For Cuban home cooks, ingenuity and luck are key ingredients
Kim Seversonmay, The New York Times
HAVANA — One recent afternoon, Kanye West and three Kardashians Instagrammed their way through the streets of old Havana in a 1950s-era Chevy Bel Air. In a working-class neighborhood a 20-minute drive away, Yolanda Horruitiner, who hasn’t left Cuba since she was born here 70 years ago, shopped for dinner.
Even with a visitor willing to buy the groceries and the rules of commerce looser than they have been since Fidel Castro declared this nation a socialist state in 1961, it was going to be no small feat.
Despite a shift in the political and cultural landscape that has brought a Rolling Stones concert and private restaurants so jammed with tourists that reservations are a must, stocking a Cuban home kitchen remains one of the biggest challenges of daily life.
Although there are pockets of wealth among Cuba’s 11 million people, the average government salary is around $22 a month. Almost everyone finds a way to make extra income on the side. Still, all the money in the world can’t help if the markets are out of onions and your cooking-oil connection has run dry.
So the Cuban home cook has to be agile, thrifty and lucky, making good use of both the state-issued monthly ration book and a reliable roster of black-market traders. Crucial, too, is an intimate understanding of the byzantine system of government-run grocery stores, bakeries and farmers’ markets.
Increasingly, fruits and vegetables can be found at cooperatives or from a vendor who may show up in the neighborhood with a small cart.
Then there are more subterranean options. An enterprising Cuban can buy fresh white cheese along a country highway and resell it in the city. On the steps of what passes for a supermarket, a woman may offer a deal on a substantial sausage that shoppers speculate was stolen by a son who works at a state meat factory.
Spices are a point of pride for cooks who have either snagged them on a trip to another country or secured them through what is called the Samsonite trade — the steady stream of food smuggled into the country.
“Every Cuban can give you a history about how they got the food they are eating that day,” said Javier Ortiz, 27, a journalist with a taste for powdered milk because that’s what was available when he was growing up.
He makes $40 to $50 a month at the government television station and, with his brother, runs an Airbnb in the family’s home. The state gives them more rationed rice than they can eat, so when the price is right, Mr. Ortiz sells it on a Cuban version of Craigslist called Revolico.com.
Ms. Horruitiner (oh-roo-EE-tee-nehr), who is fluent in Russian and Spanish, spent most of her career as an announcer of news and entertainment for state-run radio and television stations. Her pension is about $8 a month. Her daughter Lisset Felipe Horruitiner, who lives with her, has a government job that brings in about $20 a month. They use all the rice rations they get.
We met one afternoon at a farmers’ cooperative market nicknamed the Boutique because the produce is expensive by island standards. Limes cost 45 cents a pound. For expats and cooks with money, it’s the only reliable place to find cilantro and ginger.
We bought a mamey, a creamy, vanilla-scented tropical fruit that tastes and looks something like a sweet potato. Ms. Horruitiner would blend it with ice, water and sugar for a shake called a batido. She balked at the price, about 84 cents, telling me in no uncertain terms that I had just been taken for a ride.
She suggested, through an interpreter, that we head to a favorite “agro,” or agromercado, a market where the government caps the prices for produce, which the farmers grow under government contract. We pulled up only to find that it had just been closed for fumigation. Ms. Horruitiner threw up her hands. “It’s a novella!” she said.
Back in the sputtering Soviet-era Lada that served as our taxi, we headed to another agromercado, where the tomatoes — more green than red — were 15 cents a pound. Green peppers cost even less, and there was only one small variety. They seemed puny compared with the watery giants sold in American supermarkets, but they tasted much better.
Next up was a supermercado that sells its products in the currency referred to as “kooks,” after the CUC, the Cuban convertible peso. Visitors mostly use the CUC, which was established in 2004. Cubans have to toggle between CUCs and the traditional Cuban peso.
The store resembled a small, shabby Walmart stocked with random leftovers from other countries, but no fresh meat or produce. There were dented cups of soy yogurt, a few frozen chickens from Brazil, cans of Spanish tomato paste and a barely cool refrigerator case piled with chicken hot dogs from Canada. An entire aisle was filled with large plastic bottles of Cuban-made soybean oil.
Ms. Horruitiner planned to make a homey Cuban supper: picadillo, the reliable ground beef stew, and arroz congrí, a dish related to Moros y Cristianos, the straightforward marriage of white rice and black beans that sprang from the Spanish occupation of Cuba and refers to the period, from the eighth through the 15th centuries, when Islamic Moors occupied parts of the Christian Iberian Peninsula.
Finding beans and rice was easy. The beef took more work.
Before the revolution, Cuba had plenty of cattle. But their numbers fell fast during what the Cubans refer to as “the special period,” an economic crisis that began in 1989 when the Soviet Union began to collapse and soon cut off economic support for Cuba.
With the American embargo firmly in place, a drop in the price of sugar and the loss of $5 billion a year in Soviet cash and goods, the country plunged into extreme poverty. In an effort to rebuild the herd, slaughtering a cow without a government contract was declared illegal in 2003.
A common piece of recent Cuban folklore has it that finding food during the special period was so difficult that cats and zoo animals disappeared.
Over dinner, Ms. Horruitiner would recount how people sautéed grapefruit peels in oil and pretended they were cutlets. Sugar water replaced coffee.
“Even if you had money, there was nothing to buy,” Ms. Horruitiner said.
Now, steaks are imported for tourist hotels, and cuts of beef remain a prize for home cooks with good black-market connections. Ropa vieja, a classic Cuban shredded beef braise from the Sephardic cooks of Spain, is more often made with pork or lamb.
Ground beef cut with soy protein is easier to come by. We left the store with a plastic sleeve of frozen meat, which she complained was “B grade.” We also had a jar of pickled onions, gherkins and olives from Spain. It cost nearly $5. The olives would go in the picadillo; the pickles would garnish the sliced tomato salad.
Back home in her neighborhood, called La Ceiba, Ms. Horruitiner stepped into a kitchen no bigger than a closet. It was well equipped with a pressure cooker and a rice cooker.
“Welcome to my laboratory,” she said.
She learned to cook from a grandmother and, like most Cubans of a certain generation, from Nitza Villapol, the most famous cook in Cuba. Ms. Villapol was cooking on television long before Julia Child. Her career stretched from before the revolution through the special period. She was a true daughter of the revolution, cheerfully teaching Cubans how to cook well with not very much.
In the 1950s, she wrote two seminal cookbooks, “Cocina Criolla” and the follow-up, “Cocina al Minuto.” Ms. Horruitiner keeps her copy of “Cocina al Minuto” carefully wrapped inside a large envelope, its pages stuffed with handwritten family additions.
Her picadillo is a much less embellished version than Ms. Villapol’s prerevolutionary recipe. It starts with a small green pepper, seven or eight little toes of garlic and a small chopped onion mixed into the meat. She adds a slug of oil and applies heat, then stirs in two spoonfuls of soy sauce — a Cuban pantry staple introduced by Chinese immigrants.
Then comes a cup of tomato sauce. She wished she had some dry wine. Instead she used juice from the jar of olives, and a shake of dried dill. From pots outside the door, she grabbed a few leaves of fresh basil and Cuban oregano.
It is the kind of make-do Cuban cooking that the chef José Andrés found during a trip to Cuba in March with President Obama, when he went to a friend’s house to make dinner.
“In the home kitchen, you find what happens when people don’t have a lot,” Mr. Andrés said in an interview. “The great thing is these people appreciate any ingredient more than we do.”
Ms. Horruitiner said it was a style of cooking unique to Cuba. “Innovation,” she said, “comes from the lap of desperation.”
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