We met for our half-day guided walk with Food Tours Havana tour at Mojito Mojito, a lively and beautiful bar in Old Havana. [Funnily enough, but perhaps advisedly as we had three hours ahead of us, we didn’t sample mojitos here] Our guide was Ana Fuentes, who gave us a general briefing before we set off. During the “Special Period”, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and when the US blockade was tightened, very limited food was available, and people created simple dishes which are still made today. For the most part that they cook at home rather than going out to eat as that is too expensive. Most restaurants are state-owned but now a new type of independent restaurant is blossoming – the paladar (the word is a reference to the palate). Private establishments provide better food than state-owned restaurants. They pay their staff better and have more incentive to produce good food and traditional recipes. All businesses pay for premises and setup in full in cash (no loans), often helped by expatriate Cubans in the USA, and contracts are all verbal. There was a boom in new food businesses in the Obama era.
The malanga croquetas (fritters) that we were served at Mojito Mojito were delicious! Malanga (or yuca) is a staple of the Cuban diet as it grows well there and is highly nutritious and filling. It is much more commonly used than potato as a carbohydrate.
With a great band just starting to play in the bar we set off, armed with the bottles of water we were given, for a tour of food venues and quite a few of the sights and history of Old Havana, (including the four squares, all completely different) thrown in!
In a small indoor market we were treated to fresh coconut water (best taken this way as it loses nutrients as soon as the coconut is opened). There was a splendid array of vegetables and fruit for sale. We were told that papaya is good for tummy upsets but fortunately I didn’t need it for medicinal purposed throughout my visit to Cuba! I just enjoyed the flavour, which was actually much more intense than in other countries where I’ve tried it. We were also told that olive oil is too expensive because olive trees don’t go as well this far south; Sunflower or vegetable oil is used instead.
At the Paladar Genesis we were each treated to a mojito, a cocktail which local white rum which originated in Cuba. Most of the rest of the world uses spearmint but in Cuba they use hierbabuena, which only grows in hot countries and has to be used the same day that it’s picked. Lime juice and a hint of sugar are added. Later on in my trip I had a similar cocktail made with local honey, which was delicious! [Hierbabuena (which translates as “good herb” and is also known as yerbabuena) has a less minty, more citrus-y flavour that comes from the stem, whereas spearmint has a minty flavour from oils in the leaves.]
We also enjoyed Caribbean lobster enchilada, made with onions, garlic, peppers, and tomatoes. [The dish is not the same as the Mexican enchilada]. Local spiny lobsters are saltier and more slender than cold water species. They are orange in colour and salty as a result of the PH level in the ocean. The larger ones go to big hotels and restaurants. There is no big fishing in Cuban waters, so all seafood is sustainable.
By the seafront and docks we visited NaO Bar Paladar, which was damaged by hurricane Irma in September 2017 but soon recovered. Here we ate a very traditional Cuban dish Ropa Vieja (literally old clothes!). This is made with shredded flank beef slow cooked with water, wine vinegar, onions, garlic, and cumin
We finished our tour at dusk close to where we started, at Mango Gelateria where there was a great selection of luscious ice cream. As I said above, people can’t afford eat out often, but they do go out for ice cream!
Many thanks to the lovely Ana for such an informative, delicious, and fun tour!