With its crumbling mansions, vibrant music, friendly people and brilliant colors, Cuba is easy to romanticize. You can't help falling in love with the place—and with the food. Dishes are layered with complex flavors that reflect the various people who have lived on the island: Taíno Indians, Spanish and French colonialists, African slaves and Chinese plantation workers. You'll taste soups and stews flavored with aromatic sofrito—chopped onion, green pepper, garlic, oregano and black pepper sautéed in olive oil—and the piquant sauce called mojo, made from garlic, sour orange, cumin and oregano.
In Havana's Miramar neighborhood, Lilliam Domínguez, a former fashion designer, has been serving food for 19 years. La Cocina de Lilliam, her paladar, or privately owned restaurant, is a refuge of terracotta tiles and lush greenery. Her menu displays both Cuban and European influences—she is as famous for her crisp malanga fritters as she is for her fish en papillote. A recent highlight on her menu was an extraordinarytamal en cazuela, a deeply satisfying Cuban corn porridge.
But because Cuba continues to have food shortages and governmental restrictions, it's impressive that any restaurant serves consistently good and fresh food. The secret to good dining in Cuba is to eat at resourceful paladares like Domínguez's rather than the often uninspired state-run restaurants.
“It’s all about starting in one market and then moving to another to see who has what. I deserve five Michelin stars for the effort I have to put into finding ingredients every day.”
Ever since 1960, when the U.S. instituted a trade embargo, Cuba has experienced great hardship, even hunger. The Communist government turned to the Russians, who transformed Cuba's agriculture into a model where diversity was replaced by large, state-owned farms that depended on chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which the USSR supplied cheaply.
But when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, so did the Cuban economy. An era of near-starvation, euphemistically called the "Special Period," ensued. Suddenly there was no fuel for tractors, no money for industrial inputs. Because farmers couldn't afford cattle feed, many of Cuba's cows starved to death. This loss was especially painful for a meat-loving culture whose classic dishes include ropa vieja—meltingly tender shredded beef—and picadillo, ground beef cooked with tomatoes, olives and raisins. Dairy products also disappeared from the stores. Rationing, which had been in place for decades, became severe, and even staples like rice, beans and oil were suddenly scarce.
To compensate, people began growing their own vegetables and fruits. In Havana, vacant lots were transformed into urban farms called organopónicos, and today these small farms cover roughly 8 percent of the city. Lacking chemicals and equipment, the Cubans went completely green by default, plowing their fields with oxen, fertilizing with manure and crop residues, and wielding machetes against the weeds. Organic hasn't been merely a trend in Cuba—it's been a necessity.
Like the organic farms, the paladares also started as the USSR collapsed. A few enterprising Cubans opened these private restaurants in their homes, hoping to earn a little extra money. These spaces, whose very name signals that they're all about taste (paladar means "palate"), offered an alternative to the mediocre fare served in state-run establishments. But because private enterprise was illegal, and food scarce, the paladares were at first considered subversive. It was only in 1994 that they were legalized, after the government realized how much they contributed to the economy. Now paladares are a vital, and vibrant, addition to Cuba's culinary landscape. The driving forces behind many of these restaurants are not professionally trained chefs, but home cooks finely attuned to the flavors of their homeland.
Cuba’s national policy now supports organic and community-based farming. More than 200 state-run biological research centers nurture beneficial insects and bacteria that are used to keep pests at bay naturally.
But keeping a fully stocked kitchen in the absence of a reliable food system calls for some sorcery. For her paladar, Domínguez relies on personal relationships with suppliers and she's understandably reticent about naming her sources. Fish is particularly difficult to obtain, an irony for an island nation. But with Miami a mere 90 miles away, private fishing boats are largely banned to keep Cubans from fleeing. Fishermen Domínguez has known all her life bring her fish and seafood daily. Others who know her reputation for quality sometimes show up unannounced with their fresh catch.
“Before my first trip to Cuba, a food editor strongly warned me to bring food or go hungry as the food was unpalatable. My experience was exactly the opposite.”
—Photographer Ellen Silverman
Domínguez visits multiple farmers' markets every day, often spending hours shopping: "I deserve five Michelin stars for the effort I have to put into finding ingredients every day." She invents recipes to take advantage of whatever she's been able to find and afford. The supply chain is so unreliable that she can't count on having the ingredients she wants when she needs them, especially spices, which makes the quality of her menu all the more remarkable.
These days the question on everyone's mind is what will happen to the Cuban food scene once the trade embargo is lifted. When chemical fertilizers and pesticides are once again available, will the organopónicos begin to disappear? Ingredients will certainly be easier to obtain, but will their quality be as high? And what about the prospect of an American fast-food invasion?
Domínguez is optimistic. "The new relationship with the U.S. is something to celebrate," she says. "Increased access to food can only strengthen our local businesses." She's not worried. Perhaps because she knows how to survive.
Darra Goldstein is a Williams College professor. Her latest book is Fire + Ice: Classic Nordic Cooking (Ten Speed Press, 2015).
Photographer Ellen Silverman is co-author of The Cuban Table: A Celebration of Food, Flavors, and History (St. Martin's Press, 2014). Her video "My roots lie here," a portrait of four elderly Cubans, was shown recently at an international Latin American film festival in Havana. It is available on Vimeo.