“Our business is down 70 percent,” Havana restaurateur Niuris Higueras told a group of Nation magazine travelers who were spending their final evening of a weeklong spring tour in Cuba at her renowned eatery, El Atelier. “We may have to reduce staff,” she sadly noted, after a major boom in US-generated business following Barack Obama’s history-making rapprochement with Raúl Castro.
Culinary entrepreneurs such as Higueras, along with other Cuban businesses catering to US tourists, have been hit hard by the sharp shift in relations under the Trump administration. In the first quarter of 2018, travel from the United States to Cuba dropped by more than half the numbers from the year before—a reaction to widespread confusion over Trump’s harsh rhetoric, tweaks to travel regulations, and alarmist travel “alerts” issued by the State Department in the wake of health problems suffered by US personnel in Havana. Major tour providers, such as National Geographic, whose groups often frequent better eating establishments such as El Atelier, have been forced to cancel trips.
The Cuba travel industry is scrambling to convince potential travelers that going to Cuba remains perfectly legal and absolutely safe, and to implement colorful marketing strategies to attract US tourists. The State Department’s August 23 decision to soften its travel advisory from “level 3” (reconsider travel) to “level 2” (exercise increased caution), putting Cuba in the same category as popular destinations like France, Germany, Italy, and Denmark should prove useful in the campaign to revive US travel to the island.
But so too will the publication of an enticing new book, A Taste of Cuba: A Journey Through Cuba and Its Savory Cuisine. Compiled by photographer Cynthia Carris Alonso, A Taste of Cuba is really three books in one: first, a photography book filed with eye-catching images of places, people, and tasty-looking traditional and modern dishes such as malanga fritters, ropa vieja, and sweet guava shells with cream cheese; second, a visual travel guide through Havana’s enchanting neighborhoods, as well as Cuba’s other main cities and provinces which highlights the best culinary stops along the way; and third, a comprehensive recipe book of both well-known and lesser-appreciated Cuban cuisine that includes beverages such as the classic mojito and the famous Hemingway daiquiri.
Carris Alonso, along with her co-authors José Luis Alonso and Valerie Feigen, have tested all 75 of the recipes in this book, translating Cuban cooking traditions and longtime family recipes into doable dishes. They also tried to replicate the inventive techniques that Cuban chefs often use in a country where traditional cooking tools and appliances are scarce, and where creating virtue out of necessity when cooking is an ever-present challenge. It was “our job,” Feigen writes in a chapter titled “The Test Kitchen and the Cuban Pantry,” “to really decode each chef’s process and passion, while recording it clearly and faithfully.”