One recent afternoon, Kanye West and three Kardashians Instagrammed their way through the streets of old Havana in a 1950s-era Chevy Bel Air. In a working-class neighborhood 20 minutes away, Yolanda Horruitiner, who hasn’t left Cuba since she was born here 70 years ago, shopped for dinner.
Even with rules of commerce looser than they have been since Fidel Castro declared this nation a socialist state in 1961, it was no small feat.
Despite a shift in the political and cultural landscape that has brought a Rolling Stones concert and private restaurants jammed with tourists, stocking a Cuban home kitchen remains one of the biggest challenges of daily life.
Although there are pockets of wealth among Cuba’s 11 million people, the average government salary is around $22 a month. Almost everyone finds a way to make extra income on the side. Still, all the money in the world can’t help if the markets are out of onions and your cooking-oil connection has run dry.
The Cuban home cook has to be agile, thrifty and lucky, making good use of both the state-issued monthly ration book and a reliable roster of black-market traders. Crucial, too, is an intimate understanding of the byzantine system of government-run grocery stores, bakeries and farmers’ markets.
Spices are a point of pride for cooks who either snag them on a trip to another country or secure them through what is called the Samsonite trade – the steady stream of food smuggled into the country.
Horruitiner (oh-roo-EE-tee-nehr), who is fluent in Russian and Spanish, spent most of her career as an announcer for state-run radio and TV. Her pension is about $8 a month. Her daughter, who lives with her, has a government job that brings in about $20 a month.
We met at a farmers’ cooperative market nicknamed the Boutique because the produce is expensive by island standards. Limes cost 45 cents a pound. For cooks with money, it’s the only reliable place to find cilantro and ginger.
In the sputtering Soviet-era Lada that served as our taxi, we headed to a agromercado, a government-controlled produce market, where tomatoes – more green than red – were 15 cents a pound.
Next up was a supermercado that sells its products in the currency referred to as “kooks,” after the CUC, the Cuban convertible peso. Visitors mostly use the CUC, which was established in 2004. Cubans have to toggle between CUCs and the traditional Cuban peso.
The store resembled a small, shabby Wal-Mart stocked with random leftovers from other countries, but no fresh meat or produce. There were dented cups of soy yogurt, a few frozen chickens from Brazil, cans of Spanish tomato paste and a barely cool refrigerator case piled with chicken hot dogs from Canada. An entire aisle was filled with large plastic bottles of Cuban-made soybean oil.
Horruitiner planned to make a homey Cuban supper: picadillo, the reliable ground beef stew, and arroz congrí, a dish related to Moros y Cristianos, the marriage of white rice and black beans that sprang from the Spanish occupation of Cuba.
Finding beans and rice was easy. The beef took more work.
Before the revolution, Cuba had plenty of cattle. But their numbers fell fast during what the Cubans refer to as “the special period,” an economic crisis that began in 1989 when the Soviet Union began to collapse and cut off economic support.
Horruitiner recalled how people sautéed grapefruit peels in oil and pretended they were cutlets. Sugar water replaced coffee.
“Even if you had money, there was nothing to buy,” Horruitiner said.
Now, steaks are imported for tourist hotels, and beef remains a prize for cooks with black-market connections. Ropa vieja, a classic Cuban shredded beef braise, is more often made with pork or lamb.
Ground beef cut with soy protein is easier to come by. We left with a plastic sleeve of frozen meat, which she complained was “B grade.” We also had a jar of pickled onions, gherkins and olives from Spain. It cost nearly $5. The olives would go in the picadillo; the pickles would garnish the sliced tomato salad.
Horruitiner’s picadillo starts with a small green pepper, seven or eight little toes of garlic and a small chopped onion mixed into the meat. She adds a slug of oil and applies heat, then stirs in two spoonfuls of soy sauce – a Cuban pantry staple introduced by Chinese immigrants.
Then comes a cup of tomato sauce. She wished she had some dry wine. Instead she used juice from the jar of olives, and a shake of dried dill. From pots outside, she grabbed a few leaves of basil and Cuban oregano.
Horruitiner said it was a style of cooking unique to Cuba.
“Innovation,” she said, “comes from the lap of desperation.”
Cuban-Style Arroz Congrí
1 cup dried black beans
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, chopped into 1/2-inch pieces
1 small green pepper, chopped into 1/2-inch pieces
5 or 6 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Freshly ground pepper
1 tablespoon fresh oregano, roughly chopped
1/4 teaspoon dried dillweed
2 small bay leaves
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
1 tablespoon dry red wine
1 1/2 cups long-grain rice, rinsed
Rinse the beans and pick them over for any small stones. Put the beans and 8 cups water in a medium-size pot. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a low simmer, partly cover and cook until tender, about 1 to 2 hours. (Time will vary depending on the bean.)
Meanwhile, make the sofrito: Put the oil in a medium-size pot (large enough to hold the rice as well) over medium heat. When it’s hot, add the onion, green pepper and garlic. Add a pinch of salt and several grinds of pepper. Sauté until the vegetables are limp. Stir in the oregano, dill and bay leaves and remove from heat.
Drain the beans, reserving the broth and being careful to not break the beans. In a large measuring cup, combine the vinegar and wine, 1 cup of the reserved bean broth and enough water to measure 2 1/4 cups.
Put the sofrito back on medium heat, add the rice and stir to combine. Cook the rice for 1 to 2 minutes, then add the seasoned bean broth/water mixture and the salt. Bring to a boil, stir, then reduce to a simmer, cover and cook for 17 minutes. Remove from heat, fluff with a fork and re-cover the pot, off the heat, for 10 minutes.
Remove bay leaves and put rice mixture into a mixing bowl. Gently mix in the beans, being careful not to break them. Season well with salt and pepper and transfer to a serving bowl. Serve hot.
Yield: 6 to 8 servings