There’s an old joke that used to make the rounds in Cuba that went something like: What are the three greatest failures of Fidel’s Revolution? Breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Following the Cuban Revolution of 1959, Fidel Castro banned all private economy in Cuba. It wasn’t until the Special Period that a wave of economic reforms were introduced in 1993, including self-employment in the restaurant industry. This started the paladares movement of private restaurants, which people ran out of their own homes. At first, the Cuban government imposed a number of strict rules on them—they could only have a maximum of 12 covers, for instance, and at least two members of a family had to work as employees—but after Raul Castro took power in 2011, the laws were relaxed to enable paladares to expand in scale and ambition.
In 2005, when I visited the island, the country was slowly emerging from the Special Period. It was a challenging time of economic hardship that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had until then provided Cuba with vital economic and agricultural support. Food was sparse, rations were basic, and fresh produce was hard to come by. Back then, it’s fair to say that while there were many reasons to visit Cuba, food wasn’t one of them.
A lot has changed in Cuba since those days. The country’s gone through a major culinary renaissance through these privately owned paladares that are now leading the way in modern Cuban cooking.
In Paladares: Recipes Inspired by the Private Restaurants of Cuba, writer Anya von Bremzen and photographer Megan Fawn Schlow take us into the heart of these new enterprises, featuring 14 paladares that range from mom and pop–style home dining rooms to modern mini-restaurants dishing out molecular gastronomy. Cuba’s food storytellers range from chefs who have cooked for Fidel themselves; to Spanish expats who once came for a visit, fell in love with the country, and stayed; to young, local hipsters who have embraced the island’s culture through movies and magazines.
The recipe I’ve chosen to share is one that I can imagine enjoying in the shade of a garden on a hot day: Avocado & Green Apple Gazpacho. It comes from a chef named Javier Gomez, who cooks at Paladar Elite in Havana. I’ve adapted it slightly to boost the apple content (a scarce ingredient in Cuba, as the chef is quoted saying in the recipe's headnote: “To you an apple might be nothing special...but for Cubans, it’s a big deal—a rarity!”), and in place of Persian cucumbers and Cubanelle peppers, I’ve used regular cucumbers and bell peppers, which are more accessible to the home cook.
Or maybe try some falafel
This gazpacho is a perfect light starter and an example of the innovation and creativity coming out of Cuba’s exciting new generation of chefs. Eat this and you’ll be transported to the spacious Malecóon promenade, where you can hear the sounds of Cubaton blasting from passing cars, smell the scent of fried plantains wafting through the air, and feel the charm of a beautiful, complex island where culinary life is all about making the best of the ingredients you have on hand.
- 2 ripe Hass avocados
- 2 tart apples such as Granny Smiths, peeled, cored, and cut
- 1 red bell pepper, cored, deseeded, and cut into quarters
- 6 ounces cucumber
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 baby shallots, peeled and cut in half
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
- 600 milliliters cold water
- 4 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
- 5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for garnish
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- 2 teaspoons sea salt
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
- Small handful red grapes, halved, for garnish
Gazpacho, yay or nay? Tell us in the comments below!