Quimbombo with pork and Arroz Congri in Cuba
Cuba held such an allure and magnetism for me that I simply had to experience this historical country. I also wanted to do it whilst it was still a “communist” country and certainly before good ole’ McDonalds muscled in.
This, I managed to do with three close friends I had first met as a 20 year old at the University of London a few years ago. One was getting married and this was a perfect boys present for him. He had no idea until he got onto the plane and saw our smiling faces. We spent 3 days in Havana doing all the usual tourist stuff – museums, cigar factories and sampling the night life in some dingy clubs.
Appearances can be deceiving in this country. We soon found out that all that female attention we were getting in these clubs had nothing to do with our chat up lines or charm and chiseled adonis bodies. It did finally dawn on us that foreign exchange – Dollars, Pounds, Euros went a long way here. I had read copious amounts about Cuba before I got on to Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic at Heathrow. I had read about how the police – gestapo would follow and track tourists everywhere, how poor and disenfranchised Cubans were and how backward the country was to mention a few.
As I touched down at Havana airport, I felt prepared for almost anything. The fact that the baggage conveyor belt had failed and I had to locate my rucksack quite a distance away from the belt put a wry smile on my face.
Varadero, a resort town was our main destination and after 3 wonderful days in Havana we made our way there. First sight of Varadero confirmed a couple of things. Lovely place, but nowhere for three young men to explore Cuba. Varadero had amazing clear blue sea, good food and rum, but it was not the real Cuba. It seemed man made, a haven for tourists who did not want to get their hands dirty or those constrained by having to look after very young ones.
A couple of hours after getting to Varadero we walked right into a car hire office and got ourselves a car and a map of Cuba. We were joined by two other Londoners who had been in Varadero for a couple of days and were bored. One of them could speak Spanish, none of us could, so we needed them just as much as they needed us.
The road trip began.
A quick look on the map and a few rudimentary calculations to figure out when we might get to the next big town or village before nightfall ensued.
Food of course was a constant topic of conversation.
With two vegetarians, at least one super fussy eater and a seafood and meat lover, conflict was always bound to flare up on what to eat. Cuba simply did not have restaurants that could cater for all kinds and definitely not in the hinterlands.
On the second evening on the road, we had our first, I’d say, proper sit down meal. This I believe was, Arroz Congri also popularly known as Moors and Christians or simply black beans and rice. This meal was cooked from fresh in the home of a casa “owner”. Casas or Casas Particulares are rooms that the Cuban government, since 1997, allowed residents to rent out commercially. We’d arrived late in the night and as you do in Cuba as a tourist, you drive into town and ask for the nearest casa. It does take a while to locate one, but we were never disappointed with the level of service and the warmth shown by the casa residents, all for an average $5.00 a night. This particular casa owner literally woke up her entire family to help in preparing a feast of Arroz Congri and assorted fruits as desserts. We were grateful of course, but the meal lacked the taste and flavour I was used to. Cuba of course was and still is under economic sanctions so some food ingredients such as spices and meat were rare.
As we travelled from one hamlet, village, town and city to the next the cuisine varied from African inspired dishes to some that were no different to what you’d get in Europe. There was a definite fusion of the two in most cases. My favourite foodie moment was waiting in line in a village to buy vanilla Ice Cream. It was such a festive occasion for the locals. This is where simple met fantastic. I had never appreciated ice cream so much.
After Havana, Cienfuegos, Trinidad and Santa Clara and many other villages in between we headed back to Varadero and onwards to Havana to board our flight back to London.
Did I write earlier on that appearances can be deceiving? Well, so can the plethora of stories I read about Cuba on the internet. I never once felt stalked by the Cuban police and neither did I sense that these were people in bondage. Instead what I experienced was simplicity of life and joy and appreciation of the things that many in the West take for granted. A night out for the average Cuban in Havana revolved around drinking rum and dancing to salsa on the many beaches. Every evening the beaches were lined up for what seemed like miles as we drove to our hotel from the city Centre.
Back to food.
Two dishes that I think personifies Cuba are Arroz Congri and Quimbombo. One, quimbombo, has it’s origins in Africa and is reputed to have been introduced into Cuba through the slave trade. The other, Arroz Congri personifies the fusion of two dominant groups in Cuba – Africans and Spanish. It’s nickname is Moors and Christians or black beans (African) and white rice (Spanish).