Flavor and Fortune Summer 2002
by Harley Spiller
ICUBAN CHINESE FOOD: CLOSE BUT NO CIGAR;
THE FIFTH FESTIVAL OF CHINESE IN CUBA, MAY 2002, and
CANCUN'S SHANGHAI SECRET
To understand how Chinese food came to Cuba, a little history is important. Long before Columbus knew anything about Cuba, the native Arawak people had developed a successful civilization. Columbus blundered upon the island in 1492, and by the early 1500s Spain had taken over Cuba, killing natives and importing Africans as slaves for the sugar cane industry. Spain held firm until 1898 when Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders liberated Cuba. Sadly, the good feelings this engendered between the U.S. and Cuba soon dissipated. By 1963 things had soured so much that embargo was imposed. From1847 through 1883, 150,000 Chinese migrant workers were shipped to Cuban ports to replace freed African slaves and their descendants. The first boatload of Chinese arrived in Havana harbor on June 3, 1847. Immigrants continued to come, from Guangdong, Fujian, Haikou, Macao, Aomen, and Hong Kong, when it was called Zianggang. Chinese were brought to Cuba in ships owned by France, Spain, England, North American, Portugal, Holland, Russia and a handful of other countries. In 1861, 34,000 Chinese arrived. In 1877 immigration peaked at 40,000 men, but had slipped to 5,000 by 1970. Only a handful of Chinese move to Cuba these days.
The earliest Chinese immigrants to Cuba lived under worse conditions than the African slaves and faced near constant and inhumane exploitation. From 1860 through 1875, another wave of immigration hit Cuban shores. About 5,000 Chinese came after attempting to strike it rich in California's gold rush. Failure to find gold was one reason they left the Pacific Coast, but Chinese men had also been victimized by the U.S. xenophobia oft denounced by Cuba's second President, Jose Marti. Chinese immigrants were a steady source of cheap labor, and continued entering Cuba through the first decades of the 20th century.
Chinese usually settled in urban areas of Cuba and came to be known as hard workers and enterprising traders. Commonly employed at sugar cane plantations, the Chinese men had to either intermarry with African or Creole women, or stay single. Many could not stand the harsh new world and left or committed suicide. Others simply waited it out until their eight-year contracts expired, knowing they could never return to China. Quite a few joined the Cuban liberation, achieving varying ranks in the military and actively participating in the Cuban War of Emancipation.
During the end of the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries many Chinese workers gained their freedom and began serious cultural resurgence efforts by forming Chinese associations. The associations provided social infrastructure, cemeteries, drug stores, theaters, homes for aged, banks, newspapers, and more. Chinese people had traditionally created associations delineated by original territory, but the associations in Cuba were free to center around other ties, such as economics, arts, sports, political ideas either public or secret, or the need for national representation. Because the immigrants were nearly always male, most marriages that took place were between a Chinese father and Cuban born mother. Most Cubans learn early to spot the phenotypical diversity among Cuban people of Chinese origin.
By1980, there were more than 4,000 Cantonese living in Cuba, but in 2002, there are only 300 pureblooded Chinese Cubans, half living in Havana, and most of them elderly. Major associations not in Havana's Barrio Chino are spread across Cuba in Santa Clara, Camaguey, Crego de Avila, Santiago de Cuba, and Guantanamo. Still, Chinese blood is highly diffused throughout tens of thousands of Cubans, many of whom are called, in a non-derogatory manner, "Chino" or "China." The diminutives for Chino or China, Chinito/Chinita, are Cuban terms of endearment that can apply to anybody, regardless of ethnicity.
Chinese culture continues to permeate many aspects of life in Cuba today. Any libertine knows that music is right up there with rum and cigars as Cuba's finest products, but many are unaware that Cuba's traditional music groups use three instruments that were first imported by the Chinese: the cornet, the Chinese box, and a drum Cubans call tambares, the same drum used in the traditional Chinese lion dance. In the visual arts, Wilfredo Lam, arguably Cuba's most famous international artist, is typically Cuban, in that he has a Cuban mother and a Chinese father, with some African blood as well, presumably on his mother's side. Like many Cubans, Lam's is upfront about his mixed ancestry.
Early Chinese settlers introduced, cultivated and helped assimilate into the Cuban diet a number of new vegetables, including pumpkin, cabbage, long green beans and cucumber. Indeed, in Havana's marketplace, Mercado Agropecuario Egido on Avenida de Belgica, the only green beans are the very long Chinese variety often called snake beans. Roughly the size of a 150 seat outdoor café, it's hard to fathom how Cuba's main food market has no more than fifty foodstuffs.
Different people will tell you different things about whether or not there is sufficient food to feed Cuba's eleven million people. Surely there is a severely curtailed selection of comestibles. The gleam of Havana as a mid 20th century paradise, the world's hottest nightspot, and a top cruise ship destination for international jet setters, is gone, nothing more than memories and a faded swizzle stick or two. Lobster is now endangered, a result of slaughter for tourist plates or export for hard currency, yet it is still available. We ate a luscious home-cooked Cuban Lobster Enchilada in a deep and delicate tomato and aji cachucha sauce. Sea turtles have already been eaten into near extinction and rare to see on menus although during 1970s large tour groups were fed turtle steak regularly.
Restaurants, snack bars, and markets alike might have one, two, three or six offerings on a given day. Small signs are posted in racks that can advertise a maximum of eight items. People wait in long lines for things like fresh bread and newspapers, some only to sell it to those who can afford to pay a little extra not to have to wait in line. During our brief visit, we didn't see anyone starving but neither did we see any food going to waste. It has been a long time since Cubans have enjoyed the full marketplaces they enjoyed when things were flush. There no longer exists the diverse larder of ingredients needed to ignite Cuba's rich international culinary heritage, and it has been so long that many people wouldn't know or recall the proper taste of a given dish. It is sad to see Cuba's superb culinary tradition wither.
Cuba's countryside remains gorgeous, breathtaking. Each province boasts natural beauties, perhaps none as spectacular as Pinar Del Rio, where royal palms sway mightily in fertile valleys ringed by craggy, weather-beaten mountain ranges. Cuba has many fruit orchards with trees of Chinese origin, like the Chinese orange of which nineteen types exist in Cuba. The traditional fruit hawkers cry of "Naranjas China dulce" (sweet Chinese oranges) is part of the Cuban oral tradition. Word has it that fruit from "El Caney" used to be superb, nearly all the fruit we ate was less than good. How can guavas (guayaba), mangos, soursop (guanábana), and papaya (called fruta bomba because "papaya" has become slang for female anatomy) from a tropical clime taste so unsatisfying - is it a lack of proper care or good fertilizer?
There are two types of Chinese gunip trees now common in Cuba, oleaginous trees like the Chinese Oil tree, used in industries, and lauraceous species like the Chinese Cinnamon tree which is ornamental, aromatic, and medicinal. Also popular are delicate blue Chinese violets, known as Pensamiento Chino (Chinese thought), the traditional Chinese minimalist symbol of meditation and celestial movement.
Information about the history of Chinese in Cuba is not readily available. For example, the Lonely Planet guidebook to Cuba cites nothing Chinese in its index or map, although it does contain some tidbits corroborating the extensive data gleaned from "Chinese Presence in Cuba," a fact, map, and graph-laden brochure prepared by Jesus Guanche Perez . "Ancestors in the Americas, Coolies, Sailors Settlers," a film by Loni Ding, and a small green book Los Chinos en Cuba provide more information, as does Mis Imagenes by Mercedes Crespo Villate. This Cuban Chinese lady writes about the Chinese presence in Cuba, her motivations, the reasons for Chinese immigration, and discusses Cuban reactions to the pobre Culis (poor Coolees). The book has information on the Cuban War of Independence from Spain, including lists of Chinese participants, as well as copies of documents, photographs, a bibliography and information about Chinese culture in general.
In his informative brochure, Dr. Perez asks, "What are the reasons why we Cuban people assume this millenary heritage as a patrimony for ourselves?" and answers his own question by talking about China's "five virtues:" kindness, honesty, decorousness, wisdom and faithfulness." Perhaps things Chinese quickly intimated themselves into Cuban civilization because both peoples share these universal values of human duty. Cuba, a nation of mixed ancestry, has developed a "native" cuisine flavored with foods imported from China, Africa and elsewhere in the Caribbean. Africans brought their traditional starch, fufu, made from plantains. In the nineteenth century, French coffee planters from Haiti brought Congri Orientale with them, a dish of rice cooked with red kidney beans. In Cuba's vast Oriente region, black beans are substituted for the red kidneys, and the dish is famously renamed Moros y Christianos, a common dish on every Cuban table, every day, and a distant reminder of their colonists. The two colors in this typical Cuban platter reference the famous war between the White Christian Spaniards and the Black Moors and can be compared to the racial mix of Cuba itself. History and politics in cuisine? We're definitely in Cuba now. Today, Havana's Chinatown is concentrated in an area just west of Cuba's Capitolio Nacional, which is based on the same architectural plans as the U.S. capitol, except larger and grander. The easiest way to find Chinatown is to start at the famous Malecon, the broad ocean-side boulevard that is the last bit of land between Havana and the U.S.A. Turn south at the intersection of Malecon and Avenida Italia, often called by its older name, Avenida Galiano. Walk about 10 blocks until you pass a gated park with tall columns painted with Chinese characters and the Spanish words "Barrio China - Playa las Columnas"
The park's white columns carry inscriptions like "Lucky.Happiness," "Shi Bo Ping Yan (Peace for You)" and "Sun Yi Shing Long (May Business Prosper Well)". On a sunny Saturday in September the gated park was loaded with Cubans whiling away the afternoon around café tables. There was a birthday party and dozens of swankily dressed celebrants danced elegantly to a sixteen-piece son band that played for hours without a break. There is one bottle of soy, and one menu, with a brief history of Chinese in Cuba, shared among some 100 customers, most of whom were drinking beer, huffing cigars, and snacking on scoops of pitiful fried rice on paper plates or slices of ham flanked by slices of a pickle. The summer Havana atmosphere was thick with the feel of a 1953 Buick four hole Special.
El Barrio China de la Habana, alternately called Miramar, Cayo Hueso, and Chinatown, began as a neighborhood.first with residences and trade, then hostelries, and finally restaurants plying international customers. A huge portico inexplicably incised "Barri Hino" instead of "Barrio Chino" on Amistad Avenue marks the Western edge of the twelve-square mile Chinese barrio squared in by San Miguel, Estrella and Belascoain.
As far as tourists know, however, Chinatown's principal, and shortest, street is a few blocks east. Delineated by a small gate and garish red lanterns Calle Cuchillo, angles off of Italia and Zanja, surrounded by San Nicolas, Rayo, and Dragones. Standing out from the rest of Havana like a bright red persimmon amid dusty potatoes, Calle Cuchillo is a true kitsch extravaganza of Chinese dragons, lanterns and silks. In keeping with the Oriental atmosphere, most of Havana's pet bird merchants operate in Chinatown. On payday, the small shops are flooded with Cubans buying imported umbrellas, hair supplies, toys and other inexpensive plastic items made in China. Daytime, there is a small food market in a curved alley south of Cuchillo, but even though it's Chinatown, the offerings are indistinguishable from those at other Cuban markets. On Saturday nights at 8 pm, one of the associations hosts a Lion Dance, intended more to draw customers than scare away evil spirits.
There are ten restaurants on the short and narrow artery called Cuchillo, each with its own tout, usually a Cuban in Chinese costume enticing passersby with the basic menu of Chinese food the world over: soup, egg roll, fried rice, chop suey. There are plenty of traditional Cuban snacks available through tiny windows in and around Chinatown, just like the New York's Canal Street hot dog carts which circle around the rice and noodle shops to cater to those who are in Chinatown but can't stomach Chinese food.
To learn more about Cuban Chinese culture, visit the Casa de Arte y Tradicion China at Calle Salucci 313 between Gervasio and Escobar. This big, largely open-air building serves as the center for many Chinese traditional art forms and also is home to the Grupo Promotor Barrio China de la Havana, a kind of Chamber of Commerce for Cuban Chinese. They can direct you to any and all of the current activities in Cuba's Chinese community and provide excellent maps and brochures highlighting places like Cementerio Chino de la Habana, a very large Chinese-only cemetery in the heart of Havana.
Currently there are thirteen Chinese associations in Havana, the principal one being Chung Wah. Others large ones are Say Jo Jon Sociedad Wushu Kungfu and Chueng Shan Society. The Long Sai Li Society, which was founded in 1909 for instruction and recreation and is still housed in a restaurant hiding upstairs behind intricately etched glass doors. There is also a Chinese language newspaper, the Kwong Wah Po Diario Popular
Long Sai Li's Chinese doorman said he had a Cuban mom, a Cantonese dad, and a Spanish grandma. His family's favorite dish is whole fish steamed with ginger and scallion. Cuban locals invariably say that soups are their favorite Chinese offerings, with chicken chop suey a close second. Fried rice with black beans and sliced cabbage and chunks of yucca comes in cajitas (handcut grey cardboard takeout boxes). These common takeout snacks can be upgraded to a full meal with a fried pork chop and/or greasy gravy made from bits of fried pork. I thought it was Chinese food, since it was being purveyed in Chinatown, but later learned it was the Cuban staple, Moros y Cristianos, which natives know to be best in and around Cuchillo. The black beans are different than the black Chinese fermented soybean, but the two cuisines do share an affinity for hearty beans, white rice, onions, garlic, and other staples that facilitates culinary fusion.
Intent on tasting standard Chinese Cuban fare, we headed to the Sociedead Regionalista Chung Shan's "Los Dos Dragones Restaurante y Bar con Comida China Original" (The Chung Shan Regional Society's Two Dragons Restaurant and Bar with Original Chinese Food.), upstairs on Calle Dragones no 311 between Rayo and San Nicolas Streets. The grand dining room had seen more glorious days. President Castro had eaten here in mid-century, and there is a prominently displayed photograph of Fidel happily chopsticking an authentic looking Chinese spread, complete with Coca Cola (see photo).
Two Dragon's open kitchen was full of a variety of big cast iron pots and pans but there was only a single wok for use by the 3 Cuban and two Chinese chefs. Every Cuban diner seemed to be eating soup and fried wontons. We worked our waiter hard until he finally relented and allowed us to order a plate of fairly decent bok choy, instead of chop suey vegetables. Tip Pan Chicken turned out to be quite tasty. A giant, flattened, boneless chicken steak, incorporating both breast and thigh was battered and just barely cooked through. To accommodate the steak-loving Cuban palate, the golden fried fillet was kept whole, rather than chopped as is the Chinese tradition. Mixed ingredient fried rice was drier than it looked and overburdened with handfuls of smoked meats, sickly bean sprouts and scallions. Lacking any hint of the flavor of rice it was, to be fair, sustenance.
Costillitas Ahumadas Estilo Oriental (smoked Oriental style spare ribs) were overdone and their smokiness seemed to derive more from repeated re-heatings than from intentional flavoring. The wontons in the soup were the tastiest thing on the table. The delicate noodle packets bore the telltale marks of handrolling, but the broth was thin and the other ingredients proved inconsequential. All told, a meal for four cost $21 U.S., with the bok choy plate being surprisingly more expensive than the big chicken dish. Both salt and soy are on the tables, as are Italian toothpicks (carezzadente) in a container featuring an image of a Japanese samurai swordsman.
After the sub-par meal, we headed for one of the last macho fortresses, the Partagas Cigar Factory's private smoking room, where we made the acquaintance of Orlando Quiroga, a gentlemanly octegenarian who had just published a book, The Art and Mysticism of Habanos (in Cuba, Cuban cigars are called Habanos). While enjoying a Montecristo Number 4, a perfect afternoon cigar, Mr. Quiroga recalled Chinese influences on his life in Cuba. He spoke about about the concepts of Yin and Yang and pointed out the best cigar roller in Cuba who is nicknamed chinita, (little Chinese girl) even though she is a grown and rather large Filipina woman.
Mr. Quiroga recalled the day when thousands of Chinese flooded the streets of Havana to celebrate Chiang Kai Shek's victory. He believes that fried rice is not originally Chinese, and knew about the taste differences between white, yellow and brown colored fried rice. Quiroga recalled going to see exotic foreign films in the 1950s at the Chinatown theater called Shanghai, which devolved into a pornographic theater before it closed after the Revolution. There was also a Chinese-only movie theatre on Zanja Street. There used to be two traditional Chinese herbal medicine shops, one in Chinatown and the other in the Old Havana neighborhood, catering to non-Chinese clientele. Quiroga discussed the effectivness of the Chinese metal balls used to relieve stress, the functional qualities of Tiger Balm salve (a favorite Cuban cure-all), and said that Cuban hospitals, which offer some of the world's finest doctors at bargain prices, still use some Chinese methods. He noted how much Cubans love Chinese clothing, antiques, and knick-knacks, as well as ice cream and other Chinese foods. A true epicure, Quiroga's favorite Chinese dishes are whole fish, and duck in orange sauce. I wish I'd asked Quiroga if he'd ever seen Chinese food outside the Barrio, which we didn't, and also wonder what he knows about one of the world's prettiest and fanciest restaurants, Havana's Café del Oriente. Though they do not serve any thoroughly Chinese foods, "el sittio del gourmet" (the place for gourmets) is worth a visit for the décor alone. The classy and pricey antique wood and stained-glass establishment is located in La Habana Viejo at Oficios 112, at the corner of Amargura. email@example.com
Eschew the Westernized offerings at homogenous Chinatown dives like El Pacifico, La Muralla, and Tong Po Lau, a bodeguita (small food shop) which specializes in "Comida China Sabor y Magia" (Chinese food, flavor and magic) and features the Masonic logo on its business card. Instead, head for Havana's only Chinese restaurant with over one hundred dishes, Tien Tan, on Cuchillo no 17, between Zanja and san Nicolas, open 11-11 daily, firstname.lastname@example.org
In keeping with the public's wish to be "transported" to exotic Asia, Tien Tan is full of tacky Chinese décor mixed with photos of local VIPS. Sandalwood incense is sold and the small pass through window from the kitchen to the dining room plays stereotypical "ching chong" Chinese music until the orders are picked up. Chefs on break eat fresh spinach and rice with chopsticks while most of the patrons are cradling soup with Chinese porcelain spoons and stabbing at fried wontons with forks.
Easily the most authentic Chinese cuisine available in Havana, we plunged into Tien Tan's fresh spinach which, while slightly immature, was earthy and perfectly cooked with fresh garlic. The rice tasted like it had been reheated a second time but the Seafood Meat Soup had broad flavor developed from long cooking. The multi-layered soup was authentic and complex, but unfortunately the ingredients had been overcooked to achieve the heady broth. A plate of Chinese raviolis were homemade, their perfect skin much better than their lifeless filling. Both the Wonton Soup and the Special Chinese Soups (which appear to be the same except the Special soup has egg and black mushroom) were meals in a bowl. The big soups harbored all the flavors of wonton, just without the wrapper. Pig's kidney with green onion and hot pepper was tasty but very salty. Fried noodles with fish were greasy and plain. A mound of fried rice with meat and scallions was the same dry starch that has somehow insinuated itself into every Cuban Chinese restaurant.
On a second visit, a Chinese chef, from Shanghai helped us order. He suggested a thick and fine hot and sour soup, spicy shrimp, and a plate of mixed Chinese vegetables. Loads of small shrimps fought for space with scallions, red and green peppers and decoratively cut carrots and turnip. The dish was very spicy with la chew jow (Chinese hot pepper oil) but suffered from a distinct lack of ginger flavor. The mixed vegetable dish was equally middle-of-the-road, with overcooked bok choy, string beans, bean sprouts, and tasty little wads of spinach. The waitress, typically Cuban in that she was open to discussing her ancestry with strangers, said her mother's father was from Guangdong; her father's mother was half-Spanish and half-Japanese but Cuban by birth. So she happily described herself as having a Japanese head, a Chinese body and a Cuban heart.
The menu from Tien Tan, The Temple of Heaven, Restaurant, has a photo of a group of Chinese-Cubans sitting in front of the restaurant, and claims to be "a genuine restaurant of national flavor. There are more than one hundred different dishes cooking by Chinese way with Chinese seasonings. The special dishes are more delicious cooking by Chinese cookers. Please choose and taste. Wish you are satisfied by our service." The Chinese, Spanish and English menu poetically translates the Spanish word for appetizer, apertivos as "Whet the appetite." All of the platos familiars, or economic dishes, are soups. The traditional dairy-free Chinese Congee is mislabeled Cremas Chinas in Spanish but called Chinese Thick Soup in English. The most interesting desert is a Canoa China or Chinese Canoe, consisting of an oval-shaped flan filled with ice cream and fruits. The bar features a Mai Tai like drink, "Coctel Tien Tan" as well as imported Tsing Tao and local Tinimes beer. Chop sticks are available only on request; there is a charge for rice and tea.
Tien Tan must be Cuba's only Chinese location listing specialty items frog's legs, fish balls, and lamb. The most interesting category on the menu, which consists mainly of Cantonese and Shanghai dishes with a few royal Beijing options, is the Solo Reservar column of foods available only by "subscription," meaning they must be ordered three days in advance. These offerings include Fried chicken integrity with eight eatables (treasures); stewed meat with red color and sweet; stewed pigs uppermost part of leg with soy sauce; sauteed Dofu chilli sauce or sea-foods or meat and black mushroom; savoury and crispy duck; integrity duck soup with orange skin and soy sauce; stewed red duck with sweet sauce special; and stewed integrity duck with eight eatables.
On December 7, 2001, The New York Times reported delivery of the first of several planned shipments of U.S. goods to be purchased by Cuba since embargo was imposed nearly 40 years ago. The Cuban government paid $30 million for meat and grain, including 55 million pounds of corn, in a purchase made possible by a 2000 Congressional legislation exempting food and medicine from the still-active 1963 trade embargo. John Kavulich II, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, feels this was more of a political than economic purchase, as Cuba could have gotten the same goods for less money and with enhanced delivery from countries other than the U.S. Since 1963, President Fidel Castro had always insisted that Cuba would not buy "even a grain of rice" under such the stringent terms of the embargo, and his country has suffered greatly, blaming the U.S. for shortages in food, milk and medicine. Cuban officials insist that this recent purchase was a one-time emergency measure necessary after this October's devastating Hurricane Michele destroyed crops and housing. U.S. officials warn agricultural companies that Cuba, which cannot place its famous cigars and rums in the fifty States, does not have the cash for continued purchases, and feel that the purchase is a sign of Cuba's severely withered economy. Above all, and contrary to President Bush's tough stance, most Cubans in Cuba wants the embargo to end.
After the revolution, most upper class Chinese left Cuba for the United States and elsewhere, leaving behind lesser educated Chinese who may be kind and good but do not have modern education or business acumen. Time has marched on, but most things cultural remain mired in pre-1959 torpor. There is no contemporary exchange with China, so Chinese nationals in Cuba are ignorant of China's current status, and Mainland Chinese thinking is foreign to them. Still, the Cubans have "muy respeto los Chineses" or much respect for the Chinese. In the U.S., even rich Chinese are somehow considered second-class citizens and poor Chinese are relegated to third or fourth class, but in Cuba even the poor Chinese are considered first class citizens. The utter lack of racism among the working classes (there are few if any Blacks in government though), and the ability to talk openly about skin color and race, are two of Cuba's most endearing characteristics.
Newcomers to New York are incredulous when they hear of Chinese Cuban restaurants, thinking it an improbable combination. No Cuban, however, would have such qualms about two kinds of black beans on one menu. It was only after visiting Cuba that this New Yorker realized that Broadway Cuban-Chinese haunts like La Victoria China were not named after a Chinese gal called Victoria, but rather named in honor of Fidel's victorious revolution.
There used to be a restaurant on Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights, the world's most diverse neighborhood, called La Isla (The Island). They served Chinese, Polynesian, Spanish, Dominican and other national dishes under one roof, and I always thought their name referred to the islands from which their various cuisines originated. After visiting Havana, however, it became clear that all of these cuisines had long ago begun to rub shoulders in one of the world's most diverse countries, Cuba, known to its natives as, quite simply, "La Isla."
In a country with next to no economy, thousands of locals line up for inexpensive treats on Sunday nights in an entire park devoted to selling ice cream. Doctors and teachers are the highest paid citizens, earning no more than twenty or thirty dollars U.S. per month. Socialized education and medicine can be first rate in Cuba, but many say the average person is unable to take advantage of medical services. Cubans need hard-to-get U.S. dollars to see a doctor or get medicine, and must bring their own sheets, towels, soap and food to the hospital. Most people will never have enough money, or be allowed to visit other parts of the world. The literacy rate is 100% but you can only read what the government allows. Surely all Cubans have heard about Chinese food, but most have never experienced its taste. Pilo, an affable and highly motivated high school English teacher from San Diego de Los Banos, a village of 3,000, summed it up best when he said, with great wonderment in his voice, "I never had the pleasure of eating in a Chinese restaurant. I want to but can't. I hear they have this amazing thing called … Fried Rice."
Fifth Festival of Chinese in Cuba, May 2002
Perhaps Flavor and Fortune has enticed you to head for Havana, and there could be no better time than May 30 through June 3, 2002, for the Festival Des Chinos De Ultramar, known in English as The Fifth Festival Chinese Over The Seas. Ultramar is an old name of the Havana neighborhood containing Chinatown, commonly called "Barrio China." Here is the text of the official invitation:
"The Havana Chinatown Promoting Group calls for the 5th Festival of Chinese over the Seas, in order to promote the relationship between the Cuban Chinese community and the international community by means of the exchange of knowledge and experiences. It is our purpose to rescue the invaluable universal patrimony and the fascinating attraction of the Chinese cultural roots.
The mythical charm of the legendary China still prevails in Havana Chinatown with the special grace of a suggesting Asian image, a legacy from the first Chinese immigrants who arrived in Cuba over 150 years ago. This image is still alive thanks to the presence of that integral ethnic group of the Cuban nationality.
Havana Chinatown, captivating resort due to the well-preserved arts and tradition by Cuban and natural Chinese people, is the best place for a happy amusement while sharing the beauty and nobility of millenary culture.
"Havana Chinatown as one of the City tourist resort" is the subject that will be debated during the 5th Festival of Chinese over the Seas. Chinese and Cuban tourist professionals, hotel chains and travel agents will exchange points of view as a contribution for the social, cultural, economic and commercial development of Havana Chinatown as a tourist product.
Activities: Lecture, Workshop and round table Topic: Havana Chinatown as a cultural offer within the Cuban tourist product Further development of hotel and surrounding activity in Havana Chinatown Businessmen Meeting. Possibilities of Havana Chinatown as an offer within the Cuban tourist product. Expo Fair of Chinese food and products. Tasting and selling of typical Chinese dishes. Selling of Chinese and domestic products.
Registration fee for participants at the Festival: 120.00 USD, Companions: 80:00 USD. Please contact our travel agent, the Cuban Tourist Agency Havanatur until March 30th, 2002. It includes: free access to all events, welcome cocktail, lunches, receptions and closing, presentation of Chinese arts and traditions, sight seeing around historical, cultural and amusing places, free access to the Fair. We are awaiting your prompt answer to forward you further information. The 5th Festival Organizing Committee"
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Cancun's Shanghai Secret
It's no longer surprising to find Chinese restaurants in small corners of the world, but finding a world class Shanghainese restaurant in Cancun was thrilling, especially so because so much of the city is a horrifying ultra-commercial gash in the heart of the gorgeous Carribean ecosystem. The economic lifeblood of Mexico's Quintana Roo state, just an hour's flight from Havana, Cancun is a giant strip of hotels and Hard Rock Café clones vying for tourist dollars with garish buildings and slushy sugary slurries improperly called cocktails. The local yellow pages lists a handful of Chinese restaurants among trillions of fast foods and Americanized Mexican joints as lame as the "mild jalapeno" farces they feed the gringos. On the positive side, there's a large downtown full of local Yucatan tradition, the best eats being at the main Market, Stall No. 28's Cochinita Pibil, a tender pork stew softened by long stewing in achiote. You can have Cochinita in tacos or tortas (Mexican sandwiches on crusty rolls). Snacks in this marketplace invariably proved tastier than full-course restaurant meals.
Cancun has four locations for the chain called Hong Kong; three for Kong Kee de Cancun; two for Resaurantes Asiaticos, and one each for El Meson de Shanghai and Mama Wang, but we had an introduction from our recent visit to Havana, Cuba, a note from one of Tien Tan's chefs, scrawled in Chinese on the back of a business card for Templo del Cielo restaurant in Cancun, "Today two American friends will come to your store to look around so if possible they will have a meal. Thanks."
Not knowing we were serious Chinese foodies, the Mexican waiters greeted us and tried to force us to order their most popular offering "rollas" Spanish for egg rolls. We stood our ground, and it didn't take long to discover that, remarkably, my traveling partner spoke the same little-known language as the person to whom our introduction card had been addressed, from the small island of Ding Hai in the waters near Shanghai. The Mexican waiters skulked to the back and we were able to place a special order. The law ban (Ding Hai for "boss") knew exactly which foods had been missing in our meat-heavy Cuban diet, and he steered us to order a Northern Chinese style feast that also served as a veritable antidote to Cuba's currently uninspired cuisine. The Chinese have little delineation between food and medicine and in this case the Chinese food served as hearty tonic after a week of bad stomach, perhaps due to exceedingly high mineral contents in Cuba's bottled water.
By both Chinese and Mexican standards, Templo del Cielo is an upscale place, known to care for the less-than-fifteen native Chinese residents of Cancun, all of whom live in the same neighborhood. Hidden on a small side street, it draws a mix of cosmopolitan tourists and sophisticated locals, accommodating their requests and introducing as much authentic cuisine as they feel the customers will enjoy. A dish of deep fried chicken was described to a Michigan family as "Kentucky Chinese" and the family scarfed the new dish with gusto. Gorgeous hand-carved wooden placards welcome diners with poignant Chinese proverbs like, "To drink 1000 cups of wine with intimate friends is not enough" and "Human love in good times can keep 10,000 tears away."
First we refreshed our stale palates with Coronitas (seven ounce Corona beers) with lime, and a cold dish of sautéed celery with salted pork snippets. Then we scorched our palates with Ma Po To Fu, medium hot. It was exceedingly spicy and we were told that the chef, a friendly and seriously skilled young man knows how to make hot peppers hotter, quite a nifty trick especially when given the tremendous range and superb quality of the indigenous Mexican hot peppers. It is interesting to note that the type of hot pepper eaten by many campesinos (farmers) in Cuba is called Aji Cachucha, but in Mexico larger versions of what seems to be the same pepper is called Chile Habanero (Havanan pepper). The ones we tasted in the Pinar del Rio province of Western Cuba, home of the world's finest tobacco farms, were not as hot as those in Mexico and it appears that Ajis Cachucha and Habaneros (also known as Scotch Bonnets) may be relatives with differing heat levels. We were treated to the Chinese legend of the mighty little green hot peppers of Yunnan known as shirt button chiles. The people of Yunnan say they have no appetite until their taste buds are jump-started by hot pepper, and farmers are known to carry particularly hot peppers in a shirt buttonhole. The little scorchers are so fiery that Yunnanites stir them three or four times through soup, dry them off and tuck them back into their buttonholes, for repeated future use.
Imaginations a-tingle and taste buds reanimated, we proceeded to dispatch a classic homestyle Ding Hai dish, bean sprouts with carrot and hot pepper (it tasted just as good as a cold appetizer the next day). That was followed by a very tart and tangy hot and sour soup that achieved creaminess without cream; warm, potted aromatic beef similar to pot roast which arrived tableside in its brown ceramic cooking vessel; and cold, bony slices of gingered chicken Hainan style, which also comes in a brandy flavored version.
The closest mainland port to Ding Hai is Ningpo, which is famous for its sea eel dishes, also popular on the little island. Other Ding Hai specialities include Ni Law, which are tiny molting snails cured in salt brine. They are eaten as a cold snack with beer or wine, and you must peel off the shell, which is thin and transparent like a baby's fingernail. Clear glass bottles are available in many Chinese supermarkets, for about $3 or $4 dollars, but check for clean, fresh-looking lids as many times these lively-flavored imported specialities have burst their seals.
Ha Cha is another cold dish made from any number of crab species netted off the shoals of Ding Hai. The crab meat is extracted from the shell and pickled with hot pepper. The cured crab maintains its raw texture and is very salty and spicy with a slimy, gooey texture. You can eat it straight from the jar or spread it atop a mound of white rice. Sometimes just the crab claws are used, and some people prefer not picking the crab out of the shell. They crush up and pickle the crustacean, shell and all. It's eaten like a whale eats krill, by straining it through the teeth. This home-style method of preparation adheres to the ancient adage that meat is tastier closer to the bone, and is certainly less wasteful than the fussier boneless variety of Ha Cha. I've never seen this super-salty treat in markets, but it is quite similar in taste and texture to the wine and chile marinated crabs displayed in the cold appetizer windows at many Shanghai-style eateries.
Jay Gee, or wine chicken, is another cold appetizer that Ding Hai chefs prepare in a seemingly endless stream of techniques and variations on the simple theme of soaking chicken in wine for a week. Some even add whiskey during the process to fill up the ullage (a brewer's term for the crucial amount of air space in a bottle) created when the wine is absorbed into the bones and meat of the hacked pieces of chicken.
So when in Cancun, don't get all your meals in the dozens of taquerias, gordarias, and other local snack vendors on the beaches and in downtown Cancun. Don't be swayed by faux-Mexican joints like Carlos O'brians. Instead, be a true international person and head straight for Templo del Cielo Chinese restaurant, adjacent to the reasonably-priced Hotel Lucy, Gladiolas no. 8 and 10, email@example.com.
The author sends thanks, heavenwards, to John and Rose Pin, whose children Doreen, Ken and Mike, and grandchildren Bryan, Kim and Diane, are carrying forward the Ding Hai traditions. Thanks also to to Ken Takakura, Orlando Quiroga, Yumiko Ota, Tzu Chi Yeh, Carmen Eng Asuay, Guicho y Elizabeth, Ken Blumberg, the Agueros, and the kind staffs at Tien Tan and Templo del Cielo.