place else.”
Madelaine’s training began with five years of studies at the Institute of Soviet Trade in the Ukraine, and upon graduation she worked for twelve years as the principal specialist in the former Office of Social Nutrition and Gastronomy of the Cuban Ministry of Domestic Trade. It was here that technical guidelines governing the norms of nutrition for the general population were developed, including those for the country’s restaurants.
The Test Came in the Early 1990s
However, for Madelaine, the real story began in the early 1990s, when she decided to sign up for a project that was unprecedented for any cooking professional on the island. It was to create an ecological restaurant at the National Botanical Garden, though at a very difficult time given the major shortage of resources throughout the country.
“At the end of 1991, the Cuba-Mexico Workshop of Food Culture took place under the sponsorship of the Botanical Garden and the Autonomous National University of Mexico (UNAM).
“The director of the Botanical Garden was delighted with the salad table that we presented, so she proposed that we create a vegetarian restaurant. The aim was not to promote vegetarianism, but to encourage diets that included vegetables,” she recounted.
“A work team was formed that, on the basis of studies, was conscious that the human diet is a closed cycle involving everything from agriculture to eating habits. Likewise, we knew that the use of a wide variety of vegetables was still very new in Cuba and other countries.
“This was how the eco-restaurant ‘El Bambu’ (Bamboo) was born in 1992 near the park’s Japanese Garden. Here, I had to cook a great deal in order teach how to cook. What’s certain is that we studied and learned a lot during those years, and I obtained a greater knowledge of culinary technology, specifically that relating to vegetables.
“I was even somewhat interested in the precepts of oriental cooking, which has a different structure than western cooking. All this helped me to expand my cultural horizons, to understand the importance of variety in nutrition, which is exemplified in the use of aromatic plants in cooking – going beyond the garlic, onion, tomato and pepper seasonings so commonly used in Cuba.
“Among the goals of the project, the Botanical Garden contemplated taking advantage of its magnificent collections of tropical and subtropical flora from around the entire planet, a little known fact, and promoting organic orchards that did not use fertilizers. Nearly 70 percent of the needs of the restaurant, which served close to 200,000 people annually, were supplied by its own produce and fruit-bearing trees at the park.
“The menu was designed based on two fundamental principles: respecting the alimentary preferences of Cubans and keeping in mind the availability of resources, though we always added a different, original twist that would catch the customers’ attention.
“During the 1990s “Special Period” crisis, the eco-restaurant was one of the places that helped to fill the great needs of the time. However, what was more important was that it demonstrated a different pattern of eating. Although the capacity was for sixty people, we seated hundreds by working to find the space.
“Sometimes we used plants that are overlooked here, like cactuses called nopal and chaya. It felt like a school, because many people came to see what we were doing.
“Although I began cooking on charcoal and had to attend to the kitchen most of the time, without getting to meet the customers, we always tried to make the experience educational, giving diners information that contributed to changing their approach to what they ate. Formal discussions were held, informational approaches were created; we organized national and international workshops on nutrition with non-conventional approaches.
“We also produced 13 issues of the Boletin Germinal newsletter, which had information on dietary topics and several recipes. These were given to participants of gatherings held in the ecological court once a month. We had to stop putting out the Bulletin due to resource limitations, though we hope to restart it at some time.
“The Bamboo restaurant created a menu of about 20 dishes that included about 15 salads. There was also, ajiaco (a spicy potato dish), and root vegetables (yucca, sweet potatoes and white potatoes) with mojo (a Cuban seasoning), Moorish rice, congri (a beans and rice dish), several pastas, and egg and milk products. For dessert, one of the specialties was fruit ice cream and root vegetables, using the technology of the restaurant.”
Ecological Cooking in Cuba
All of this culinary experience was compiled by Madelaine and published in the cookbook Cocina ecológica en Cuba (Ecological Cooking in Cuba), which came out in three editions. Its general edition (32,000 copies) contributed to filling a void in Cuban cuisine in that its recipes revealed novel and healthy possibilities. Furthermore, it took advantage of Cuba’s vegetable variety for promoting nutritional ends while upholding sustainable approaches.
As part of that zeal to share her knowledge about such an essential subject, Madelaine now works in a program to instruct teachers in Alimentary Culture for the older adults, as the thesis of her Master’s of Science in Education.
“Our population is aging and it’s necessary to look for ways to change the habits of that older segment of the population, who though seem to be more reluctant to change, in fact are not, as long as these habits influence in their quality of life positively and they are made more risk-conscious,” the specialist asserted.
The opportunity to work on the Con sabor program expanded Madelaine’s reach as a professional, convinced of the necessity to introduce changes in the dietary habits of the Cuban people, although she is aware that this must be dome in an intelligent manner, without completely distorting a pattern “formed over our historical development.”
“Cuban cuisine is rich in terms of its food, but frying prevails as a cooking method. It does not employ sautéing or boiling to season food with aromatic plants. It is lavish in dessert recipes, which can be positive, but is also negative because these entail consuming large quantities of sugar. Moreover, our diet does not value eating enough vegetables, and it is more common to consume fruits in the form of sweets. I don’t think that agricultural monoculture helped us with achieving variety.
“When we looked at the format of the program, we thought there were many possibilities for enriching it, especially by making information known about the benefits of plants and the alternative styles of Cuban eating. We need to learn how to extend the spectrum of meals, because many taboos and much ignorance exist as to what should be a balanced diet.
“I don’t use products that are outside of the reach of most of us. Instead, I motivate people to introduce seldom-explored combinations, since cooking can become very repetitive. Recently I prepared some ñoquis (sweet potato meatballs) instead of the original made from white potatoes, and they were exquisite.
“The process of “transcultural” exchange in international cooking has now given everything a lot of alternatives, so making sweet potato ñoquis is a way to updating cooking; it is also using a food that was cultivated by our indigenous predecessors long ago. Likewise, sweet potatoes were affected very little by the hurricanes, so it is necessary to learn how to cook them in a manner other than boiling and frying.
What is paradoxical is that now the sweet potato is considered a prestigious food worldwide for the presence of beta-carotenes, their high anti-oxidant properties. However, here we use them mainly to feed pigs and dogs. This type of thinking is what we want and must help to break in the Cuban diet.”
Translation from Spanish by Havana Times