In Cuba, ingredients for cooking haven't always been easy to come by. Cuban-American food writer Ana Sofía Peláez and American photographer Ellen Silverman explored the country's cuisine, from the cooking of Peláez's Nana ("she could make a wonderful meal out of stones," Peláez says) to roadside restaurants called paladares. Their book is The Cuban Table.
[Ed. note: View photos from Silverman's 2012 gallery photo show Spare Beauty: Cuban Kitchens.]
Lynne Rossetto Kasper: Ana, I understand Cuba has suffered from the point of view that there's just very little food, living is not easy. But give us a taste. What is it like to eat there? What is it like to eat with the people there?
Ana Sofía Peláez: I always say the first meal I had in Cuba was our aunt offered us hot chocolate. She had this farmer's cheese that they had found from people. At that time going through the regular markets, going through where you had the ration cards, it was very difficult what you could get. But people would go door to door. What they brought in from the country was usually much better than what you could find in the city. She had this farmer's cheese, but there were a lot of stones in it. So my first meal in Cuba I've always had this image of eating this stony meal.
Then we were able to hand off everything that we had brought from Miami to Nana, who was someone who took care of my aunt, and had taken care of my family for many years. She was able to do a lot with that. The meals that we had at home were wonderful because Nana could do stew. She could make a wonderful meal out of stones; she was masterful at that.
What we had in that home was wonderful. Then, when we stepped outside, we realized how different it was and how different the average Cuban was living.
LRK: Ellen, you talk about on the first trip that you got out of Havana and it was a very different world. Can you talk a bit about that?
Ellen Silverman: Once we got out of the city and out into the countryside, there was much more abundance in terms of fruits and vegetables. Of course being in the countryside, people are more relaxed.
Not on this first trip, but on one of my subsequent trips, I was visiting with a family in Viñales, up in the countryside on a wonderful spot on a hill with a fabulous view. The son of the elderly woman who we were visiting cooked lunch for us. It was one of the most delicious meals that I've ever had.
What was so special about it was everything had been pulled from the earth that morning. He made us an omelet from his chickens that were running around the yard. We had boiled yuca; he made yuca chips fried in oil that were cut by hand, but I don't know how he cut them so thin. They were just delicious. He sprinkled them with some salt and vinegar. We finished with bananas from their tree and freshly brewed coffee from their coffee plants, all cooked over a wood fire. They were just humble, but so delicious and gracious.
LRK: The restaurants in Cuba: What are they like?
ASP: There are two kinds of restaurants in Cuba. There are the state-run restaurants and then there are the paladares. The paladares are privately owned restaurants, in a way. They're licensed so that people can operate these restaurants, which originally were supposed to be from people's homes. Every person who worked in the restaurant had to be a member of your family.
In the state-run restaurants, the food is very, very plain, very bland. It was very much in line with whatever could be found and was allowed. In the paladares, there was inconsistency, but there was also the possibility of pulling something off and having that inspiration, having something you can do yourself if you can find the ingredients and make it work.
LRK: There were also a lot of roadside restaurants?
ES: Yes. We would just pull off the side of the road, we would pick a paladar, one that maybe we liked the name of or just looked inviting, and we'd stop. Again, most of the places we went, the meals I had were absolutely delicious. They were always finished with flan and a couple of cold beers. We would be eating arroz con pollo or ropa vieja.
Peláez's recipe: Arroz con Pollo (Photo: Ellen Silverman)
LRK: The arroz con pollo is the chicken with rice and the ropa vieja is a beef stew?
ASP: It's a beef stew. You basically cook a flank stank, or a brisket, for a very long time until it's just falling apart. You prepare sofrito. Sofrito is always a base of garlic, onion and pepper, and sometimes there are some variations to that. You cook that all together in a tomato sauce. It translates to "old clothes." It just becomes very sweet and tender. It's beef that has been cooked to the point where it's falling apart. It's wonderful.
It's one of the first dishes that I remember. I remember growing up, going into my grandmother's kitchen, looking up at this giant stove and asking her, "What are we having today?" She'd say, "Ropa vieja."
I'd think, "Oh god, she's done it." I really thought that I could peer into that pot and it'd just be all these old clothes that she'd be cooking. It wasn't. It was a nice surprise, and I ate it. But I ate it thinking that it was old clothes that tasted really, really great that I enjoyed.
LRK: Those are both dishes that you constantly hear about. Did you run into anything in Cuba that was totally unexpected?
ASP: I don't think I ran into anything that was unexpected or that I hadn't heard of before. There were some things that I had heard of that I hadn't seen yet, which was great.
Something that they'd always told me about growing up was cooking pork chunks in their own fat. It's almost like a confit-style technique of cooking. It would be kept there for weeks and months. Once you'd cooked it, they would just leave it out there in this fat and just use it as they needed to.
I hadn’t seen that until we left Cuba and we saw this in Artemisa in a farmhouse. It was exactly that; it was just this bubbling cauldron of fat that they would make this pork in. It was the most wonderful fried pork that I'd had. That was wonderful to see because when they described it, there wasn't anything appetizing about it. But it makes perfect sense -- it's confit style, a lot of other countries apply this technique and it's wonderful.
LRK: The French do it with goose and duck.
Lynne Rossetto Kasper has won numerous awards as host of The Splendid Table, including two James Beard Foundation Awards (1998, 2008) for Best National Radio Show on Food, five Clarion Awards (2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2014) from Women in Communication, and a Gracie Allen Award in 2000 for Best Syndicated Talk Show.