Saturday, July 14, 2012

que delicioso!

My food experience in Cuba was certainly delicious...and also a little thought-provoking.  In fact, I would even go so far as to say that my food experience there has prompted some small changes to my food experience at home.  Here's a small taste (pun intended) of what it was like...

 (Our trip started in a - dare I say it - quintessentially American fashion...with breakfast from Starbucks at the Louisville airport.)

(During an unexpected delay in Cancun, our layover city, we had an early dinner at a beachside restaurant that offered an unusual buffet.  The dishes were hard to identify - which is never a good scenario for a picky eater - but I managed to put together a plate.  It was...something to eat.)
 
(I'd never tried a mojito before I went to Cuba - mainly because rum isn't my favorite liquor - but when they served them with lunch on our first day in Havana, it seemed...almost disrespectful not to try one.  And I actually liked it!  The other ingredients balanced the rum out nicely.)
 
(Ciego Montero is the drink brand in Cuba - equivalent to Coca-Cola Bottling or Pepsi Bottling in the United States.  For Mom, this became her weeklong replacement for the Pepsi she normally likes to drink.)
 
 (Funny story - at lunch that day, the meal was served without the black beans.  Rather, there's a server who spoons the beans onto your plate from a large bowl that he carries from table to table.  I initally declined any, until Dad told me, "No, you have to try the black beans."  So, thinking there's something special about them, I went ahead and got some.  Dad looked at me expectantly as I took a bite and was pretty disappointed when I responded, "they taste like black beans.")

(The flan they served for dessert was perfect, though - creamy and flavorful.)
 
(One thing I was consistently frustrated by throughout the week was how large the portions were at so many of the restaurants.  Although there were small fridges in our hotel rooms, we were always out and about at meal times, with many of our meals actually included in the cost of our tour.  So food that I would have brought home in a box here in the States, I left uneaten on my plate to be cleared and then who knows what they did with it.  That was difficult for me.)

 (Tuesday, our lunch was served at a Havana artist's studio!  But on this, our second day in Cuba, the heat really reduced my appetite.  So I stuck to rice and vegetables.)

(Oh, and dessert.  Even the heat couldn't affect my appetite for dessert!  This was a lovely little pastry with a cream filling, topped with a brown-sugar frosting.)
 
 (At almost every meal, I typically chose to drink "agua natural" - bottled spring water - instead of a soda or other beverage.  Tuesday night, the restaurant we chose for dinner served an Italian bottled water that had such a pretty label.)

 (For my meal, I ordered shrimp enchiladas, expecting something on tortillas.  Nope!  Instead, I got this attractive and tasty pile of shrimp and veggies, spooned over a scoop of mashed plaintains and inexplicably garnished with two long, skinny breadsticks.  After eating this, I don't know how I'll ever eat the shrimp enchiladas here in the States without a little bit of longing.)

 (On the walk home from dinner, we stopped by a corner market to get bottled water, since it was slightly less expensive there than at our hotel.  I couldn't resist the Cuban cookies, though - especially with their Happy Feet marketing.)

(The menu on our Havana hotel's breakfast buffet stayed pretty consistent through the week.  By the end of our stay there, I had become a big fan of the little doughnuts, which were the size of our mini-doughnuts with a simple, yummy flavor.  The juice - I think it was pineapple - was also tasty.)
 
 (I would have enjoyed Wednesday's lunch a lot more if we'd had more than five minutes to eat it.  Sigh.  It's always disappointing when bad service takes away from good food.  Service aside, though, I liked my tuna sandwich. It was loaded with tuna, and instead of mixing the mayo, onions and such in with the tuna, they used those ingredients as toppings.  All that, stuffed into bread that was a great balance of crunch and chew - yum!)

(Wednesday afternoon, we stopped at a small farmers' market.  Most of the fare felt pretty typical - bananas, tomatoes, watermelon - but it was neat to see this stack of taro root.)
 
 
 (On our way to dinner Wednesday, we stopped at the former Bacardi headquarters, which is known for its art deco architecture, to have a drink in the small bar.  Dad opted for the mojito...)

 
 (...while Mom, my roommate and I opted for the limonada - a delightfully refreshing frozen lemonade with just a hint of rum.)

(After a lot of walking around while we decided where to have dinner, I decided to have a Sprite, which sounded a little more refreshing than bottled water.  It was funny to see such a familiar logo on a label written in Spanish.)
 
(Our restaurant of choice that evening?  An Italian place.  Go figure.  However, the food was very good.  My artichoke pizza had just the right amount of cheese and sauce; and the crust had the chewiness of regular crust, but the weight of a thin crust.)
 
 (Thursday, we had lunch at a restaurant in Cojimar, a small fishing village where Ernest Hemingway spent a lot of time when he was in Cuba.  Since they're known for their paella, I decided to have that.  There were too many different kinds of meat in it for my taste, and some of it was tougher than I would have preferred, and it was an enormous bowl...but I liked it.)

 (That night, our last in Havana, we dined at another Hemingway locale - La Bodeguita del Medio, where the author purportedly enjoyed many a mojito.  They were a little heavy-handed on the rum for my taste, though.)

(This is a badly focused picture of a well-composed meal.  Mom and I shared a plate of balacoa con criolle - cod in a creole sauce - that was really nicely done.)
 
(As we'd been walking around Havana all week, we'd seen many heladerias - ice cream windows along the streets.  Thursday night, I finally got an ice cream cone from one of them.  The ice cream has a fluffiness to its creamy texture - almost like soft serve, but scooped.  A fun, simple treat.)
 
(Friday morning, the hotel bar was out of bottled water, so I chose un refresco naranja instead - an orange soda that's their version of Fanta, I suppose, only not as cloyingly sweet.)
 
(Avocado!  This plate of avocado and beans was an appetizer at lunch, and I am not at all ashamed to admit that I ate at least a third of the avocado on this plate.  With a little bit of salt, they were just right.)
 
(I also ate some other things, too - but the avocado slices were the best part of the meal.  I even smushed some up to eat on the platanos - fried plaintains.)
 
(And of course, now that I'd had a taste of the ice cream, I couldn't turn down a bowl of it at lunch...especially with what I thought was chocolate sauce, but was actually more of a chocolate-caramel sauce.  Mmmm.)
 
(Our tour guide at the eco-preserve was sad that I didn't want a cup of their cafe's signature coffee drink - a frozen concoction that tasted very similar to a frappucino.  So how do I know what it tasted like if I didn't have a cup?  Well, after I repeatedly declined a cup, he insisted that I at least try a sip of his.)

 (As we walked through the village in the preserve, we came across trees with what we thought were limes.  Nope.  They're actually sour oranges, which our tour guide said make great marinades.)

 (Look!  A whole tree of avocados.  It was hard not to pick them.)

(Friday night, after arriving at our hotel in Vinales, we had dinner at the hotel buffet.  It offered all the foods that I'd come, by then, to think of as standard Cuban fare.  The one thing I hadn't seen before, though, was the food to the left of the breadstick - what I would best describe as corn pudding.  It was a great balance between savory and sweet.)

 (Saturday, while touring a community garden, we came across a cacao tree.)

(Our guide cracked one open, so we could all try the pulp that surrounds the cocoa beans.  It's like a tangy citrusy pudding.)
 
(It's a pineapple in the making!)
 
 (Saturday afternoon, we got to try sugar cane juice, which is made by running the sugar cane through an extractor a few times - to get as much juice out of it as possible - then mixing it with some water and lemon juice.  Dad and I were disappointed when Mom said that, no, we could not start growing sugar cane and purchase an extractor.)

(The watermelon at lunch on Saturday was so good - I kept getting more and more.)
 
(This was the last mojito I had in Cuba.  Sadly, it was also my least favorite.  The rum had been poured with a very heavy hand, and the granulated sugar wasn't at all dissolved - in other words, a bit of a mess.)

 (Sunday, our plan was to eat lunch in the terminal at the airport.  However, our flight was delayed significantly, so the airline took everyone to a local hotel for the afternoon. The buffet there was fantastic!  I had a couple platesful of fruit and veggies, with some rice and slices of salami on the side, and for some reason, this felt light and refreshing.)

(When we finally returned to the terminal and found our gate, we also found a chocolate shop.  I was content to inhale the indulgent smell of chocolate...but Dad went the extra step of buying some truffles for us.  A chocolate truffle with guava filling?  Melt-in-your-mouth good.)
 
(Then, after spending the night in Cancun, we had another early-morning Starbucks breakfast.  Only, this time, it didn't feel quite as American.  That's what happens when you order a pan de chocolate and you pay in pesos.)

(For some reason, Mom and I were slightly enthralled and amused by the cocktail napkins on the flight from Cancun to Atlanta.  No, not really a food picture...but I couldn't resist sharing it.)
 
(Reality check and sign #1 that vacation is over - ordering lunch in English.  A chicken caesar wrap from Au Bon Pain and a strawberry kiwi smoothie from Freshens.  This was also the moment when I realized that I wasn't sure how to make the adjustment from eating in Cuba to eating in the States again.)

Because although we ate a lot of cooked meals while we were in Cuba, everything still felt fresh.  We also had three good meals a day, so it was rare that I wanted a snack.  And when I did, it was more by choice than by need (i.e. ice cream after dinner).  Yet I never felt hungry or like I wasn't eating enough, even with all the walking and exertion.  So as soon as my first meal back in the States, I found myself examining the Au Bon Pain menu, trying to figure out what I could choose that would be satisfying without being heavy...and also (interestingly) craving something with vegetables.  

Because something else I realized about our meals in Cuba was that almost all of them started with a plate of sliced vegetables - not necessarily an appetizer, but kind of.  And then, to add on to that, being out in the heat all day made me want less meat and heaviness at meal times - so, to make sure I had enough to eat, I typically added more veggies to my plate.

Please understand - I am totally aware that none of this "food think" is revolutionary.  I mean, it's basically common sense.  Eat more fruits and vegetables.  Don't skimp at mealtimes. How many times have we all heard those admonitions in our efforts to lead healthier food lifestyles?!  Yet somehow, it took going to Cuba and having that food experience to get things to really click.

In fact, the first couple of days that I was home, deciding what to eat was a little bit agonizing.  Partly because I was responsible for my meals again - which, after nine days of eating all of my meals in restaurants, was a transition...but partly because I realized that I very much wanted to make the effort to continue feeling good about how I ate.  Without any conscious reflection on the matter, I realized I'd already made some decisions that would change how I approached eating.  No more sodas (with the one exception of  limited quantities of Ale-8...which I just can't bring myself to give up). No more fast food (unless unavoidable).  As few processed snacks as possible.  Lots more fruits and vegetables.  Lots more well-balanced eating in my days.

I've had a few moments of "oops"...but when I look at how I've been eating in the two weeks or so since I got back, I realize that I'm making it happen.  I'm feeling good about what I eat on a daily basis and noticing a difference in how I think about cooking and baking, too.  That, more than anything I ate in Cuba, is the most delicious thing I could have experienced.

Where I am: home
What I'm reading: The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson, and just finished The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant

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