Substituting Yam, Yucca, and Cuban Ingenuity for Flour

Caption: Rationed bread sold in the neighborhood of Cojímar, east Havana. (Iliana Hernández)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 4 January 2019 — The old recipes from the Special Period are back in fashion. The lack of flour has led state-owned bakeries to turn to yams, private confectioners opt for recipes with yucca, and more than one family invents some substitute in order to have breakfast.

The shortage of flour has worsened in the last two months despite official promises of a prompt improvement. Cubans have become imbued with the spirit of Nitza Villapol, a well-known chef who, in the 90s, had to improvise dozens of dishes with few resources in front of the cameras of national television.

“For the end of the year we would like to make a panetela (cake) topped with meringue, but we have neither flour nor eggs, so we prefer some yucca buñuelos (fritters),” Silvia Domínguez, a Havana woman of 62 who fears that “the hard years” have returned, tells 14ymedio. The recipe for the dessert that the family finally made took an egg, at least, although they had to add a bit of vinegar with baking soda so that “it would be perfect.”

Croquettes have been one of the classic appetizers in the New Year’s Eve dinner of the Domínguez family, but this year they had to change the flour base for a puree of instant potatoes that they received from an emigrant relative. “When we don’t have it, we have to invent, and in the end we had a nice time at the celebration, but it’s very tiring having to do this every day,” she laments.

The national recipe book of recent decades has been marked by necesssity and it’s habitual that every Cuban knows how to fry an egg without oil, reach the consistency of a flan with half the eggs, or color a yellow rice with multivitamins bought at state-owned pharmacies. But in the case of flour, an ingredient included in many recipes, substitution is more difficult.

Leticia Romero doesn’t like the bread sold on the ration book and prefers to buy it in private bakeries in her neighborhood of Vedado or from unrationed sales at State-owned places, but since November both options have been difficult to find and this 56-year-old woman, who lives with her mother and her sister, has had to settle for the rationed product.

“When they first put it out for sale in the morning there are enormous lines and it’s a lot of work for me to stand in line, because I have to run to get to work,” laments Romero. Two months ago she always bought bread in the afternoons, when she was returning home, but now it’s impossible. “At that time the bakery is a desert and there’s nothing,” she explains to this newspaper.

After experiencing a severe crisis in bread sales at the national level in November and December, Havana has slightly recuperated production of this product in the bakeries of the rationed market and in those of the Cuban Bread Chain it’s possible to buy it at limited hours, although the supply is still not stable and the shortage of flours in stores persists.

In many of the bakery and confectionary businesses of the private sector in the capital, what’s available for sale has diminished. Outside one of them, close to Avenida 26, a customer says that now the only thing there is sweet and salty cookies. “Bread goes fast, those who have private cafes or restaurants take it by the box,” she insists.

In the province of Santiago de Cuba the supply of sweets and breads also improved during the past week, especially the unrationed sale. The government took great pains to improve the supply in the city where the principal ceremony for the 60th anniversary of the Cuban revolution was held. Now, Santiago residents, who also complain of the quality of the rationed product, fear that with the festivities over the supply will collapse.

Katherine Mojena, resident of the Altamira neighborhood, says that the rationed bread has a dark color and a bad flavor. “Those who know say that it’s made of flour from yams. The unrationed bread is not like that. At least not in the most central bakeries. There are almost never bread rolls which are the cheapest. The bread they do have is 3.50 CUP, which is bread with a hard crust, oval-shaped, which here for years we have called ’special’ bread. In convertible pesos there are some wonderful bread rolls: white, soft, a delicious flavor, and an excellent quality.”

In the bakery of Antilla, in the province of Holguín, a sign placed on the door reads: “There is no flour, Happy 2019.” Roberto Santana, a resident of the municipality who shared the image on social media, condemned the situation. “What happiness can there be in a town when the only bakery that sells unrationed bread puts up a sign like this at the beginning of the year? I don’t know whether to call it ignorance or blackmail of the people.”

“If the Government doesn’t pay providers and if they don’t lack bread on their tables, what do you call it? Surely it’s not social equality. This, my friends, is not socialism. There is no happiness without food,” added Santana.

An employee of the bakery, tired of having to give the same answer again and again to customers, explained this Friday via telephone to 14ymedio that the place is not offering any products because it lacks raw material. “Maybe it will come later,” she suggests.

Heriberto Núñez, a candy maker who distributes his merchandise in the municipality San Miguel del Padrón from an old Soviet-era bicycle, resists stopping his business because of the lack of flour. “I’m getting old bread from a state-owned canteen and I process it to make pudding,” he says. “I only need some grated lemon rind, powdered milk, and sugar to make a tasty product.” He doesn’t add eggs “because there aren’t any, not even in spiritual centers.”

Núñez assures that he has a long experience of substituting ingredients. “I worked many years selling tomato sauce the least of which was tomato, because I made it with beets, yams, and coloring,” he remembers. “I’m practiced in this, but if we also lose the old bread, then I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

In the plastic box he carries attached to his bicycle, this Wednesday he was transporting caramel coconut balls, peanut nougat, and yucca fritters. “Nothing with flour, and much less puff pastry sweets, which need quality ingredients. This is the time for sweets in syrup or sugared fruits, but for filled pastries we will have to wait.”

Translated by: Sheilagh Carey


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