Menus at Cuban restaurants can elicit an eye roll or two if they don’t list black beans, fried plantains, mojo, or ropa vieja among the offerings. These are the dishes that defined a lot of revolution-era cooking in Cuba, and certainly Cuban cooking pre-1959. They’re the dishes Cuban exiles took with them to Miami, to Madrid, and to all of the other corners and pockets of the world they fled to when Castro’s communism took hold.
But for those who stayed on the island, a need developed for a new cuisine — what some called “survival fare.” Invested cooks made do with the meager ingredients the government rationed out, and Cubans eventually started to serve this cuisine at paladares, small, private restaurants that popped up inside homes in Havana, Cienfuegos, Camaguey, and other cities across the country.
Anya von Bremzen and Megan Fawn Schlow’s new book, Paladares: Recipes Inspired by the Private Restaurants of Cuba holds a spotlight over these restaurants, and shares their stories of conception and the recipes that have earned them their following.
Cuban paladares began in 1993, when the government legalized a number of self-employment occupations, including those in hospitality. Rules applied, of course: There can be a maximum of 12 seats per paladar, and a minimum of two employees, both of which must be family members of the homeowner.
The 14 paladares that Von Bremzen features in her book cover a range, from traditional home dining room spaces to more modern mini restaurants, from those owned by locals to a few run by expats. Each paladar owner has faced, and for the foreseeable future will continue to face, ongoing issues including lack of access to ingredients — a limitation that causes frustration but encourages ingenuity.
The menus at paladares are continually in flux, with owners unable to grow attached to an ingredient that could disappear within hours. “Basics” like butter, milk, and eggs are sometimes gone before they even hit the shelves. So a lot of Cubans, especially those who own a paladar, rely on an ever-thriving black market.
For Niuska Miniet, owner of paladar Decamerón in Havana, the market came to her. “The ingredients found me,” she tells von Bremzen. “When word got out we had a restaurant, strangers came knocking on our door selling anything from lobster to chicken to floor mops. They sold to survive; I bought to survive.”
According to von Bremzen, Pilar Fernandez, a Spanish expat, would laugh anytime a Spanish chef raved about her trendy “market cuisine,” when she was struggling every morning to write the menu for her Havana-based paladar Casa Pilar. (The reason many paladares rely on chalkboard signs is so they can easily make changes to their menus.) “They [visiting Spanish chefs] have no idea what it’s like having nothing but sporadic market cuisine,” says Fernandez.
Von Bremzen features novel dishes created by cooks out of necessity, but also pays homage to classic Cuban recipes. One for mariquitas — thinly sliced, deep-fried plantain chips — is based on the recipe served at O’Reilly 304 and El Del Frente (sister paladares located on Havana’s O’Reilly Street) in lieu of bread. The dulces chapter of Paladares features all the best-known desserts: pastelitos de guayaba y queso (guava and cream cheese pastries), tres leches, arroz con leche, and natilla — a milk and egg custard often topped with cinnamon.
But there is no dessert more synonymous with Cuba than flan. In Paladares, the would-be intimidating dessert is given a straightforward recipe; the only real trick to a perfect flan is keeping a watchful eye over the caramel.
Paladares is an immersive history lesson in the birth of an underground subculture that eventually went mainstream out of necessity. It’s also a beautiful telling of the Cuban spirit, one that is dedicated to catching up with the rest of the world while still committed to its roots.
“It’s a strange and unique place, our Cuba,” says paladar owner Alexis Alvarez Armas. “An island where nothing is possible and everything is possible, too.”
Patty Diez is Eater’s editorial coordinator.
Editor: Daniela Galarza