The allure of Cuba is strong. With incredible food, vibrant music, and colorful architecture it’s no wonder that it’s long drawn artists, writers, chefs and travelers from around the world to soak in its warmth and inspiration. And with the re-introduction of flights to Havana from major US cities, it’s become a popular destination for American tourists once again.
The Inspiration for Comida Cubana
Kriebel is an artist and home cook with a background in cultural anthropology and Spanish language. After the success of her first cookbook, Mi Comida Latina, her publisher asked if she wanted to create another illustrated cookbook about Cuba. She was happy to oblige and over the course of a year traveled to the island for three extended stays, during which time she learned from home cooks throughout the country, illustrating her experiences along the way.
Back home in Washington, DC, Kriebel cooked with Cuban-Americans to gain even further perspective as she tested (and re-tested!) the recipes and designed the visuals. “The result,” she says, “is an illustrated cookbook that celebrates culture, through the lens of food, from the perspective of a person learning along the way. Comida Cubana is full of home-cooked recipes, short stories from my cooking experiences, and features my own watercolors on every page. It’s an art piece and a cookbook in one.”
We talked to Kriebel about Cuban kitchen hacks, the popularity of pressure cookers and her tips for anyone thinking of visiting. Read on for the full interview.
Beyond inspiration, how did you go about conducting the research for your book?
MK: I first worked with Maria Gonzalez, a Cuban American home cook, who shared over 60 family recipes with me which I cooked here in the US before making my first three trips to Cuba.
I traveled to Cuba with Veterans for Peace initially, which was a great intro into Havana. Afterwards, I rented an apartment in Havana Central for a month. It was through connections through friends from the US and my Cuban fixer, where I got to know chefs, home cooks and cooked even at local cooking schools.
When people became familiar with the project, the word spread throughout families that there was an American that is making a book about home cooking in Cuba and that I wanted to learn from them. For many people in Cuba, they want to form bonds with Americans, despite the fundamental differences between out two governments.
How did that influence the way people cook in Cuba? Any cool swaps you learned that help people make do when they can’t get quite the ingredient they want?
MK: Butter is tough to find, so people use margarine or vegetable oil exclusively in baking. People will often use powdered milk as it has a much longer shelf life and you can find it at the state run supermarkets. Many of the classic dishes that call for beef, like ropa vieja, we exchanged for pork which is much more readily available for Cubans, as it takes a lot more resources to grow a cow. They also have many many varieties of starches, which they call viandas, and many Cubans will use these interchangeably: sweet potatoes, ñame, guapen (breadfruit), yuca, boniato, and calabaza to name some. These act as main ingredients in dishes like ajiaco.
Are pressure cookers popular in Cuba?
MK: In Cuba, many people make one-pot meals, so the pressure cooker is super conducive to meal prep everyday. People use the pressure cooker for beans, sure, but in addition they cook large cuts of meat and even make flan in the pressure cooker. It reduces energy consumption significantly, and reduces the cooking time for many recipes to minutes instead of hours. I always tell people, learning to cook Cuban for me was just as much about learning the recipes as it was an education in the pressure cooker.
How irregular are the food supplies in Cuba?
MK: Certain things can be tough to find, but this varies depending when you’re looking and where you are. I was doing a lot of cooking in 2016 in Havana, and I had several recipes I had planned to make week by week with my collaborators there (mostly home cooks). Generally speaking, if you know you need pantry goods that don’t need to be fresh, then you buy them for the next week, for example. One time I had to go to five different stores to find baking flour, which took most of my afternoon. Vegetable oil is everywhere, but olive oil is much more rare to find, and quite expensive for people.
Cuba is the largest island in the Caribbean. Is fish a big part of the diet?
MK: To prepare fresh fish in the home in Havana, in my experience, you needed to know someone who has a direct connection to a fisherman. Seafood isn’t typically present in the argicolas (outdoor markets). On the east coast, in Baracoa, more Cubans had access to it in this small fishing town, but it was still the kind of thing you’d buy from a family and not in the market.
You ask around and eventually go to someone’s home to purchase it. They usually have a small quantity, and it doesn’t hang around too long. In restaurants targeted to tourists, however, you can find fish on the menu. Meaning that most fisherman sell their catch directly to the restaurants at premium prices in CUCs (the currency used by tourists) as opposed to the local peso, which has much less value.
What is the restaurant scene like in Cuba?
MK: The restaurant scene has grown from a handful of state-run establishments in the 90s to many paladares aimed at tourists wanting a more interesting dining experience. These privately run establishments offer everything from langosta (grilled lobster) to Cuban-Chinese food. As time goes on, Cuba’s restaurant scene continues to improve. But for me, nearly all of my most memorable food experiences were not in restaurants, from stirring a pot of beans with a Cuban abuelita in her home to buying a fresh coconut or seafood cocktail from a street vendor on the coast.
Your book has a fun section on “Cuban kitchen hacks” – using a kitchen item in more than one way. What are your favorites?
MK: In terms of kitchen prep, we used wet newspaper to act as a nonstick surface, and water bottles with holes poked in them for salad dressing dispensers for mojo. To combine dry ingredients when baking, we would use a colander to sift everything together.
Overall, how did your time in Cuba change the way you cook on a daily basis or at home?
MK: I am much more conscious of using everything I buy at the market to minimize food waste. I try to buy exactly what I need for recipes so that things don’t hang around. In addition, my experience reinforced the idea that recipes are only a framework for cooking. The ingredients may change, and retooling a recipe on the fly is part of the creative process in the kitchen. That is okay!
Any tips for people thinking about visiting Cuba?
MK: Go! Cubans are some of the warmest, most genuinely happy people I’ve ever met. I recommend staying in a casa particular (accommodations rented from a Cuban), because it puts you in a position to get to know locals. Make sure to take them up on the breakfast they offer, as it is usually quite a spread including fresh fruit, bread, tortilla de huevo (omelette), cheese, and strong coffee.
For more info on Marcella Kriebel’s cooking experiences and food illustration, check her out on Instagram @marcellakriebel or her blog at marcellakriebel.com.
Note: Comida Cubana‘s publisher, Burgess Lea Press cookbooks, is donating all after-expense profits to the nonprofit, Wholesome Wave.