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.

China Daily (Canada) - - FRONT PAGE -

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

PHO­TOS BY MIKE PETERS AND DONG FANGYU / CHINA DAILY

Bril­liantly col­ored mu­rals

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