5 things I ate in Cuba

This post was inspired by an NPR story titled, Mojito diplomacy: Chefs plan culinary tours to Cuba.

Despite rationing–or because of?–the friends I spent time with found ways to get their hands on a variety of foods. Bottomline: if one had money, one could buy just about anything. Los clandestinos thrived when I was traveling to Cuba in 2002-04, and I imagine the black market economy is still more relevant to daily life than the state. Many families receive foreign remittances, so not everyone must rely on their ration books.

1. The first thing I ate in Cuba was lobster. Arriving in Havana late at night, we found our hotel restaurant was closed, so my mother and I followed a man from the neighborhood to a Centro Habana paladar, a private home licensed by the government to cook and serve meals. We sat at the family’s dining table as love songs played on a boom box.

2. For breakfast, I often ate tortillas. The Cuban version is actually a frittata, in all it’s delicious glory. Served with bread and Cuban coffee at the casa particular (private home licensed to host tourists) where I stayed on subsequent trips.

3. Paella. Cooked in a tiny kitchen on the roof of the home of friends in the beach town of Varadero. Exquisite, especially because we ate at a table on the roof, under the sky, shaded by a tree.

4. Garbanzo soup with white rice. Rich and filling. Cooked with pride by the man of the house at my casa particular .

5. A giant sheet cake ordered by the casa particular chatelaine for a party on Dec. 17, dedicated to St. Lazarus. San Lazaro is a big deal for Cubans, who pray to him for health.

I went with my friends to pick up the cake, which was created behind nondescript doors at a clandestine bakery, where employees were busy mixing, baking and decorating a variety of treats in a series of rooms that opened onto a courtyard.

A lookout gave the all-clear when we were ready to leave with the cake. No police or snoops in sight, we carefully placed the cake into the trunk of the ancient Lada.

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