In January of 2016, we traveled down to Santiago de Cuba to report on the slow but steadily growing tourist industry of Cuba's second largest city. Santiago is much smaller than Havana. Though it's on the ocean, it's not a place to travel for a beach vacation. It lacks the typical plethora of retail that grounds a modern tourist economy. In the absence of commerce, you see the results of Cuba's constraints as an embargoed island, as well as the limits of a centralized economy trying to survive America punishing policies.
Basic goods are in short supply. Shops sell bottled drinks and canned goods. The market for fruits, vegetables and pastries seemed dominated by roving street peddlers. Meats were either butchered fresh or raised privately. But there's no lack of flavor here. Food is good, whether it's pastries, fruits, meats, or rum. All agriculture in Cuba is organic, due to the America's embargo on pesticides. The other organic quality is the spirit. Sitting on the far east side of the island, Santiago is a port. Like many shipping towns, it has rich culture. Once Cuba's capital, Santiago is where Castro launched the revolution.
Today the city's DNA seems grounded in music and dance. There's salsa. There's son. There's timba. There's reggaeton. There's rumba. People gather in parks and street corners to listen to it live or via radios. And the dancing seems as natural as sitting, not relegated to a certain age group or body size. Big, short, old, young, music and dance seem part of the city's daily landscape. As often with places where people gather around music and dance, you also find eating and drinking – even if in small portions.
We stayed at Casa GG, a lovely private home that rents out as a "casa particular," one of the many legally allowed to rent rooms (found on AirbnB). Owner Michel Lara arranged for some special meals, inviting his friend Chef Mileidy Aren to cook us several meals. Michel is a terrific cook, Mileidy is excellent. She's someone who brings radiance to the kitchen, her cooking consistently fragrant, surprising and delicious. While Mileidy grew up in Santiago, she ended up marrying an Italian (also a chef) and moved to Italy for some time. Ultimately, she missed home and returned to Santiago. Now fluent in Italian as well as Spanish, she speaks little English, but over the course of a few days, it was easy to get her sense of humor, smarts, and thoughtfulness. On our last night in Santiago, we sat down to ask her a few questions. We did not have a lot of time. But here is what she shared in response to our questions.
Who are the influences that led you to become a chef?
From an early, early age, it was the grandmothers and grandparents who people celebrated – their cooking was the most important part of the day. And that's what influenced me. I was raised by my grandparents. Their influence was not only in their cooking but in other areas. For example, with medicine. Green medicine was something my grandmother was interested in. Natural plants used as medication.
You say people celebrate their grandparents, and that their cooking was the most important part of the day. Is that aspect of the day particular to Santiago or part of Cuba, in general?
In Cuba, the grandparents are the ones who take a big role in raising kids. Because the parents are busy and have no other options but to let the grandparents get involved. I had a strong relationship with my grandmother, I related so much to her. She was always teaching me in the kitchen, teaching over us making meals.
What were some of the foods you remember her making?
One of the main dishes was rice and chicken together, like a paella. It was exceptional. The flavors. Really exceptional!
Also the cookies from coconut that she would sell in the neighborhoods.
She was cooking for other people too?
Mainly pastries. She was involved in pastries to help out with some sort of income. The rest of the cooking was just for the family.
Where did your grandmother learn to cook and bake?
She came from a farm family. She grew up on a small farm in the mountains. That’s how it’s taught. Cooking is transferred just by watching how other’s cook. That’s how she learned. It is how I learned.
At what age did you think you'd want to cook professionally?
Prior to moving to Italy. I wanted to be involved in cooking. I liked to mix ingredients. Then moving to Italian, there cooking was a means of getting a job. And then you look for ways to be recognized.
You married a chef. Was that one of the attractions – that he was a chef?
No, the man I married, it was not that he was a chef. It was that he liked to entertain people with cooking. It was something we shared. It was a good connection. We've been married for 18 years.
What were your first thoughts moving from Cuba to Italy when it came to food?
The Italian kitchen has such a variety in food. My mother-in-law was a great chef. They all are, all the Italian moms and grandmothers. They share a lot about what they cook. Such as making pasta from nothing. That's how I learned to do it. From them.
They still made their pasta at home?
Yes. Today it seems younger people prefer to go to the market and buy pasta ready made. But we made it at home. Over time I got to understand how the world of pasta was different in Italy. Different than pasta in Cuba. That the pasta is cooked for a precise time, al dente, which involves some techniques you can only get by being there in the kitchen with those women and experiencing their way of cooking.
What did you most miss being away from Santiago?
What I missed was the aroma of the food. The aromas that can trigger that sense of Santiago. Those aromas are important triggers.
What were the food that offered those triggers?
The way we stir fry everything. With the garlic, the onions, the sauces, the mixes for yucca, the vinegary dressing that we use for meals that are particular to the Cuban culture. Being far away from your family will always make you remember things that you took for granted. Being far away brings back memories from the past.
What memories did the food bring back?
How food brought people together in Santiago. Especially when we are cooking the traditional Cuban food. We didn't care what the weather was outside. We all came together and enjoyed it. The memories were of savoring the food and the tradition.
It sounds like food for you is about flavor but it's also about feelings, about emotions.
Yes. Yes. It's true. For me going in the kitchen is an act of joy and relaxing. Even when I'm stressed out or the day is not going well, by doing something with my hands in the kitchen, it relieves that tension and I find it comforting getting into a kitchen and cooking.
(I can attest to this. Watching Mileidy cook, she was a bundle of joy. A calm uplifting presence).
When you think of the food in Santiago, what's special?
There's a dish, a mix of rice and beans. It’s simple but delicious. It depends on the area what they call it but in Santiago they call Congri- but in other areas they call it Moros. My grandmother cooked it in a cast iron pot. It was so good I can still clearly remember the crispy part at the bottom of the iron cast. Everyone wanted to be the last person served so they could enjoy that crispy rice. The name was Raspa, which is the end rice that's burned in the bottom of the pot.
If there were people who had never been here, been to Santiago, if you wanted them to have a really good Santiago food experience, what would you want them to eat?
The "Congri. Mariquitas. Yucca." The salads. The traditional Creole Cuban meals which are the rice and beans. And then plantain, tostones. That's the first meal I'd recommend to try. Obviously made by someone who know the kitchen.
Or then "chatinos" and tamales. Chatinos are made out of smashed plantains and filled with other things and they add mantequilla, which are thin slices of plantain fried in oil. If they're thick, they have a technique where they fill them with cheese or meat. They also make thin slices of plantain called "maraquitas."
And then there's yucca. Cassava. Which they boil and they add a mojito, a dressing from a couple of garlic cloves, lemon juice or vinegar and oil and grapefruit juice. It’s delicious. Everyone should try it. (Her eyes light up as she describes it, and, as simple as it sounds, you get the sense of something delicious from her full warm smile.)
You also cooked "malanga." You fried it. That was something I loved.
Malanga is made in a different way. People sometimes combine two taro roots. Another is "yame." It’s something that you grind. They make that at Christmas. You flavor it. Some people want it garlicky, some people like it with onion. Other just like it with salt and you make it in balls and you fry it.
What kind of oil?
People like to deep fry it with pork fat. Because of the flavor. I know it's not healthy but the things that are worst are often what people like to eat.
There's a lot of pork eaten here.
The pork meat is number one.
You say that it's number one. What are the other meats, number two, three…?
Chicken. Lamb. They make lamb here with beer. It’s very good. Beer is the most common factor to cook the lamb. Sometimes they use wine but there is not much wine.
Is the beer just used for lamb?
The beer? Yes, lamb.
Why is that?
Lamb here is considered to have a particularly strong flavor and taste, well, to add beer, it will diminish the tendency of that strong flavor.
In the US, lamb is expensive. Is it cheap here?
No, but everyone doesn't go for it. They say lamb is for people who are on medical diets – people who have low level of – anemia – they are supposed to eat it on a regular basis. Kids, rather than eating pork, they say try eating lamb.
There’s not much. They sell it in the market at a very expensive rate but also people on the black market sell it. People who work in grocery factories, they take it on the side and sell it black market. They're trying to enforce this law where if there's a lack of meat due to the embargo, they think it will go out of control. They think if people go to jail, it will decrease the illegal activities.
Tell me, Santiago seems like a city of music. Does music at all impact the food here?
Yes. I think it is impossible to separate these two things. Because Santiago is the city of rhythm – the city of son. And so – here – we combine music with food. Wherever you go where there's music, there's happiness. Wherever you go where there’s happiness, people are sharing food. Wherever people are sharing food, people are enjoying music. Rhythm. You know that Cuban women have a wiggle when they walk. It's distinctive. Well, they say here "if you cook the same way you walk, I will eat it all."
Besides music, it’s also a port city. How much does being a port impact its food and cooking?
There's a lot of secrets going on when it comes to food in this city. Because it is surrounded by water and ports. There's always an interest in getting to know more about cooking and where people go and stop by because of the cooking. Because of where people come from. It's a relationship between the town and its food.
They say also also that fruits and vegetables, the flavor is different and the texture is more enjoyable in Santiago. Especially if you grow up in the mountains of Santiago – because of the actual daylight and sun versus trying a mango in Havana. There can be a huge difference in flavor.
If you could invite people to come visit what experience would you like to give them around food?
I would try to push the limit with traditional Cuban food. Again, the same food I mentioned – the typical rice and beans and the pork. Tostones. The plantains. Mantequillas. And the yucca with the mojito. But made by someone who loves to cook. Someone for whom it is a joy.
- If you want a great place to stay in Santiago, check out Casa GG, or get in touch with it's co-owner and Michel's partner, Kyall Glennie.
- Below is a video I put together from shots of Santiago.