Canadians this winter are flocking to Cuba. And it's not just the regular winter-haters, fleeing from the ass-sucking cold weather we've been enduring lately; this year it seems to be a lot of people who are experiencing Cuba for the first time. I expect the driver for this is the recent normalization of US/Cuba relations with easing on the travel restrictions and the planned opening of embassies. No, the long standing economic embargo has not yet been lifted, but all indications are that is where things are headed, which will be a welcome relief for both countries after so many decades of unnecessary mistrust.
Even though a million Canadians per year travel to Cuba, many of you first timers to Cuba will be anxious about your trip. And the main source of anxiety is typically the food. So I'm going to tell you a little bit about Cuban food.
Cuba has three major food groups. They are Pigs, Beets and Melons. The Cuban culinary tradition is unlike anything you are used to. For example, in Canada we have access to hundreds, no, thousands of ingredients, and we combine these many ingredients into delicious meals using recipes found on the internet. Most recipes call for at least thirty ingredients and we dutifully follow the directions exactly, even running out to Sobey's at 8pm to pick up 150 grams of arugula, even though you haven't got a clue what the hell kind of food that is or what it looks like. But hey, the recipe calls for it so we fear the dish won't turn out right without it.
Cubans have found a much better approach to cooking. You see, they have discovered that Pigs, Beets and Melons are much like the three primary colours - Red, Blue and Yellow. Just as mixing these three colours together in different proportions can produce any colour in the rainbow, mixing together the three primary Cuban food groups in different combinations can produce pretty much any sort of meal. For example, when the three primary colours are combined in subtractive colour mixing it produces black. When the three primary Cuban food groups are combined in equal proportions, it produces Chicken Croquettes. More on those later.
When you visit the buffet at a Cuban resort for the first time you will be amazed. The enormous restaurants have buffets that stretch as far as the eye can see, and these buffets will be crowded with dishes of all colours, textures and smells. There will be some recognizable items, such as Pork Chops, Beet Salad and Cantaloupe slices, but there will be many whose constituent parts will be a mystery. Also, they don't always change the labels on the trays so you may look down at the Rice Pudding dish and find a black gravy filled tray with pieces of bone sticking out. Or the one labelled Chicken Stew will look pretty much just like pasta with white cream sauce. I even saw a tray of greasy hot dogs that was labelled Chicken Cordon Bleu.
In any case, you really don't have to worry because the ingredients in each dish will be the same, just mixed together in different proportions. Though the Cubans keep their food alchemy secrets well guarded, I did manage to find a loose lipped server named Juan who explained the existence of all the fresh, delicious fish on the buffet.
"Looks like fish, but it's not," Juan told us secretly one day at the table as we were prodding him for information. "Cook puts 2 parts Pig, 1 part Melon, and half a part of Beet, then it gets mixed up and put into the fish fillet press. Que bueno!"
"And what about the amazing omelets? You can't tell me those aren't eggs," I asked.
"Nope. All the real eggs get sent to Venezuela. Those eggs you see are actually half a part Pig and one part Melon. That gets mixed up, put into the egg press and....Que Bueno!"
"And the phenomenal bread that is present at every meal. You are telling me there is no flour in that bread?"
"Si senor. No flour. 2 parts Melon, 1 part Beet, and a dash of Pig. All Cuban flour gets sent to Venezuela."
"What does Venezuela send in exchange for all this food you send them?" I had to ask.
"They send gasoline. Though us Cubans are very inventive, we have still not found a way to transform Pig, Beet and Melon into petroleum. But we are working on it."
"OK, last question. What the hell is a Chicken Croquette?"
"You've been eating Chicken Croquettes?" he asked with a worried look.
"I may have sampled," I admitted.
"Dios mio. Well, we just take all the food people leave behind on their plates, mash it all up then squeeze the paste into Chicken Croquettes. You have noticed they taste different every day, si?"
"Erp, I think we've heard enough, thanks for all the info Juan."
And with that I learned all about the magic of Cuban food!