Lost in Havana (Part 2)

By BobbyRica | January 26, 2012

My encounter with Abelardo at the Hotel Habana Libre Tryp at Havana was pleasant. He knew a great deal about Cuban culinary delights and was gracious enough to treat me to lunch at the “El Barracon” restaurant.. So far, the closest thing I had to a gourmet meal was a serving of French fries and soda pop at McDonald’s. This guy changed my world by introducing me to Cuba’s mouth-watering national cuisine.

cuban-food

I learned from my amiable host that Cuban food is a combination of Spanish, African and Carribean cuisines. This accounts for its unique and interesting flavors. The thought of savoring different dishes made me very hungry and my stomach couldn’t hide it. It growled like a crazed lion looming over its fallen prey. Abelardo noticed this and motioned the waiter to get our orders.

“Some moros, sir?” the waiter asked me.

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“How dare you call me a moron! Is this the way you treat customers?” I answered angrily.

“Take it easy, amigo!” Abelardo interrupted. “He isn’t insulting you. He just wants to know if you want some rice and beans!”

I found that rice and beans are common here. When cooked together, the meal is referred to as “congri” (meaning red beans and rice) or “moros” (for black beans and rice). When cooked apart, the dish is called “arroz y frijoles” or simply rice and beans.

“Oh! Sorry about that. I’m new here and have to brush up on my Spanish,” I blushed.

“Perhaps, you would like a Cuban sandwich instead?” Abelardo suggested.

cuban-sandwich

Unlike American sandwiches, a Cuban sandwich or “sandwich mixto” (mixed sandwich) is made of sliced roast pork, sliced Serrano ham, Swiss cheese, pickles and yellow mustard in between lightly buttered bread. After the sandwich is compressed, it is heated in a grill and cut in half diagonally. This tasty treat was popularized by cigar workers. Tomatoes and lettuce may be added but purists don’t usually do this since they want the traditional sandwich to be different from its American counterpart.

elena_ruz2

Then there’s “Elena Ruz” – a sandwich named after a young socialite who frequented the El Carmelo restaurant in Havana in the 1930s. After attending the opera or other social events, Ruz would drop by the said restaurant and ask the waiter to create this special treat. The sandwich is made of white or Cuban bread with cream cheese on one slice, strawberry jam or preserves on the other, and turkey breast in between.

Cuba is also known for other sandwiches like “pan con timba” and “pan con chorizo.” The former is bread with guayaba (white guava) paste and cream cheese while the latter contains thin slices of Spanish sausage.

frita-cubana-01

Another alternative is the “frita” which is Cuba’s answer to the American hamburger. This became popular in the 1930s and is made with ground beef combined with ground chorizo. It has small patties served on an equally small hamburger bun. On top of the bun are onions, tomatoes, lettuce and shoestring potato sticks.

“That sounds tasty. Yes, I think I’ll have that one,” I said as I wiped my dripping saliva.

“Which one?” the waiter asked.

“Anything ok!? I’ll take whatever you recommend. Just give me anything that I can eat now! I’m very hungry!”

food cuban

“Now that we can relax, let’s talk business,” Abelardo said.

Abelardo’s remark caught me off guard. Of course, I knew there was no such thing as a free lunch but Abelardo surprised me with his straightforward manner. What have I gotten myself into now? As I sat there waiting for him to talk, I could only hope for the best even though I expected the worst.

(To be continued)

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