Paladares: Recipes Inspired by the Private Restaurants of Cuba

Paladares: Recipes Inspired by the Private Restaurants of Cuba
Anya Von Bremzen and Megan Fawn Schlow
Abrams, 2017

When food is scarce and people are starving, you wouldn’t think to find a thriving independent restaurant culture, but Cuba is an anomaly. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the early 90s, Cuba’s access to imported food, and stuff in general, was cut off. Most people had little to eat and no way to access food beyond government rations. At the same time, the Cuban government slightly lifted the ban on private businesses, allowing people to run small restaurants out of their homes. No more than 12 seats each, with at least 2 family members working, these paladares became the lifeblood of Cuban cuisine, where both grandmothers and young chefs might earn a living and keep their community fed.

Since the lifting of US embargoes in 2011, Cuban restaurants are thriving. There are still shortages of ingredients, but Cuban chefs are nothing if not creative. In the interim, due to lack of pesticides and machinery, Cuba has become a model of organic, sustainable agriculture, with a hearty dose of black market thrown in, which is often the way many chefs manage to keep their restaurants running. “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. The ingredients found me,” says Niuska Miniet of paladar Decamerón in Havana.

It’s this unique set of circumstances that Amy Von Bremzen documents as she writes about Cuban cuisine and culture in her book Paladares. She traces the history of these small restaurants, and includes biographies of many of the chefs and restaurateurs whose dishes she features. Their stories are diverse — some are ex-pats from China or Spain while others are from long generations of Cubans. While many of the restaurants remain small, some have grown to accommodate larger crowds, and are hotspots for Cuban hipsters and tourists in the know.

Recipes are mostly traditional, based on the pork, rice and beans that are the backbone of the Cuban diet, with an emphasis on the produce that shows up at markets throughout the country, such as plantain, pumpkin, corn, and avocado. Rabbit features prominently (Rabbit with Sour Orange and Rosemary Sauce), as does chicken, and the Cuban sweet tooth is not forgotten, with a variety of recipes for flan, custards, and rice pudding, mostly made with condensed or evaporated milk because fresh dairy products are still scarce.

Complementing the informative text and recipes is Megan Fawn Schlow’s photography. Along with shots of the dishes featured, she includes gorgeous shots of Cuba, from farms and markets to busy streets and interiors of many of the restaurants included in the book.

While this is a large, heavy tome, recipes are cleanly laid out and easy to follow, with ingredients in both metric and imperial measurements and steps clearly numbered.

Paladares will be a delight to any home cook. With Cuba’s main dishes being mostly honest, simple fare, these all look easy to make, both in terms of gathering ingredients and the overall process. Out of the kitchen, this will sit proudly on any coffee table, provoking discussions of Cuban culture and politics.