Did you know that the chef de cuisine of HM the Queen of England was Cuban? And her favorite dish is the well known (eh, in Cuba) tostones. They also call them chatinos and are slices of platano or fongo (another types of banana fruit, more soft and fluffy than the platano), plastered a bit and doble fried. To add to its luxury now and then they are curbing them and filling cheese inside. It’s not bad, especially the crusty ends, between the two frying they put them to soak in a marinade, yes, it is tasty, it’s good, but not that much – Her Majesty the Queen of England, ooops! In fact in the Cuban cuisine the most notable (at least according to me) are the products. For ten years I was traveling the world, my responsibility was to supply the products needed by a cruise ship, we were doing around the world cruises and I am familiar with the products offered at the world markets. Tell me about it. I am well familiar with the Beef of Buenos Aires, the rock-tomatoes of Panama, the dragon fruit of Vietnam, the rice, umeboshi and umeshu of Japan, the Chinese pork loins, the baby octopuses of Singapore, calamares gigantes of Valparaiso, the wines of South Africa, the oranges of Acaba, Jordan, the strawberries of Port Said, the fishes of Sri Lanca and tell me something that I don’t know. And I am ready to guarantee, guarantee with my life that the best, the freshest, natural and juicy products are eaten by the Cubans. Oh Lord, what fragrance are sending around the guaiabas, banana (they call it guinea),pineapples from the street barrows, the piglets are grown up on fruits, vianda and palmiche (one special fruits given by the national symbol of Cuba, the royal palmtree). And the pig becomes pork when reaches 80 pounds. Those Cubans, they are blessed to eat game, not pork. The fish is good, has a definite, strong taste of see, the chicken is chicken, not the well-known strange ex-cons from the “civilized” farms, the tomatoes and cucumbers are tomatoes and cucumbers with their own taste, aroma and everything, even yoghurt is to be found that, shame on us, is definitely better than the one in Bulgaria. Eh, the lady is making it out of real cow milk, that is the secret. She is making it at night and in the morning – “I bid you welcome”. E, this paradise is not going to last forever, Cuba will get out of the isolation and fiuuu, the fertilizers and pesticide will invade the country, the industry will “enslave” the chicken, the pigs will start enjoying the ready mix and good buy tasty, fresh, aromatic… Welcome to you nylon taste and abstract additives under the names of E300, C250 etc.
So, spoiled to a certain extent by the wonder of their products the Cubans didn’t spend too much efforts on refining their cuisine. They, generally, are not fond of details. The war cry of the everyday Cuban is “Dale! Dale!”, sometimes substituted by “Vamos! Vamos!”. Both of them meaning “Carry on! Harry up!”, do not mind the details, in other words. I bought a book – 1100 Cuban cocktails, my God! And in the preface, the author, one of the most famous cocktail maestros of Cuba, somehow naturally, directly, is writing that at the beginning of the XXth century the Americans were supplying their own bar tenders for the abundant bars and restaurants visited by American tourists. The Cubans were found useless. The problem is not that they don’t know. They will learn. But to be a barman is a fine art, the details are important and if you don’t mind the details, then what…? Dale, Dale. Eh, later on they got familiar, got accustomed, started elaborating the art of “cocteleria”, this is something that the Cubans are very good at, they are like carbon paper. The world known cocktails became the Cuban, the best bar tenders were to be Cuban, one of them, the famous Maragato was offered a million-dollar salary to go to US, but… but up till now the cocktail is not very respected by the Cubans. Rum, beer – that’s it. So it goes with the cuisine too. Rice, beans – black or red (the white beans they use to make the traditional jam for the Holy Week), okra, green beans – generally as a salad, egg plants, pumpkin, all types of fried banana, a large variety of turnips – boiled, mashed, salad is obligatory and a modest piece of meat. Pork, chicken, fish, usually fried, the Cubans are fond of fried, deep, oily, definitely fried. During the fiestas the crown belongs to the macho. They grill it – a whole pig (eh, 35-40 kilos, no more) is cut in the middle, stretched between two grills and then for 5-6 hours slowly rotated over the charcoals. Also they use a skewer or a big oven for the purpose. If there is not enough forces (money not appetite, the appetite is always there) it will be a pork leg (for unknown reasons the loins and the but are not very respected in Cuba), for Navidad (Christmas) it will be guanajo (real, home raised turkey, not the monsters from the US supermarkets) and that’s it. They are boiling “caldosa” – a strong and mashie soup with bones and hundred types of vianda – banana, pumpkin, turnip, carrots, beetroot etc., for any kind of celebration the “ensalada fria” is mandatory – one somewhat strange for the tropics salad with spaghetti, cheese, ham, a little jar of olives and abundant mayonnaise. They have nice jams and marmalades, of course, with this waterfall of fruits, good variety of homemade cookies but the pastry is of very dubious quality. First – a good pastry needs quite special products and second – oh, mucho trabajo.
But there is one thing, one thing that is normal, natural, needed and at the same time severely underestimated, that is in a rich and large variety in Cuba – the soft drinks. I am speaking about the homemade, everyday, cheap and easy to make drinks, that are nothing less than blessing from God in the heavy afternoon heat and that are almost considered a shame by those Cubans. How many times, how many times I suggested to my wife to serve something really tasty and refreshing to our guests. “A-a, carinho – says she squinting her chocolate eyes – nobody’s going to drink such a thing”. And is sending me to buy some disgusting fizzy chemical form the supermarket. Pfuuu. She will learn, she will learn but I don’t know whether I will be still alive. So, listen to me, let me tell you what miracles are at the disposal of the Cubans.
Let me start with the soft drink that need to be, so to say, “fabricated”, the ones that need a little time, some basic equipment to be made.
The name of the king is “Pru Oriental”. The people call Him just pru. Originally it is not from Cuba. The waves of immigrants fleeing from the chain of “successes” of the “liberation” of Haiti brought it. It consists of three ingredients – an ugly peace of root, they call it Chinese Root, ginger and pimento leaves. Diluted in water the mixture matures for 2-3 days, ferments a bit, then the wonderful Cuban brown sugar (parda) is added and the result is a sheer wonder for the tropical heat. With a veeery delicate touch of menthol taste, with a sweetness that is not at all sticky or even demonstrating itself, it has the cut of a fizzy drink but there is not a zest of CO2 added and as they serve it, almost frozen, it is like a refreshing shower for the stomach and the soul. On the top of it Pru is a drink well known for its effect on the blood pressure (that, of course, has jumped with the afternoon heat). The Cubans avoid drinking it early in the morning, makes them dizzy. In fact this is the original of Ginger Ale. Well, can you describe the taste of the last can of Ginger Ale that you have tried? Mm, something like… I am not exactly sure… hm, hm. End of story. End of an unknown, boring, industrial story. And the Pru? Oh, good Lord.
The next marvel is called “guarapo”. You can find it everywhere in the season of zafra, the sugarcane harvest. Enormous bundles of sugar canes are carried to the “guarapo shops”, a primitive machinery, something like a mill is switched on, the canes are peeled and smashed and a greenish, sticky liquid starts falling, dropping and dripping into the bucket. The aroma is difficult to be defined, I can just try to provide the idea – sweet and fresh, it just smells of Nature, that’s it. A rock of ice is taken out, broken to small pieces and the game starts – a ladle of guarapo, piece of ice and “next one”. This again is something despised for our guests. Too ordinary, too unsophisticated, according to my lady. But I am not always that obedient and when the season starts I buy a big bottle and bring it home. Drink what I drink, the rest in the refrigerator – for tomorrow. My wife puts a mystic smile on her face and colored as she is directly turns into a poster of the movie “You will see”. Well, I saw it. On the next day the guarapo was not to be taken out of the bottle. It had become thick, creamy, you need a spoon. OK, I got it, if it is guarapo – here and now. It also seems to be very healthy drink. Every guarapo shop (guaraperia) is supplied with a large list of the healthy repercussions of the regular use of guarapo. Especially if your body weight is 100 pounds. Mine is 250. So, take it easy, pal, take it easy.
Chicha. On board there was a nice guy from Guatemala and once he told me about the drinks there. The serious drinks, the alchy ones. The bottom line was to be defined by the Chicha. Looks a little bit like the Irish Stew depicted by Jerome K. Jerome. You throw whatever you find – fruits, tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, maiz (I forgot about the water rat that Montmorancy brought for the Irish Stew in “Three Men in a Boat”) in the barrel, wait for the fermentation, brew it and the opaque smelly result is used by the half-blind peons to warm up the soul. Oh Lord, my Cuba is so more refined. Not that the barons (this is the Cuban word for a boy – varon) are not hitting the bottom from time to time, they do, of course. But the bottom is so different. It is not one and the same to distill your drink from fermented sugarcane juice (the guarapo) or from beans, pumpkins and sweet potatoes. And also, in Cuba the name Chicha is attributed to a totally different beverage. Let me tell you.
The Cubans unite a lot of contradictions in their mentality. I told you about the “Dale! Dale!” syndrome. At the same time they are very careful with the “Imperial fruit” – the pineapple. Do you know why the pineapple is the Imperial fruit? No?! I will tell next time. On board one Jamaican taught me how to peel the pineapple. Because when you just peel it, like an apple, let’s say, under the cover you will find a net of “nests” that are impossible to be chewed and if you start a “deep peeling” to get rid of the tough nests the half of the fruit will be gone. And the Jamaican was carving neat diagonal trenches in the pineapple so that only the nest to go to the garbage and the pineapple was coming out of this procedure looking like a beautiful African decoration. But, being the way I am, even these pieces of cover looked like unreasonable wasting to me. Obviously to the Cubans too. And they invented the Cicha. Nothing, absolutely nothing enters the garbage bin – everything that is not eatable from the pineapple gets collected, water is added and in a day the fermentation has happened, the used peels go to the garbage (I don’t consider this a waste anymore), brown sugar and in the fridge. Until night time the chichi is ready. Marvelous, delicious, a little bit fizzy, has its edge, chilling, refreshing, irresistible. Once upon a time, when I still was a child (I have been a child too) the same way I couldn’t resist the Chorizo. No, no the awful British Bangers or the Black Pudding, no, it was the wonderful Bulgarian lukanka. Now, there is no anymore lukanka – neither in Cuba nor in Bulgaria, but bthe chichi makes me feels younger (childish – better to say). Good for you, Cuba, good for you, chichi.
Fast soft drinks
My favorite tamarind. This a strange-looking fruit, looks like peanut in its shell but hanging on a tree, a fruit, not a root like the peanut. Appears in March and it’s everywhere – markets, shops, barrows, bags, everybody is selling tamarind. Cheeeep. Eh, moneywise. Because timewise … it needs some time. First you have to peel, it is easy, the shell is soft, but underneath are popping little bean-balls covered with thick honey-like paste, sticking to your fingers and … you get me? Then the wonderful brown sugar is added and the beans are pressed with a spoon. The brown sugar is sucking the honey and the result is a thick dark brown substance. You pour cold water, stir with the spoon and that’s it, that is all. But this is the dew. Pour it in a bottle, add water (the tamarind juice is very strong), shake and put in the fridge. Do not throw away the substance, there’s gonna be at least two-three more harvests from the honey-beans. Add water. Now, try the liquid from the bottle. It is impossible to describe – sourish-sweetish-pickish and incredibly refreshing.
The King Soft – Guanabana. Uf, what un ugly fruits, looks exactly like a big toad. Green, rough skin covered with acne, bulged. But inside, behind the curtain, oh Lord, inside it’s fresh, snow white meat, coarse structure, looks like turbot’s cousin. But the aroma has nothing to do with turbot. And not with the turbot only, that is clear. The problem is that the aroma is not comparable to any fruit at all. Looks like, looks like “Christian Dior”. Trust me. There is no such aroma in the Nature. I am not among the fans of Darwin’s theory and guanabana is one of my reasons. Never mind how careful the bees are, how racist, segregating and not tolerant has decided to be Mother Nature I am firm that such aroma is not possible to appear out of the pure accident, no, I don’t believe this. But on the other hand, the guys from the labs, those guys that distorted the Pru and made Ginger Ale, something with unidentifiable taste, out of it, they are not able to achieve something comparable to the guanabana. Fine, beautiful but without the sulphur taste of the fakeness. Then? Then, it is God, God sent it straight from His divine factory, He sealed the parcel and wrote on the top of it “My favorite Island”. The angels knew – Cuba. Now it is our turn. We peel the toad, separate the seeds, throw the turbot’s meat in a blender (here a spoon will not do the job), white sugar, cold water, bzzzz with the blender and invite the angels. They deserve it. Just be careful not to repeat the story with the little boy from “Once Upon a Time in America” that was planning to bribe a prospective date with a cake but while waiting couldn’t hold it and devoured the cake. Just a cake. While in our jar we have angels’ dew that is shining, bubbling, smelling, luring … oh, stop it.
Sapote. The same strange story. Brownish rough skin, regular heart form, size of a fist. One-two shiny black stones are stretching lazily in a bed of bright orange, thick, dense meat. The taste is specific, heavy sweet, pervert-sweet as if not in Cuba, as if in some Arab harem was invented. Look at it. And very easy to prepare. Take out the meat with a spoon and bam, into the blender. White sugar, more water because the meat is quite thick, little salt, on the edge of the knife and bzzzzz. Faster and faster, it needs blending, ice in the glass and …
Guaiaba. For first time I bumped my nose against it at the market of Port Said. Looks quite like a peer but is not fit for eating, coarse, sour, like (дюля). But the aroma … the aroma is surpassing the (djulja). I bought two-three and my cabin smelled of gentle perfume for weeks. Sheer wonder. These in Cuba have the same perfume. Whenever I buy some guaiabas my wife spots it immediately and is enjoying it like a child. And God Himself obviously decided to spoil the Cubans with the guaiaba too. Here it is good, really good for eating. The sour taste is just hinted so that to be able to underline the elegant, finely painted sweetness, the color – luxurious. There are pink-redish guaiabas, warm-yellow, just pure Sesan (не знам как се изписва на английски). And when we peal our Sesan, when we cut and throw him in the blender, he starts asking for sugar and water only. And for a colander, the seeds of the guaiaba are small and hard. This is not a problem for me, I find it totally acceptable the way it is, but the Cubans – nooooo. They, looks like, are attributed with softer, more sensitive tongue. Many times I was trying to share my insight that nobody has a colander at the “food exit” but my anatomical considerations are never welcomed. OK, OK colander, ice and …
There are thousand more fruits to make delicious soft drinks – pineapple, papaya, mango, maragnon, even the cucumber is not underestimated, but I am afraid that the list will start to look boring. Because there is more to come.
Batido. This again is a fruit drink but the difference is that we add some milk in the blender. The milk story in Cuba is a little bit specific so the most realistic is powdered milk but this should not be a problem. Dale. Dale. All the softs listed above (not the tamarind) is ready to be made a batido also, ready and willing. But let me present you to the Queen.
Kanandonga. This is something that looks like a gigantic рошков and exactly like it hangs from the respective trees. The skin is really hard, you need a hammer to break it. Inside are neatly arranged corpulent yellow seeds covered with thick, hard caramelized black substance. And, surpriiiise, its stinks, it has a stench and whatever you want to call It … A real, dense heavy stench. Whenever I appear lovingly embracing a kanandonga my wife (maybe getting jealous) sends me straight to the terrace. She doesn’t like her house stinking. Up there I break the cover, the substance and the seeds – in the pot, all the rest, ALL THE REST goes in a plastic bag and straight into the bin OUTSIDE the house. The stench, the stench. From there on my wife takes over. Half an hour in water, to get well soaked, then in the blender – slow speed, colander, the seeds in the garbage bin, the substance with the water back in the blender, sugar, milk and one, two, three according to the Blender scale. Fridge and several hours later – what is it, milk with cocoa, cold chocolate, I don’t know but I am sure that it is coming directly from “Ritz” (never mind there is no “Ritz” in Cuba). The difference is that this here is natural, real, contains no “Ness”, no “Suchard”. Kanandonga. Definite, tasty, fresh, real. That is why the Cubans have found a place for Her in their songs. “Kucheri, kucheri, kanandonga, chiviri, chiviri, kanandonga”. Let me here the song for “Ness” or “Suchard”, sing it to me. There is noooo. But for the kanandonga, yes. On the top it is well known that the beautiful drink is a medicine for low hemoglobin. Tasty and healthy. Ah, is there such a thing? Yes. Kanandonga.
Wheat.Once I tried such a thing. In Singapore. They have a thousand kinds of soft drinks. In cans, shiny, tidy, fashionable. And deciding to try something weird I opted for the wheat. It was not bad. Neither was good. Tasted of nothing. I swallowed it and hasta la vista wheat. End of story. But two days ago our daughter in law brought something home, something that looked like processed wheat and that turned out to be processed wheat. Put it in water, left it there for a day, blender, water, milk powder, sugar, knife edge of salt and it tasted fan-good-tastic. Reminds of a dessert but can you drink a dessert? And this one is to drink, to drink and drink. I got ashamed of myself.
On the streets they are offering one batido de coco. Incredibly tasty but I don’t know how they do it, how they manage to extract the coco cream that’s why I prefer to keep low profile.
But… but I also have contributed to the Cuban beverage culinary art. You already are aware of the wonderful yoghurt that I found. And started a Yoghurt Mixing Fair. There were blends with sapote, guaiaba, papaya, there were experiments with 2-3 drops of Grenadine on the top and once this candy color starts its slow spiraling down the milky colored mixture the folks at home forget to organize an encounter of the jaw with the upper lip. They tried, they swallowed, they gulped and were asking for more. No, these last words I cannot repeat under oath. I wrote them in honor of the literary form.