Everything out of nothing – a conversation with a local chef in Havana.

23 Mar

In the kitchen of one of Havana’s finest restaurants – believe it or not judging by the kitchen- I meet Louis. I start to speak to him about the current situation for chefs in Havana, and about food in general.

“It is better than before, but it is still hard”. he says. Louis, who completed a five year culinary education at the Institute for Culinary arts in Havana 1995, continues: “As a chef it is hard to be really creative when there are such limitations on ingredients. Okey, before, especially under the “special period”(a five year economic crisis in Cuba after the fall of Soviet), you could not get anything except rice and beans, maybe pork and chicken if you were lucky. Today, the farmers’ are aloud to sell their produce at the markets, but the range of ingredients is still limited. You get the eggplant, Malanga(Sweet potato), onion, cabbage and all that. But the only oil we use is the local Soya bean oil and the availability of seafood and fish is restricted, although it is possible to find. When you do, it is very expensive and often somehow illegal”

Weird that you can not get seafood on a big island like Cuba, that, above anything else, has almost unlimited resources of fish in the surrounding waters.

As I my journey continues I become aware of this fact. For example, when going to the local “pescaderia” – the fish shop. Before entering, my expectations are limitless. I Imagine fresh langustas, snapper, kingfish, grouper, shrimps and swordfish – but when I stand inside the shop, all I see is a fan, a frozen chicken and an apathetic cashier. I start talking to him. They have pork and chicken. After a while, it comes clear that they today also have Camarones – shrimps.

The cashier shows me some tiny fresh water shrimps farmed in Cuba. Even though they are ridiculously expensive, I can not resist. I have been craving seafood ever since I arrived.

Back in the restaurant kitchen, I tell Louis about my experience. He laughs. “Haha, that is Cuba today. Fish shops without fish. But still, it is better than before. At least the shops are there and they sell pork and chicken. Before, the shops would not even exist. But seafood and fish is not for us regular Cubans, the price is ridiculous.”

I agree. 8 dollars fora pound of shrimps in a country where the maximum monthly salary is around 30 dollars is expensive. I ask him if it is not possible to buy fish directly from the street.
“No, No no. Whatever you do, vayu do not buy fish directly from the fishermen. I have a friend who just bought one but gave it to her dog. The dog died instantly.”
Just like a typical Cuban, he loves to talk. He goes on;
“It is the cruise ships. Of course, the tourism helps the country economically, but ecologically it is devastating. Our water is more polluted than ever before. Outside Havana you can not see the bottom of the sea like you could ten years ago.

I ask Louis to focus on the food and take care of his orders. He prepares to cook the meal for us. The burner is on and the pot is hot. He pours the soya oil into the pan and eventually adds the rest of the ingredients. A wonderful smell fills my nostrils. Right before he is done, he shows a bottle to me. On the label, it says “Salsa China”. It is soy sauce. “This is good, very new here in Cuba. Due to the embargo, most of what we use here is locally produced – cola, chocolate for example, but the Chinese have brought lots of good things. I am very happy for that”

He adds the scarce amount of soy sauce that is left in the bottle. Five minutes later I sit by the table. In my mouth; one of the best dishes I have eaten in a while. Although it is simple and pretty strange- only consisting of a mixture of shrimps, garlic, eggplant, cabbage, sweet potato, lemon pepper and onion – it is amazing.
I close my eyes.
This is everything out of nothing. This is creativity. This is a mix of weird things that in the end seduces your sences.

This is Cuba.

by Vayu Maini Rekdal

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