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THE DISH: No food heaven in Havana

Friday April 27 2018

The interior of Coppelia. PHOTO| ABIGAIL ARUNGA

The interior of Coppelia. PHOTO| ABIGAIL ARUNGA 

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I finally went to one of my dream destinations, Cuba, after two years of planning. Hurray! I'd been dying to go – I mean, quite honestly, who isn't? It's Cuba! Romanticised by The Fast and the Furious and every other movie that has a classic car in it.

The land of the revolution, art and one of Uncle Barry's (that's Barack Obama to you) favourite songs of 2017.

You would think that because Cuba is basically in the Caribbean with a close proximity to South/Latin America, the food would be bursting with flavour and spice, right?

I thought so too...until I was writing on Twitter about how I'm going to Havana, and how excited I am, and more than one person told me to carry my own spices. I brushed it away. But...I was wrong.

Of course as soon as I landed I started trying to look for a place with genuine Cuban cuisine – whatever that was, I was willing to try it. That can be a bit tricky in Havana, because it's quite a touristy town.



It plays out like Nyali in Mombasa -  a lot of eateries are geared towards the international and visiting clientele, so places that sell authentic Cuban cuisine are limited to the traditional state owned restaurants, which often don't have very tasty food, or paladars.

Paladarsare restaurants that originally started in people's living rooms. Cuban houses usually have more than one floor, and are packed closely together. The bottom floor is then opened up to the public – particularly easy if it's a corner house – and they cook and sell authentic cuisine from there.

It's an interesting system, but still – finding a paladar with finger licking food proved tricky.

The Cubans I was hanging out with, one in particular, didn't understand my obsession with food, obviously. People rarely do. He – Carlos – was always asking why we wanted to eat so much! So perhaps there is an indifference to food there that was unexpected by me when I landed, but he did say that the real food is served in people's houses as opposed to in restaurants.

The lovely man serving us my two-scoop ice
The lovely man serving us my two-scoop ice cream. He was so nice! PHOTO| ABIGAIL ARUNGA

There ended my search. Or maybe I just went to the wrong places – Cuba as a whole can be pretty segregated in terms of tourists and locals. The two groups don't intermingle on a regular basis unless they're trying to sell you something, but that's a story for another day.


Carlos added also that he prefers the sweet treats that Cuba has to offer – cakes, ice cream, and such. Cuba has national ice cream parlours that have been around since the 1960s, called Coppelia. These parlours are, to them, what Kenchic is to us – a marker of a nostalgic history and a feature in almost every major city. There are usually lines around the major ones that wind around blocks, daily.

An example of this separation between tourists and locals is that there was a section for tourists and a section for locals at the Coppelia we visited.

The tourist section was, in fact, quite empty, and of course, had a higher price for a scoop. And much like Kenchic, apparently, the quality has gone down since the 60s, but people still go there anyway. It's a part of their childhood, and a way to stave off that intense Havana heat.

Getting ready to serve some delicious cold
Getting ready to serve some delicious cold treats. PHOTO| ABIGAIL ARUNGA

One thing that was a staple on every menu of every restaurant we went to was natural juice and rice with (red) beans, locally known as 'arroz congri'. The guava juice in Cuba is incomparable, and I am looking for a suitable replacement here (and rapidly losing hope).

Guava is one of those fruits that's always in season, and therefore always on offer. If you're having breakfast in Cuba, there will be fruit, and there will be guavas, and there will definitely be guava juice.

They even use it to make a special type of rum that isn't exported out of the country. I have a bit of trauma from high school concerning rice and beans so I didn't eat it as much as I like, but once I track down an authentic Cuban recipe, I may just try it at home.

Next week, maybe I'll venture into some of my favourite restaurants in Havana, but till then, I'll be stuck in my holiday hangover.