There is a popular saying in Havana that there is a chef under every rock. In other words, there is an army of cooks at work preparing delicacies for families and friends. This is a city where food appears around every corner and both locals and visitors easily fall prey to the sin of gluttony.
Havana is home to Cubans coming from all over the Island and they bring with them their particular styles of cooking. We should try to infiltrate their homes to find out what’s happening. There is a profusion of smells out there, a result of the way in which Cubans improvise in the kitchen.
One detail that cannot be overlooked is that Cubans adore their herbs and spices and this is what contributes to the cornucopia of smells. Many spices are de rigueur for Cuban cooking: number one tends to be oregano and cumin, accompanied by garlic, onion and green pepper.
Next in line come bay leaves, basil, nutmeg, black pepper and all the others. One by one, the smells of these various spices are a delight to the senses, but when they are combined in the pot, a magical concoction takes place.
Because of the way the city of Havana is built, especially in the municipalities of Centro Habana and La Habana Vieja, inhabitants and passers-by share a very close spatial bond. To a large extent, the Cuban climate is responsible for the fact that many city dwellers come into direct contact with the street and with everyone moving around there and pedestrians tend to be close to what goes on in the interiors of the houses.
Part of this exchange deals with home-cooking, and, especially, when the pedestrian happens to be hungry, the effect is a very powerful one. It seems like the entire neighborhood is spontaneously affected, more so in the early evening hours. The smells of Creole black beans, onions and plantains frying, the heavenly fragrance of fried pork and egg and potato omelets are floating in the air. When thousands of Habaneros return home from work, that’s when they start to cook and the city breathes in the rich mixtures coming from their kitchens.
The port area, close to the water and the ferries crossing the bay, shares these passions. We can start to understand from there how important eating is to the inhabitants of this city and the joy that is symbolized by sitting down at the dinner table. We have a very hands-on technique of preparing foods, seemingly unaffected by the rush-rush of modern times and the limitations placed on us by the economy.
None of this has damaged the style and innovative capacity of Cubans when it comes to cooking. Present day foods have a close connection to the culinary history of our Island—daily life has been transforming our nutritional habits. The dire chapter of slavery, the different sorts of immigrants coming to Cuba over the centuries, and the Cubans going to other parts of the world and bringing back something they have learned abroad, have all had a profound influence on what we eat and what we like to eat.
In some cases, that talent we have of living on the streets begins to break down the edges of a certain sense of the private, forcing us to participate more actively in social life. For example, some of our “underground chefs” are quite famous, even among the foreigners among us, for their tamales or other special dishes.
What used to be a mere reference attained through the sense of smell in the urban context is now a much more specific manner of sharing and reaching the human palate. Havana allows that wonderful “ajiaco” or stew that defines us in many regards to become manifest. So, add a bit of spice to its beauty and partake of the smells and tastes that are part of Cuban culture.