CINCO DE CUBA
The island is in news these days as US policy towardHavana thaws. A Beijing restaurant showcases five dishes that will make you an expert on this tropical cuisine, Mike Peters reports.
Even in winter, the atmosphere at Caribeno is warm, thanks to brilliantly colored murals with palm trees and the eager faces of staff members with ethnic roots in the Caribbean, Spain and Africa.
The atmosphere is electric, with a small stage for live music (salsa lessons and dance shows are held on Friday nights). Photos on the wall include ambassadors and entrepreneurs frommany Latin countries, as well as scenes of Havana life, Caribbean beaches and icons like Che Guevara, who looks across the restaurant from an enlarged print of a Cuban 3-peso bill. (Guevara was once head of the central bank.)
The lively bar features creative cocktails made with rum, one of Cuba’s most famous exports. One of the most popular is a sunset-colored treat called “The Hemingway” after the famous American writer who lived inHavana during the 1950s.
The melting pot of cultures in Cuba is vividly reflected in the food. Ropa vieja, a tomato-based stewof shredded beef, is often called Cuba’s national dish, hasits origins in theSephariJewishcommunity of Spain in the 12th century; it evolved in the Canary Islands and finally in Cuba. Seafood salads made lively with mango or avocado. A bright green dipping sauce of parsley is so silky smooth that it makes everything delicious, from roast pork to deep-fried yuca, a fiberous local yam.
Yuca and a combination of black beans and rice are the mostcommonside dishes, but you can also choose a Cuban tamale, steamed in a plantain leaf.
Executive chef Osmani Castillo has been in China for a while, running kitchens in Tianjin and Beijing (including the now-closed but muchmourned Casa Latina at the Solana mall). “I came to China for love,” the big man says with a hearty laugh. Castillo was cooking in a Havana hotel when he met a Chinese businesswoman who was staying there. They’ve been a couple ever since, and Castillo has enjoyed being a tour guide as they visited old Havana, beautiful beaches nearby and scenic spots such as Pinar del Rio and Artemisa.
Finding some of his ingredients in China has taken some ingenuity. “We use the yerba bueno in our mojitos,” he says of the fragrant herb often called Cuban mint. “It was nowhere to be found in the markets, but I was lucky— someone started a patch growing in the garden at the Cuban embassy.” Luckily, the plant grows quickly.
Besides his nation’s iconic rum, fine Cuban cigars are on hand for restaurant patrons as well.
China Daily’s team of food writers recently visited Caribeno to explore the basics of Cuban cuisine. Here are five dishes that show the range of the vibrant food culture. Contact the writer at michaelpeters@ chinadaily.com.cn
Brilliantly colored murals