Five years ago, art director Andrea Kuhn, writer Jody Eddy, and photographer Dan Goldberg decided they wanted to write a book about Cuban food. Their original idea was to enter the world of Cuban paladares, the restaurants that were once family-run and are inching more toward a traditional restaurant model. Once on the ground, however, their thinking changed.
“The paladares are definitely the best restaurants in Havana,” Dan says. “But the more we checked them out, the more we realized they catered to Europeans and Americans—people who are willing and able to spend money at fine-dining establishments—and that it’s not really the way that Cuban people eat.” Their idea soon morphed into a much more personal look at what actually goes on in Cuban kitchens—the part that most travelers don’t see or taste.
Over the next four-and-a-half years, on three separate trips, they traipsed through hundreds of Cuban kitchens to report and shoot Cuba! Recipes and Stories from the Cuban Kitchen, a collection of gently tweaked Cuban recipes out on September 20. Their Cuban guide made some introductions, but Andrea and Dan met most families randomly—and credit the ease of gaining access to a stranger’s kitchen to the country’s famously warm and open citizens. “One time, we spotted a lady on her third-floor terrace and just asked, ‘Can we come up and see your kitchen?’” Andrea says. “She threw her keys down and we went in.”
They would end each day of reporting and photographing, appropriately, by eating a large meal with their host family. Here, Andrea and Dan share what they learned along the way.
1. There are way more organic farms than you’d imagine
Dan: “Cubans eat traditional Caribbean fruit for breakfast. When we stayed in people’s homes, we ate so much fresh fruit: mangoes and papaya and coconut. There’s a lot of great produce that grows organically. I think part of the reason is that the country doesn’t have the same pesticides and crap we put into our produce. There are still organic farms just outside the city and in the countryside.”
“There are a lot of outdoor food markets,” Andrea says. “You would see guys delivering whole pigs to the market in old suitcases.”
2. Restaurants and ingredients are . . . mercurial
Dan: “The first time we went, we realized that finding simple things like salt in the grocery store can be a challenge. And then the last time we were there, we saw salt shakers from Costco on a restaurant's tables. Obviously, somebody’s bringing Costco salt shakers into the country—you couldn’t buy them there. We saw things like that all the time.”
Andrea: “The food scene changed dramatically over the three trips we took. It seems like every time we went, either a restaurant we had liked was gone or was just a new restaurant altogether. We liked this one place that was on the roof of an empty office building. At first, they just had strings of lights and little tables—and they had the best grilled octopus and meats. The second time we visited, that was gone and the restaurant was a little nicer. The third time we visited, they had redone the whole roof, and now there was a pizza restaurant on one of the lower floors.”
Their twist: adding a mix of bacon, onions, peppers, and other aromatics.
Their twist: serving the rich, fried lamb with a fat-slicing fresh tomato salad
Their twist: ropa vieja sliders
Their twist: frying the entire fish, then topping it with salsa verde
Their twist: sweet-and-sour lobster, inspired by a dish served in Havana's Chinatown.
“Andrea’s not a big drinker, but I think she had three of them,” Dan adds.
3. Hire a guide (it’s your best access to black-market flan)
Dan: “We found it’s helpful to have a guide, at least in the beginning. Our guide, Ruben Pérez of Havana Adventures, cost about $125 per day, but he was with us from 9 in the morning to 9 at night.
Andrea: “Ruben studied history in college and used to work in the black market. So he took us to meet people who make things for the black market. Like these guys who make guava hand pies in the back of their house. And an 80-year-old woman who makes flan.”
Dan: “The day we met the flan-maker, Ruben brought us up to this apartment building, and I felt like we were going to buy crack. But then we get inside and it’s just this 80-year-old woman making tons of flan. It was a really a great experience that we would never have found ourselves.”
4. Yep, there’s a Chinatown
Dan: “Some of the most complex food we found was in Chinatown. Havana has a very small town, leftover from a large Chinese immigration in the 19th century. Now’s there’s only one Chinese chef left, at Tien Tan. And it’s really interesting to see that fusion of Chinese and Cuban food—Chinese food made with fresh local ingredients.”
Andrea: “We had sweet and sour lobster there.”
Dan: “It was so good, it’s in our book now. But keep in mind that Barrio Chino is nothing like San Francisco’s Chinatown: It’s literally one small block.”
5. The beaches are pristine and untouristed
Dan: “Santa Maria beach is just 15 minutes from Havana and only Cubans go. There’s nothing there but beautiful beach. It’s yet to be developed, though there’s an old, rundown hotel away from the water. Musicians hang out on the beach. It’s $2 to rent an umbrella and a chair.”
6. It’s not all mojitos and daiquiris
Dan: “Of course, the mojitos are fantastic. And they have great lemon daiquiris at El Floridita. It’s a bit touristy—it was kind of Ernest Hemmingway’s old stomping ground—but they have great music.”
Andrea: “But there are other bars too. Usually it’s all about the rum in Cuba, but at 304 O’Reilly and 303 O’Reilly, they specialize in gin cocktails, which we had never seen before.”
Dan: “The beer scene is also changing. The main beers available, Cristal and Bucanero, are very good, but last time we visited, there was a microbrewery in Old Havana that had all kinds of different beer, from a pale ale to a porter to a stout. They were building a big brewery on the Malecón too.”