Cuban Fast Food / Ivan Garcia #Cuba

A fried food cart in Havana
A fried food cart in Havana

Lacking McDonald’s, Burger King or Kentucky Fried Chicken, fast food par excellence in 21st Century Cuba is fried foods and croquettes made from unknown ingredients.

All over Havana there are thousands of cars fitted out with rustic kitchen, dedicated to frying and selling fried food and croquettes by weight. There are those like Ignacio who make the bulk of their fried foods with flour, salt and chives. Jose Antonio, meanwhile, only adds an industrial mixed seasoning. And Yoana prefers to create with yams or ground corn.

It doesn’t taste bad if it’s eaten hot.

Although the cold foods are something else. A greasy cardboard ball that tastes like plastic. In the capital, the croquettes aren’t usually made by the stall owners. They buy them wholesale from the specialized fishmongers. Reselling them, they earn a 50% return on the money invested.

Food is cheaper right now if you can buy it in national money. A package with ten croquettes costs five pesos (national money). Affordable for almost every budget. Although nobody knows for sure what they’re made of.

Some say it’s claria or catfish. Others say they are made with fish remnants. And someone who claims to have worked in a center where they are made, ensures that the croquettes are processed chicken skins. Whatever. They are the wildcard food of elderly, pensioners, students, homeless, unemployed and workers.

The same “mystery” croquettes you eat for breakfast, you send with your kids to school for a snack. They’re also common for lunch and dinner, next to the inseparable white rice, mashed peas or black beans and tomato salad.

If the fried food vendors don’t own their cart, they rent it for 50 pesos a day from guys who usually have several. Before sunrise, the fry cooks are heating oil in a large cast iron pot. Then, with the heat on high, they fry little balls of dough. A hundred with the same oil. The croquettes are cooked over medium heat.

Some fry cooks sell the croquettes alone, a peso each. The most ingenious offer bread with two croquettes for five pesos. The tropical fast good usually comes with “koolaid” at two pesos a glass. Hundreds of students and workers, on the way to schools and factories, eat this food on the run. And is this is because, for decades, breakfast has been a rare bird on the island

From “rooster soup” to “extended hash.”

For most Cubans, breakfast with scrambled eggs with bacon or ham, toast with butter, orange juice and coffee or chocolate, is something of wealthy executives and ministers. Or just an extravaganza of foreign films.

The normal breakfast here is coffee without milk, 2.8 ounces of bread per capita on the ration book with a thin smear of homemade mayonnaise or oil and garlic.

The fryers entered the hall of fame in the ’90s, the hard years of the “Special Period.” It was a time when food emergencies led people to alleviate hunger with infusions of grapefruit peels or orange leaves. Or warm water with brown sugar, the famous “rooster soup.”

There were some lazy rogues who made money selling pizzas with Chinese condoms melted on them instead of cheese. At that time, people lost pounds like they were in a Finnish sauna, and exotic diseases like beri beri or optic neuritis made their appearance.

That’s when the olive-green autocracy pulled out a list of trash patented by nutrition experts. In  laboratories they designed foods to fool the stomach: goose pasta, “hot dogs” made of who knows what, skinned dogs, meat mass (without any meat), Cerelac, chocolate with powdered milk and Mexican tacos allegedly stuffed with black beans.

The father of all these inventions was Fidel Castro, a tireless food investigator who at age 86 proudly declared that Moringa (a kind of tree) is the quintessential Cuban dish in the future. The crowning glory was a hash, made with leftover meat from beef, pork or chicken, and filled out with 60% soy. Its official name was “extended hash,” but people called it “soy mince.”

Havana’s butchers went missing. At night, stealthily, they’d poured gallons of water into containers filled with a nauseating hash. The concoction “grew,” according to them, without losing its qualities. It is, perhaps, the only food patented in Cuba that approached the biblical parable of multiplying the loaves and fishes.

For now, the hard years are over. But the issue of the food is still the number one priority of Cubans.

Without McDonald’s, Burger King and KFC fried chicken, the fried dough and the croquettes of unknown ingredients are the fashion in Havana. They can’t compare to sandwich in Miami, a potato omelette in Madrid or a Turkish kebab in Berlin. But they’re sold in bulk all over the city.

23 January 2013

From Diario de Cuba.