Of all the countries in the world whose cooking I would like to learn, I always thought Cuba's would remain last on the list.
Yes, there are hundreds of restaurants in Miami dishing up succulent ropa vieja (black beans and rice alongside tender beef, stewed for many hours). But ever since my first trip to Havana 10 years ago, I had associated Cuban cuisine with dry beans and rice, cabbage and cucumber salad, and a muscular chicken leg that tasted as if the chicken had had trouble procuring its seed ration.
A decade later, things haven't changed that much. But on a January evening, after my picky-eater son had consumed a bowl of curried chickpea soup with golden swirls of fat dancing on its surface, I found myself asking for the recipe.
We were staying at Casa Liana and Lily, one of the many private homes that open their doors to travellers who choose to trade the comforts of all-inclusive resorts for the experience of living in a Cuban home and the chance to improve their Spanish through conversations about the future or the differences in family life. In a two-week trip crisscrossing the country and staying at casas particulares, we hardly noticed we were making a sacrifice. With the exception of a one-night misfire in Cienfuegos, our casas had terraces or balconies, modern bathrooms, plenty of hot water (always a concern in Cuba), and hosts who cooked better dinners than those at most of the restaurants we tried.
Liana's casa was located in the green valley of Vinales, a three-hour bus ride west of Havana. In Vinales, the roosters wake up at 3 and the mist rises over the hills a few hours later as the town comes alive with the morning sounds of children heading to school in horse-drawn wagons and shepherds leading their animals to pasture. It's a divine rural setting popular with hikers and spelunkers, and we had lucked into staying at the town's unofficial headquarters. From the rocking chairs on our porch, we had a front-row seat to life in Cuba.
Liana is a nurse and practises as much from her post in front of the stove as from the hospital where she works. She stood in the kitchen, stirring, chopping and stewing while examining X-rays, giving advice, fielding phone calls and keeping a vigilant eye on her guests. (We had been lectured on not giving fresh coconut to our six-year-old. I still don't know if she was correct in the dangers it can pose, but she was so persuasive I didn't dare.)
Behind our living quarters, Liana and her family – she lives in the main house with her parents and her daughter – grow lettuce, Swiss chard, tomatoes and onions, and were raising two pigs. (Later in our trip, another host family told me that the sale of one pig could furnish enough money to build a guest apartment or renovate a bathroom. Indeed, two pigs had built the mini-hacienda in which we slept in Trinidad, a 500-year-old city in the centre of Cuba.) Liana's vegetables tasted as you would expect something to taste if it travelled a distance of only 10 metres to your plate.
When I asked for the recipe for the chickpea soup, everything stopped. She came out on the terrace where our dinner had been served – and began to explain as her mom listened. (She and her mother had also made us fish in black bean sauce, salads, tender black beans and rice, bananas fried in honey, and a few other dishes.)
There wasn't one secret to the chickpea soup, there were many, and many of them were particularly Cuban: Oil had to be used liberally, she instructed; pork bones furnished the rich fat for the stock; soy sauce was a must; and vinegar had to be poured in at just the right moment (if cooking red beans, sugar could go into the mix as well, but no sugar for black beans).
The chickpeas, she repeated in Spanish three times, had to be boiled until they were so soft they would give way under gentle pressure from the back of a spoon. And cumin – a spice she obtained through her husband in Miami – was to be added last, after the pot had been removed from the boil. In the meantime, she said, moving from one imaginary side of the stove to the other, you have been chopping various kinds of onions and, her mother added, making the rice.
"Where is your cooking TV show?" I asked her, and she laughed. "Maybe in Miami!" My health-conscious Canadian brain was reeling at the amount of soy sauce she had said was necessary – the sodium! – but my taste buds were rioting in celebration.
I thanked her for the cooking lesson. "I'm very happy you like it, it's very important to us," she said. "Here, we cook with love."
I had debated my decision to stay at casas particulares before leaving for Cuba, wondering if we would miss hotel pillows and pools, but now there was no doubt. The family was beaming at our pleasure. Chickpeas, soy sauce and amor had opened the door to the heart of the country.
HOW TO FIND YOUR CASA
The casa particular system in Cuba is well developed. Most rooms are clean and modern and some, in former colonial mansions, are decidedly luxurious, with high ceilings, original woodwork and spacious interior gardens. The majority offer private bathrooms. Prices are regulated and average $25 to $40 (the Cuban peso is currently at par with the Canadian dollar) for a room, with optional breakfasts and dinners being offered for $5 to $10. Several agencies are available to book rooms. It is not necessary to reserve rooms ahead of time in all locations as your first host can recommend a place in your next destination. Most casa hosts are also able to arrange a wide variety of activities in the home, from salsa and Spanish lessons to massages and beauty treatments. And, of course, your host will help you find top-notch cigars. Most speak basic English, but knowledge of Spanish will enhance a visit. Two popular and reliable online booking options are cuba-junky.com and hostelbookers.com