Guest Blogger Nāpualokelani Kamakele's Trip to Cuba
Dos Amores: La Comida y El Viaje
Y ahora, estan juntos para mi en La Habana
I am from a culture where food is the center of all of our gatherings and special occasions. Because of that, I’ve always associated food with love thereby resulting in my love affair with food. You could call me kind of adventurous when it comes to trying new food, but I’m no Andrew Zimmern.
While preparing for my first trip to Cuba in 2017, I did a ton of research on restaurants and cuisine in both Havana and Trinidad, Cuba. The reviews were pretty mixed. I’ve always been one to not rely on the tongues and taste buds of others because they usually differ greatly from mine especially if we come from very different environments. So I kept an open mind and was excited to try Cuban cuisine!
My first visit to Cuba was to celebrate my 40th birthday. I had an amazing time, but I was a bit bummed that I couldn’t eat the street food. I had been warned by blogs, facebook group posts and even locals in Havana that I should not eat the street food because I would get sick. So we dined at several restaurants found on Trip Advisor and Yelp and the food was average at best – including the overcooked lobster I had at the restaurant where the Obamas ate during their visit. I remember while walking down a street in Central Havana seeing a bunch of people crowded around a door front. My curiosity drew me over to the crowd and what did I find? They were devouring PIZZA! Pizza is by far my favorite gluttonous food so I absolutely wanted a pizza of my own and join the crowd, but I had conditioned my brain to scare me away from street food so I abstained.
While I don’t claim to be any kind of an expert on Cuban cuisine, the food culture in Havana is interesting. Most locals pop into a store front food counter (like in the pic), for a pre-made sandwich of ham, cheese and lettuce for about $20-$30CUP (Cuban Peso – currency used by the locals as opposed to the Convertible Peso or CUC, which is the currency used by tourists. About $24CUP is the equivalent of $1CUC) or a doughy pizza folded into the shape of a taco handed over to you on paper. You see this a lot on both San Rafael Street and Obispo Street (Old Havana), but they can be found all over Central Havana.
It seems as if we are in a renaissance period with Cuban cuisine. About 20 years ago during the “Special Period” when the USSR collapsed, many Cubans survived on just bread, water and some other kind of starch. Some meals were simply water & sugar. When the government allowed its people to own private businesses, many paladars (small restaurants in private homes) opened and have thrived especially with the influx of tourists over the last several years. The owners of these paladares are at the forefront of the renaissance.
Upon my return to Havana earlier this month, I was still intrigued by the street food. My AirBNB host recommended a restaurant near the Capitolio named Asturianito. On my second day, I decided to stop in for lunch and I was a bit disappointed. I ordered the pork osso bucco. The flavor was weak and the sauce was not rich. The staples of most of my Cuban meals: morro (black beans & rice) and fried boniato (Cuban sweet potato) were both very good.
I did go back twice more for dinner and had lasagna both times, which was very filling and flavorful. Most of the pasta I’ve had in Cuba was great! The serving size was very generous; I was unable to eat it all.
After every meal in Cuba, I order a cortado. The coffee is so good and it’s usually served with a bite size biscuit or cookie.
I hate resorts and tourist traps in general. In Havana, La Floridita would qualify as a tourist trap. I was buying some rum next door and decided to pop into La Floridita after hearing the salsa music from the street. This place is famous for its daiquiris and also because it was frequented by Ernest Hemingway. I decided to go all in and had 2 daiquiris and a pina colada. No regrets! The salsa band was AMAZING and the drinks weren’t bad!
On to my favorite part, the street food. One day after breakfast and while basking in the sweltering Havana heat and having tanked two Cristals (Cerveza Nacional de Cuba), I decided to throw caution to the wind and go all in on street food in Havana. I did NOT get sick and I pretty much enjoyed everything I tried. Speaking Spanish definitely helps you order because nobody I encountered at these food counters spoke English. While walking around Havana with a friend I met there, Gerardo, he bought me a sweet treat that was made of mada and guayanaba. Not sure what it was called though.
The pizza I had been dying to try was everything! If you’re a pizza snob then this might not be the pizza for you, which is fine by me because more for me and the locals! The dough was awesome – soft, chewy – with a small amount of tomato sauce and cheese. Gah, I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Food counter where I ordered my second street pizza on my last day in Havana. Notice the pre-made sandwiches in the glass case on the counter, which you see a lot of Cubans eating on the street. This pizza was much bigger than the other one I had.
Other street food I saw was hot dogs and lots of ice cream or frozen ice type treats.
I’ll be back in Cuba soon and cannot wait to explore even more of their cuisine outside of Havana. My adventures will likely take me to Cuban farms southwest of Havana where the whole farm to table thing is their lifestyle! I haven’t even scratched the surface! How Exciting!
Guest Blogger: Napualokelani Kamakele (affectionately known as Pua) loves to travel the world exploring new cuisines and cultures. Most of her travels are solo where she unabashedly dives onto the scene and makes many friends along the way. She hopes to inspire other people (especially Polynesians) of color to travel beyond their horizons.
Follow her on IG @napualokelani