From creamy coffee to fresh guava, Cuban breakfast was a perfect way to start the day
I landed in Havana, Cuba on a bright, humid morning at 10 a.m. on a flight of Cuban expats and American tourists. Swarms of Cubans waited at the exit from security to find their family members, tour guides with name signs awaited tour group members, and tourists leisurely flagged down taxis. We located a driver to take us to our casa particular in Havana. As we drove, I explained that I was interested in Cuban food.
“What is breakfast like?” I inquired.
“Toast and café con leche,” he replied off-handedly, implying that breakfast was not a major meal. “Maybe eggs, ham, fruit, and cheese for holidays or special occasions.”
In the stories I’d heard from friends and bloggers, they cautioned that Cuba was not a foodie destination. Most accounts made Cuban food out to be bland and repetitive. However, after eight days visiting the alluring island just 90 miles south of Miami, I can report that Cuban food wasn’t comprised of the lackluster meals I’d been warned about—at least not entirely. Rather, I was pleasantly surprised by the local dishes that, like most Caribbean cuisines, are based on starches, pork products, and fresh fruit.
I soon learned that every morning as a tourist in Cuba would be a special occasion. Most casa particulares serve breakfast to guests as part of their stay. It is bountiful, delicious, and in fact a very big deal. We stayed in three different homes during our trip, experiencing three variants on Cuban breakfast, which I felt reflected the hosts of each.
La Casa de Mary
Every morning at Mary’s home, we wandered on to their sun-streaked porch where we found a small table set with a flowered table cloth and laden with food: plates of fruit and tomatoes, a bowl of white toast, tabs of butter, jam, fresh pineapple juice, milk, and instant coffee. After being asked how we like our eggs, omelets were whipped up and served alongside slices of ham and cheese. I felt somewhat like a contestant on Man vs. Food, trying to consume as much of the spread as possible.
We had two coffee cups. One small cup for a bitter espresso and a larger one for café con leche. For the uninitiated, in Latin America café con leche could more aptly described as leche con café. For a scant teaspoon of instant coffee grounds, you pour in a healthy cup of warm milk, making for a thick, creamy drink.
The care in breakfast preparation was evident in the bite-size cubes of pineapple, guava, and watermelon on our plates. The bitty bananas tasted as sweet as candy with the consistency of softened butter. The vibrancy—in color and taste—of the pineapple and guava was easily my favorite part of breakfast.
My hypothesis is that all tomatoes in Cuba are effectively heirlooms. They have a meaty flavorful acidity, like the very best tomatoes at the farmer’s market in late July. And Cuban produce has not been mixed with any genetically modified Monsanto seeds. You cannot get tomatoes like this in Boston in the winter, so I was perfectly happy to snack on slices of them throughout the week at nearly every meal.
Mary’s husband had worked as a government official and now her daughter is a traditional Cuban musician, so they were a patriotic family. The care Mary put into her breakfasts felt like an initiation to Cuban breakfasts, like we were welcomed into her traditional family. Her food was a reflection of her: understated and generous.
After four days in Havana, we took a taxi to Trinidad, a small, coastal town on the southern shore. Italians and Swedes have been vacationing here for over a decade, and the town has developed to indulge tourists. We had our own apartment with a shady terrace complete with a kitchenette and wrought iron patio furniture. This was where, every morning, Yisel and Diana— friends who ran a vacation rental business—cooked breakfast and laid it out for us atop a pressed white tablecloth.
Fresh coffee was brewed and served alongside warm milk, each in its own thermos. The unpasteurized milk separated in the heat making thin, bitter clouds in the coffee. I don’t consider myself a coffee aficionado, but this wasn’t great. I skipped coffee the following days, thankful that I’ve never developed a caffeine dependency.
The breakfasts included plates of sliced papaya, orange, pineapple, and tomatoes, fresh orange juice, thick ham (like Cuban country ham), bread, honey, and dessert. We also had fried eggs unlike any fried eggs I’d had before. Instead of the traditional thin, crispy egg whites you have in American diners, the whites were thick and spongey. The yolks nestled in the whites didn’t ooze all over the plate when popped. Instead, they gently leaked on top of the pillowy whites. I liked them, because they didn’t slip off your fork the way thin egg whites do.
We also were served dessert—a little cake—with breakfast (which I usually just wrapped in napkins for later, because I was so stuffed from everything else). Appropriate for the beach town, it looked like it was covered in sand. Of course, it was just sugar. The layers of cream had subtle flavors of pineapple. The cake itself was a light sponge with hints of coconut. It was like a cake version of a piña colada, which felt like a luxurious way to start the day.
The spread of food was very similar, but between the table setting and serving, this felt like a fancier meal than we had at Mary’s. Yisel and Diana let themselves onto the porch through the adjoining fence to prepare breakfast for us every morning. Everything was served on pearly white plates. They created a spread that seemed aware of the European tourists who descend upon the town. Instead of sharing the local cuisine, they were catering to their customer’s own comforts.
To fly back to the U.S., we returned to Havana for one night and booked an AirBnB that had favorable reviews and a taxi service to the airport. What we didn’t realize beforehand was how generous our hosts would be. The three siblings, Pedro, Jorge and Alyce, who opened their home to guests were welcoming, gregarious, and would make a great sitcom. Pedro acclimated guests to their home. Jorge managed the finances. And Alyce was in charge of breakfast and was incredibly proud of her cooking.
Paradio Rojo was a larger operation. They had five different groups staying with them, so we cycled into breakfast in shifts. Instead of individually set plates, we served ourselves from platters, family style. Like our other hosts in Cuba, breakfast included a variety of fruits, cured meats, white toast, and eggs. They also served pickled green beans and a thin yogurt. This was the most variety we’d seen.
Unfortunately, our breakfast here was more rushed, because there was a Swedish family waiting to eat their breakfast after us and because we had to get to the airport. As we gobbled food and gulped down fresh guava juice, Alyce replenished the platters, scrambled eggs, and chatted with us.
We commented on how beautiful the spread was, and we now understood all the rave reviews on AirBnb. She paused, smiling. Alyce described how she had one guest, a very proper woman, who told her that her breakfast was perfect. “Perfect!” She exclaimed, very pleased with herself. “And from such a fine lady, it was an honor.”
Pedro also displayed pride in the spread. He insisted that we try the bumpy mandarin oranges. I hadn’t paid them much attention, because they were not as vibrantly orange as the clementines I eat religiously through the winter. Pedro explained that produce is only available when it is in season, they do not have mass imports of food like we do in the U.S. As such, mandarin oranges were no longer available in Havana. These mandarins he had picked up himself when he had made a trip to the eastern end of the island, where they were still in season. He was jubilant that he could share this special treat. The sweetness of the mandarin wedges studded with many seeds reminded me of the fruit’s freshness. An orange to be proud of.
The week I spent in Cuba delighted me. While our breakfasts were not elaborate bottomless brunches, they showcased the beautiful produce of Cuba and—even more than that—Cubans’ hospitality. Breakfast welcomed me into people’s homes, lives, and culture. All produce and meat raised in Cuba are chosen and allotted by the government, so there are limitations on the variety of ingredients available, and things do run out. This isn’t the fancy food of the aristocracy. It is food of the people, clearly made for daily living, and reflects the fundamental goals of the Cuban revolution. While I may not don a Che Guevara hat anytime soon, I will say, when it comes to breakfast, viva la revolución!
Emily Arsen, Extra Crispy
January 17, 2017