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Havana : Food, Drink and Culture

Havana the capital city and the leading commercial center of Cuba is a place hard to describe, as many different aspects of its historical past can be seen in its Spanish, European and Soviet Union influenced architecture, colorful American cars, Afro-Cuban religious rituals on the street and the vibrant salsa and rumba music played in every corner of the town, which adds an alluring beauty, that challenges any preconceived thoughts one might have of the city.

Old American cars in Havana
Old American cars in Havana
In this article, we will explore some of the traditional food, drink and the interesting history and culture of Havana, a vibrant yet laid-back Cuban city.

Getting to Know Havana

Originally founded in 1515 on the banks of the Mayabeque River on the southern coast of the island, by Spanish conquistador Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, the settlement which was called 'San Cristóbal de la Habana' moved to its present-day location on the island's north coast by 1519.

The settlement was named after San Cristóbal, patron saint of Havana and the island of Cuba initially served as a base for Spanish conquest of other lands while the harbor of Havana developed as an important trading port.

17th century depiction of Havana
17th century depiction of Havana
Ships from all over the New World carried their products first to Havana, in order to be taken by the fleet to Spain. This also fueled the establishment of Havana's agriculture and manufacture, since the Spanish fleet had to be supplied with food, water, and other products needed to traverse the ocean.

As an important trading port, Havana also suffered regular attacks by buccaneers, pirates, and French corsairs. The first attack and resultant burning of the city was by the French corsair Jacques de Sores in 1555. This led to the construction of the first fortress in Havana by the Spanish Crown.

On December 20, 1592, King Philip II of Spain granted Havana the title of City.

Colonial History in the 17th - 19th centuries

The 17th and 18th centuries saw Havana grow steadily in wealth, size and prominence. New buildings were constructed mainly from wood and other materials available on the island, combining various Iberian architectural styles.

The plantation of sugar increased in the 18th century and many African slaves were imported to the island as laborers. By the middle of the 18th century Havana had become Spain's largest and most active shipyard and only dry-dock in the New World and had more than seventy five thousand inhabitants, making it the third-largest city in the Americas, ranking behind Lima and Mexico City but ahead of Boston and New York.

British invasion of Havana by Richard Paton
British invasion of Havana by Richard Paton
The city was captured by the British in 1762 during the Seven Years' War, a conflict that split Europe into two coalitions, led by the Kingdom of Great Britain on one side and the Kingdom of France supported by the Spanish Monarch on the other. The British immediately opened up trade with their North American and Caribbean colonies, causing a rapid transformation of Cuban society and further expansion of the sugar trade and the population of African laborers.

When the Spanish regained the city a year later in exchange for Florida, they began a building program to upgrade the city's defenses in order to avoid another debilitating siege. A new fortress, La Cabaña was built, making Havana one of the most fortified cities in the New World.

The beginning of the 19th century saw an increase in sugar trade, particularly after the Haitian Revolution and its independence in 1804, when the newly independent state of Haiti retreated from the global sugar market as its residents chose to focus on subsistence farming.

By the mid-19th century, due to the British pressure to abolish slavery, plantation owners transported more than 100,000 Chinese workers to work on the sugar plantations. While slave trade ceased in other parts of the Atlantic after the American Civil War which ended in 1865, the Cuban slave trade continued until 1867.

The 19th century was also a period of steady progress. First came the railway in 1837, followed by public gas lighting in 1848, an urban transport system in 1862, telephones in 1888 and electric lighting in 1890.

The War of Independence

The idea of Cuban Independence started to take shape towards the end of the 19th century. José Martí a writer and philosopher, who was born in Havana with Spanish ancestry, was a key figure for Cuba's fight for independence against Spain. After being deported to Spain in 1878, José Martí moved to the United States in 1881 where he mobilized the support of the Cuban exile community and others who supported the cause. Martí also lobbied against the United States annexation of Cuba, which was desired by some politicians in both the United States and Cuba.

José Martí poses with workers in Tampa, Florida in 1893
José Martí poses with workers in Tampa, Florida in 1893
With the abolition of slavery in October 1886, the number of sugar plantations dropped and the Cuban economy could no longer sustain itself, therefore, many wealthy Cubans lost their property, and joined the urban middle class. The economic power of Spain over its Cuban territory was beginning to decline.

On December 25, 1894, José Martí set sail for Cuba from Florida, with three ships loaded with soldiers and weapons. The uprising finally took place on February 24, 1895. A month later, Martí and Máximo Gómez a Major General, declared the Manifesto de Montecristi, which outlined the policy for Cuba’s war of independence.

Martí was killed shortly in military action on May 19, 1895, at Dos Rios but the fight for independence continued.

In 1896, Spain turned down offers in secret negotiations by the United States to buy Cuba as the war for independence was turning into a heavy burden on its economy. Spain decided to change its policy towards Cuba and installed a new autonomous government in 1897.

In the United States some newspapers had agitated for US intervention, especially because of its large financial investment, and featured sensational stories of Spanish atrocities against the native Cuban population, which were exaggerated for propaganda.

In January 1898, a riot by Cuban Spanish loyalists against the new autonomous government broke out in Havana, and the United States responded by sending the battleship USS Maine to Havana.

Wreckage of the USS Maine in 1898
Wreckage of the USS Maine in 1898
On February 15, 1898, the Maine was rocked by an explosion, killing 258 of the crew and sinking the ship in the harbor. The cause of the explosion is not known till date, but the incident further sparked public support for Cuba as some newspapers fueled American anger by publishing 'atrocities' committed by Spain in Cuba. War was declared in April 1898 by the United States Senate and House to help Cuban patriots gain independence from Spain.

On August 12, the United States and Spain signed a Protocol of Peace, in which Spain agreed to relinquish all claim of sovereignty and title over Cuba. On December 10, 1898, the United States and Spain signed the Treaty of Paris, which recognized Cuban independence.

The American Influence on Cuba

The Treaty of Paris, which recognized Cuban independence also had a few conditions introduced by the United States which gave it the right to intervene militarily in Cuba whenever it saw fit, besides securing a naval base in Guantánamo Bay in order to protect its strategic interests in the region. For many Cuban patriots, the United States had merely replaced Spain as the new colonizer and enemy.

In the early 20th century, Havana which had been physically untouched by the devastating wars of independence had expanded rapidly west along the Malecón and into the formerly off-limits Vedado.

Sloppy Joe's Bar in Havana
Sloppy Joe's Bar in Havana
As sugar, tobacco and rum trade flourished, Cuba had an influx of rich American businesses and tourists at the start of the Prohibition era, and the good times began to roll. By the 1950s Havana was a decadent gambling city and a home to a few American gangsters, such as Meyer Lansky, making their fortunes, while corruption and inefficiency increased in the government. The economic disparity between the rich and the poor also increased.

On March 10, 1952, three months before scheduled elections, Batista a former president and army sergeant, staged a military coup, knowing that his chances of being elected were slim. The opposition leaders within Cuba protested, but Batista was soon recognized by the United States government, who also provided financial, military, and logistical support.

After Batista's military coup, a revolutionary circle formed in Havana around the charismatic figure of Fidel Castro, a gifted orator, who had been due to stand in the cancelled 1952 elections.

The Revolution

After a failed rebel attack on army barracks in Santiago de Cuba in July 1953, Fidel Castro was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment. In February 1955 Batista won the presidency in what were widely considered to be fraudulent elections and in an attempt to please the growing internal opposition agreed to an amnesty for all political prisoners, including Castro.

Che Guevara and Fidel Castro by Alberto Korda
Che Guevara and Fidel Castro by Alberto Korda
Castro fled to Mexico, along with his brother Raúl, believing that he would likely get assassinated if he stayed in Cuba. In Mexico City, Castro and his compatriots started putting a new plan into place and had already drawn new figures such as compatriot Camilo Cienfuegos and Argentine doctor Ernesto 'Che' Guevara, both of whom added strength and leadership to the growing rebel army.

In November 1956, Castro and his companions set sail for Cuba, in an old leisure yacht named Granma to start another uprising. However, their yacht suffered a shipwreck but Castro and his close comrades managed to escape Batista's soldiers and regroup yet again with the help of the local peasants.

In January, 1957 the guerillas led by Fidel scored an important victory against a small army outpost. This was followed by an unsuccessful attack on the Presidential Palace in Havana in March 1957 by the university students. Cuba was rapidly descending into chaos run by a few military trained thugs as support for Batista within the army was declining.

Raúl Castro with Che Guevara
Raúl Castro with Che Guevara
After numerous attacks masterminded by Camilo Cienfuegos and Che Guevara against an inexperienced and ill-disciplined army of Batista, by the end of 1958, the guerillas had successfully won their fight against Batista.

In the early hours of January 1, 1959, Batista fled the country by private plane, while Fidel Castro gave a rousing victory speech in Santiago de Cuba, before traveling to Havana in a motorcade with his comrades. The Revolution had achieved its goal.


Post Revolution

During its first decade in power, the Castro government introduced a wide range of progressive social reforms. Laws were introduced to provide equality for black Cubans and greater rights for women, while there were attempts to improve medical facilities, health, housing, and education. By the end of the 1960s, most Cuban children were receiving some education compared with less than half before 1959, while unemployment and corruption were also reduced.

The political ties between the United States and Cuba started to decline due to the differences in ideology. While the United States wanted a democratic form of Government in Cuba that was in favor of capitalism, Castro believed that social reforms were required to help the country's poorer people.

Bacardi building in Havana
Bacardi building in Havana
Land, farms, businesses, and companies owned by upper and middle-class Cubans were nationalized and many rich Cubans, businesses and also the American mafia fled the country. The famous Art Deco Bacardi building built in 1930 in Havana was also confiscated and nationalized by the government.

After the Cuban revolutionary government nationalized all United States property in Cuba in August 1960, the American Eisenhower administration froze all Cuban assets on American soil, severed diplomatic ties and tightened its embargo of Cuba.

In 1961, the U.S. government backed an armed counter-revolutionary assault on the Bay of Pigs with the aim of ousting Castro, but the counter-revolutionaries were swiftly defeated by the Cuban military.

Following the American embargo, the Soviet Union became Cuba's main ally and trading partner. Cuba maintained close links to the Soviets until the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991. The end of Soviet economic aid led to an economic crisis and famine known as the Special Period in Cuba.

Architecture in Havana

The Architecture in Havana also reflects the different historical periods of Cuba. The buildings in the different neighborhoods of Havana exhibit an assortment of styles based on different influences and ideas.

A colonial house in Havana
A colonial house in Havana
Most of the buildings from the Spanish era are built in baroque and neoclassicism architectural styles. During the period between 1902-59, art deco and modernist styles were widely used by businesses and wealthy families living in the suburbs.

Soviet style building architecture in Havana
Soviet style building architecture in Havana
Post revolution, many apartment buildings and hotels were constructed using Soviet style architecture—flat, block like structures that sit jarringly alongside the beautiful relics of the colonial era.

Traditional Food of Havana

The traditional food of Havana is influenced not only by its diverse inhabitants but also its tropical climate and the sea besides having some similarities with the cuisines of the neighboring Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and the Caribbean.

As a result of the colonization of Cuba by Spain, one of the main influences on the cuisine is from Spain, followed by the influence of the large number of Africans that were brought to Cuba as slaves, who adapted to the food ingredients readily available on the island including the sea.

Other noteworthy influences include the the French colonists that came to Cuba from Haiti and the Chinese who came to work on the sugar plantations.

A farm in Viñales
A farm in Viñales
The tropical climate of Cuba plays an important role in its cuisine as it produces fruits and root vegetables that are used in Cuban dishes and meals. Cuba being an island, seafood also plays an important role in the cuisine, besides beef, chicken and pork that are raised on its local farms.

The United States embargo on Cuba and subsequent communist policies of the Castro regime have often resulted in shortages of different food ingredients for the Cubans.

Every Cuban household has a ration book known as libreta entitling it to a monthly supply of food and other staples, which are provided at nominal cost.

The daily cuisine for most Cubans, is based on the readily available local ingredients like rice, beans and plantains.

Meat, when available on ration book is usually served in light sauces. Mojo a popular garlic sauce with the addition of citrus and oil is a key ingredient in many Cuban dishes. It is used for marinating meat or as a dipping sauce with the fried plantains.

Rice and Beans

Rice and beans are a typical meal which are either cooked together or separately. Black beans or red kidney beans may be used depending on the region and availability.

Platillo 'Moros y Cristianos' means 'Moors and Christians' or simply 'congri' or 'moros' has a deep cultural history. 'Moors' refers to the black beans, and 'Christians' to the white rice, a reference to the the African Muslim governance in the early 8th century of the Iberian Peninsula. The Spanish Christians subsequently forced the Moors from the south of Spain into Africa in the 15th century.

Rice and Beans
Rice and Beans
Traditionally, in the preparation of Moros y Cristianos the rice and the beans are cooked separately to represent white rice as the Christians, and the black beans as the Moors and only mixed when ready to eat. Congrí where both rice and beans are cooked together, more predominantly in the eastern part of Cuba is considered as an African influence.

When the rice and the beans are cooked separately it is commonly called 'arroz con frijoles' (rice with beans) or 'arroz y frijoles' (rice and beans).

Arroz con Pollo

Arroz con Pollo which directly translates to 'chicken with rice' is one of the popular dishes of Cuba.

Arroz con Pollo by Kobako
Arroz con Pollo by Kobako
The rice and chicken are cooked together with fresh herbs and flavorful spices, though each household has their own twist to the recipe.

Ropa Vieja

Ropa Vieja which means 'old clothes' gets its name from the shredded meat resembling old clothes.

Ropa Vieja by Marc Averette
Ropa Vieja by Marc Averette
The dish is made from shredded beef, usually flank steak, that is simmered in deliciously spiced tomato-based criollo sauce until it falls apart.

Boliche

Boliche also called Boliche Mechado is made from a piece of beef, called Eye of Round Roast which is circular, very lean roast from the bottom round.

Boliche by Marc Averette
Boliche by Marc Averette
The beef is stuffed with chorizo, or ham, or bacon, or a combination of any of the three, and layered with onions, green peppers, potatoes and spices.

Plátanos Maduros Fritos

Plátanos Maduros Fritos which means Fried Sweet Plantains are a very popular side dish in Cuban cuisine.

Plátanos Maduros Fritos
Plátanos Maduros Fritos
The plantains are sliced when they are fully ripe and fried in oil. The plantain slices retain a sweet, creamy center and become caramelized around the edges when fried. This side dish makes a good accompaniment to rice and beans, roasted pork, or both.

Traditional Drink of Havana

Rum which is produced in Cuba is a popular drink. It is also the basic ingredient in cocktails in many Cuban restaurants like Cuba Libre, Daiquiri, Mojito, Cubanitos etc.

A famous cocktail bar in Havana
A famous cocktail bar in Havana
Havana Club is a famous brand of rum created in Cuba in 1934 by Jose Arechabala S.A. company, a family-owned distillery . The distillery was nationalized by the Castro government in 1960 after the revolution. Since 1994 it has been produced in Cuba and sold globally, except the United States by Havana Club International, a joint venture between Pernod Ricard a French company and the Cuban government.

Besides rum, beer is also a popular beverage in Cuba. The two well known Cuban brands are Cristal and Bucanero.

Cubans are also very proud of their coffee industry. Café Cubano also known as Cuban espresso is a type of espresso that originated in Cuba. The espresso shot is sweetened with natural raw sugar as it is being brewed. Café con Leche which is strong coffee mixed with hot milk is a traditional breakfast coffee that is drunk by most Cuban families.

Culture of Havana

The culture of Havana reflects its historical past which is primarily influenced by the cultures of its inhabitants with ancestral ties to Spain and Africa.

Though the United States embargo on Cuba and the communist policies of the Castro regime have affected the standard of living, it has also allowed Cubans to focus on their natural talents and express them through artistic forms of music, dancing and various crafts.

Havana street musicians
Havana street musicians
After the 1959 revolution, the government started a national literacy campaign, offered free education to all and established sports, ballet and music programs. Most of these programs are a source of cultural pride, identity and expression for the Cuban families.

The Cuban National Ballet founded by the Cuban ballerina Alicia Alonso in 1948 with funding from Fidel Castro's government is considered to be one of the premier ballet institutions in the world known for its emphasis on beauty, expression, strength and precision. Many of the school's students go on to become some of the top ballet dancers in the world, valued for their rigorous training, technique and the uniquely Cuban style that combines European flair with Afro-Cuban influences.

Gran Teatro de La Habana
Gran Teatro de La Habana
Cuban music which is a rich confluence of African, European and Latin influences is an important expression of Cuban culture and identity. The central form of this music is Son, whose emergence significantly increased the interaction of African-derived and Hispanic-derived cultures and led to the creation of many other musical styles like mambo, cha-cha-chá and salsa music.

Rumba at Callejon de Hamel
Rumba at Callejon de Hamel
Cuban Rumba has roots in Afro-Cuban religion and this Afro-Cuban culture can be seen at Callejon de Hamel in Centro Habana every Sunday, where musicians and dancers perform the rumba as part of their Santeria rituals. Santeria is an Afro-Cuban religious tradition that originated in what is today Nigeria and Benin in West Africa.

Cuban classical music, which has a strong African and European influence, has received international acclaim thanks to composers like Ernesto Lecuona.

In December 2012, the Cuban government officially banned reggaeton songs from radio and television that explicitly refer to sexual acts or objectify women.

A game of dominoes
A game of dominoes
The game of Dominoes is a big part of daily Cuban social life that combines competition with companionship. Cubans frequently play the game in parks and other public areas while sipping a coffee or smoking a cigar and discussing various topics of interest or the day's activities.

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