The world is one big melting pot

And it is never more apparent than in  Cuba? Cubans are a very mixed bunch , black, white, honey coloured, and Asian , this is explained by their heritage, there have been the Spanish and Moors, the British, Africans from the whole of the western coast of Africa ( slave trade ) French and Chinese , consequently it is easy to say that Cubans are one big melting pot. The early 20 th Century saw rich Americans ( and the Mafia bosses) arrive in their droves leading in part to the 1959 revolution of Castro and Che Guevara followed by the Bay of Pigs( 1961) the Cuban Missile crisis and the American Embargo of 1963 . Hence life for the last 50 years has not been easy. Reminding me in fact of East Berlin or Russia of the ’70’s and ’80’s.

So it is in fact a time warp, the crumbling cement, the faded paintwork ,the Art Deco hotels ,beautiful buildings but still functioning as they did 50 years ago.

Old Havana Buildings

more art Deco
Art Deco interior in Old Havana
 My second impression was and why should I be surprised, it is really clean, the streets  are swept and little signs of trash along the highways, few propaganda posters and the absolutely amazing cemetery covering 140 acres and named after Christopher Columbus. And the third impression Music Music and more music  everywhere you turAnd finally the cars! Large old American Gaz Guzzlers, the one we had for our tour had a mere 600,000 on the clock! But as one driver told us, you have to be able to Fix It yourself!

But what of Cuban Cuisine. I was told that there was only one actual Cuban dish and that was a kind of vegetable stew, otherwise it was a mish-mash of various cultures. Most Cubans eat rice every day ( it is grown on the island) along with fried pork and black bean stew, and whatever vegetables are in season or are available on the market. Currently it is pumpkin and Yucca , people are free to grow what they like in their gardens, but otherwise they are told what to grow on the farm land. Street food is very limited, Churros ( fresh hot doughnut type snack) , fried Pastries and sweet corn, some peanuts maybe and of course Ice Cream but that is it.
We had been recommended a few restaurants to try, but had been forwarned not to expect too much, traditionally Cuban food is not very spicy.

Below is one good bistro type Paladar in a small street, where about 7 homes have been made over to small dining rooms.

A small Paladar restaurant
After a couple of not very inspiring meals we happened upon a Paladar restaurant, in the centre of Old Havana. This was a complete revelation. On Les Mercaderes, is the Paladar Los Mercaderes . It is a beautiful old house, with a young Cuban outside hustling for business. We succumbed and not for one moment did we regret it.

To understand modern Cuban cuisine, one has to understand the supply and quality problems that exist on the island. Everything is government controlled, the farms and produce they grow, the seas and the fish that are caught. Fish and especially Lobster are for export, Cubans eat very little fish for an island nation . All the hotels are controlled by the government ( Habaguenex is the arm that controls all of this). There are no supermarkets, as we know them and the fruit and vegetables on sale on market stalls leave much to be desired, bruised and mouldy is the order of the day. below is a picture of a grocery store window, and followed by the liquor store, at least rum was in good supply!

the Local Supermarket


the Liquor Store, plenty of Rum!
 The story itself is worth repeating,( and it would seem typical of many paladares throughout the island)  a young couple lived in the house and worked on it, making it beautiful and then planned their restaurant . Recently under Raol Castro the government have been allowing a little more free entreprise. A Paladar is a small family run restaurant , often in their own homes, until recently they were only allowed 30 diners but now they can house up to 50, but of course they can do this a couple of times a night and at lunch as well.

So Los Mercadres, is a small restaurant of extremely good quality, both in food as well as in service. We had an excellent dinner, we started with fish Cerviche, which was indeed excellent. Himself chose as his main course the Cuban equivalent of Bouillabaise , a spicy fish stew, which was one of the best he had tasted and for myself it was a smoked pork loin again in a delicious sauce. The owner himself came round to all of the tables, to introduce himself  and to enquire if we were satisfied. I asked him, how he managed his supply and his quality control and it would seem that they have contracted with individuals in the countryside, to grow them organic vegetables and other framers to supply them with meat. So far so good, but what about the fish, well the answer is basically, he and his mates go fishing more or less every day. Certainly that takes dedication, which has to be admired.

Paladar Los Mercaderes

smoked lion of pork in Cuban spiced sauce


  There is a lot to see in Cuba, a country with a long and varied history, get there before Mac Donald’s does, it is worth a visit, but a word of warning, since the Russians left, the Cuban economy has relied greatly upon Tourism. There are two currencies in operation, one for the locals, CUP and the other for Tourists the CUD. All prices in restaurants, Hotels etc, are priced in CUD and it about 1 CUD to €1. It’s a cash society , we found one ATM, and nor credit cards, American cards are not accepted and there is a very large commission charge for changing US$ .Sometimes the lines at the exchange offices are hours long, and do not expect a bargain, cheap for the tourists it is not but worth every penny!

To Eat or not to Eat , Street Food that is!

We have all been warned about the dangers of eating street food in third world countries, warned about Gibby Tummy, Delhi Belly, Montezumas revenge and other such delightful phrases! How not to eat anything that has not been freshly cooked, to avoid raw fruit and vegetables and God forbid having  a Gin and Tonic with Ice, the ice could be contaminated!

There are exceptions to the rule, eating on the streets of Bangkok and other Thai towns never produced any of those symptoms, there are street stalls and centres selling food all day long  and the same could be said of Singapore. In Singapore, the term “hawker” no longer describes  the person selling street food, as in the early days, nowadays, hawkers are located in ‘hawker centres or food courts. All the food I have eaten in such places have never produced any undesired effects.

The same can not be said of India, notorious for unsanitary conditions , where in a land of 1.28 billion people over two thirds do not have a toilet,  the streets are filthy and trash is everywhere. Hence, it is not surprising that street food is not safe. But when backpacking in China, the rule of thumb was, if it is being cooked in front of you and not located next to a dog pound, then it was safe to eat.

I always was very wary however in Mexico, I avoided street food. I stayed in reasonable accommodation ate good food and got sick, copious amounts of Imodium were always in my suitcase. This was the case until I went on a street food tour of Mexico City.

We went on the Eat Mexico Culinary Tours. We, #1 daughter, himself and myself, met our guide in the fairly smart centre of Mexico City and spent the morning going from stand to stand and eating our way through them all.

We started at Tamales ( corner of Rio Lerma & Rio Panuco),  tamales are traditional Mesoamerican dish made from masa (corn) which is steamed or boiled , grilled or fried in a leaf wrapper. The wrapper is discarded before eating. They can also have grasshoppers (especially delicious ), small anchovy type fish and served with salsa, red, green or Jalapeño . Usually eaten early in the morning or late evening. 1 Tamale and drink cost $10 peso (5 pence). I chose the green Salsa, Yummy! 


Next was a side trip into the Mercado Cuauhtémoc, outside was a wonderful array of flowers and fruit, inside fruit and vegetables and food stalls. A delicacy which is sold every where, is Chicharron it is pork skin after it has been seasoned and deep fried. In Mexico, they are eaten alone as a snack, drier and much nicer than pork scracthings . They are also  used in soups Tacos and stews. We were also served, Atol, which is a hot drink made from corn, can be as thick as porridge or very runny more like gruel, can be flavoured with cinnamon or can have chocolate added. Always served on the Day of the Dead, however I have to say, it did not really ‘tickle my fancy’. 


Next stop was a Tortilla  factory , corn tortillas that is. The small Hole in the Wall factory makes fresh corn tortillas daily, standard size is 6″ and  they sell for $12 peso a kilo. The average family eats about 9 kilos a day, and this little factory produces an unbelievable 800 kilos a day. Tortillas are to Mexican families, what a baguette is to French families. Nothing goes to waste, stale tortillas are made into breakfast dishes such as Chilaquiles . 


We then continued our tour by stopping at a fresh juice stand ( fresh juice of all kinds is a delight in Mexico) and then moved on to Tlacoyos and Quesadillas. In Mexico City the preferred filling for these delights, ( quesadillas are flour tortillas which are sandwich together with a filling and grilled or baked in an oven) is cheese. In other parts of the country  they choose such things as Salsa Verde, Huitalacoche, courgette flowers, cheese and meat. Once upon a time I made on a weekend what I called Breakfast Quesadillas, which I filled with scrambled egg, chopped ham and cheese. What is Hutalacoche? Well it is also called Corn Smut, does that give you a clue? It is indeed a fungus that grows on ears of sweet corn, but Mexicans use it in soups and for fillings for quesadillas ! As yet I have not tried it, and # 1 daughter has a thing about fungus of any kind, and that includes mushrooms!


We then proceeded to Tacos de Canasta, these Tacos were filled with pulled pork, but pulled pork, like you have never tasted before. The wife of the stall bolder arises at 3.0 am everyday to make the fillings for 800 tortillas. He sets the stand up at 6.0 am to catch the early morning trade. The Tacos cost €8 pesos, and they have been doing this for an amazing 18 years! 


We ate Fresh fruit dusted with chile powder, and odd combination you might think, but no, really interesting. We went to a Burrito stand, Burritos are not really Mexican ( more Tex Mex) but in the City they have become a hit and have been in business for 6 years.  They are flour Tortillas filled with sautéed peppers, cooked pork or chicken and different salsas.

Our last stop was Carnitas, it is fried pork and every part of the pig is used ( except the testicles known as Prairie Oysters in Texas), again it is a corn tortilla, filled pork of choice, chopped onions, salsa and cilantro. 


This tour certainly changed my mind with regard to Mexican Street food. The rule of thumb given to us by our guide was

  1. Choose a stand that has children, the vendors will not be wanting to hurt their own children.
  2. Choose a stand that is popular.
  3. Choose a stand that looks clean
  4. Choose a stand where the vendor wears disposable plastic gloves
  5. Choose a stand wear the plates used are not washed up in dirty water but covered with a disposable plastic.much cleaner.
  6. Follow these rules and you too will be able to avoid the dreaded Montezumas Revenge!