A writer explores Cuba's burgeoning food scene

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"I arrived in Havana very much wanting my first meal to be what I thought of as authentic Cuban," writer Tamar Adler says. "I was, at first, disappointed. Then I was just interested to find that the restaurants that were getting the best ingredients and doing the best job with hiring enough staff to really cook good food were entirely uninterested in doing traditional Cuban food."

She wrote "Why Cuba Is Becoming a Serious Culinary Destination," which appears in the February 2016 issue of Vogue Magazine.

Noelle Carter: Ever since the revolution, Cuba has earned this reputation as a place that's decidedly not known for its food culture. How did the extended isolation affect Cuba's culinary identity?

Tamar Adler
Tamar Adler (Photo: Aaron Stern)

Tamar Adler: Severely. The worst of it really started with the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late '80s and early '90s. Cuba, like the U.S., was a petroleum-dependent, highly industrialized, agricultural society. It lost all of its oil imports when the Soviet Union collapsed, which resulted in just short of starvation nationwide.

NC: You write about how Cuba lost up to 85 percent of its imports and exports.

TA: That really paralyzed the country. What it affected most deeply was the country's ability to produce and transport food. Cuba went from being a country that had a quite vibrant culinary culture to being one that was merely subsistence level. Coupled with a truly powerful and truly all-controlling bureaucracy, you get a situation where it is essentially impossible for people to get ingredients. Even moving past the question of whether or not there is enough to eat, the idea of a culinary, gastronomical culture just absolutely disappears.

NC: You write about how the food scene has changed somewhat with the loosening of restrictions after Fidel Castro's brother Raúl took over in 2011.

TA: It was incredible to see because I had heard, like everybody else has heard from people who visited Cuba flying through Canada or flying through Mexico, that it is impossible to get edible food. I've heard that from people who lived there.

Then all of a sudden I read that the restrictions on privately owned restaurants called paladares had been becoming less stringent. I read increasingly of wonderful restaurants. I would read the odd travel blog or hear from a friend who had just come back that there was good food to be found. It matches up with what you would hope would happen with this, the beginning of a glasnost of sorts.

NC: You talk about your first meal in Havana and how it was this patchwork of culinary influences from places like Greece, Mexico, France and Spain.

TA: I arrived in Havana very much wanting my first meal to be what I thought of as authentic Cuban. I was, at first, disappointed. Then I was just interested to find that the restaurants that were getting the best ingredients and doing the best job with hiring enough staff to really cook good food were entirely uninterested in doing traditional Cuban food. They were like entrepreneurs anywhere and like forward-thinkers anywhere -- they were more interested in what was happening other places. Another part of that I don't think I got to mention in the Vogue piece was that a significant percentage of the new restaurants seem to be being opened by expatriates.

NC: I think you were mentioning the locals were looking for food that could be found elsewhere, like being able to enjoy other places vicariously through their food.

Salt-N-Pepa Cupcakes
Vogue Magazine (Cover Photo: Annie Leibovitz)

TA: That's definitely true of particularly the wealthier Cubans. It bears saying, although it's perhaps obvious, that a standard, working-class, 98-percent-of-the-country Cuban couldn't eat in any of the restaurants that I ate in. The average monthly national wage is still around $40 per month. That's what I spent easily on each dinner, probably much more.

NC: The gist that I get from the piece is food is the most important thing happening in Cuba right now. You basically talk about how it's moving the country forward into the 21st century.

TA: I really think that's true in Cuba right now. One of the reasons it's true is because it seems like the Castros are trying to get out of the restaurant industry. That means that a clear piece of the Cuban economy is being turned over to private enterprise. That piece is for the most part restaurants, second to that hotels, and I guess third transporting goods.

But you're looking at a government that badly wants to maintain control of resources, badly wants to maintain the really massive bureaucracy that's kept the country stuck but also running this whole time. It needs to find a way to get money. The way it has chosen is to liberalize the service industry. It's pretty incredible. People are opening nail salons, driving cars and opening restaurants.

[Related story: 'She could make a wonderful meal out of stones': Finding ingredients in Cuba]

From This Episode: 
Six Hundred
Published: 
February 19th, 2016

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