The fact, however, that they’re privately-run means that cooks are free to experiment and respond to their customers’ taste buds, just like in a real country. So in paladares I feasted like a Cuban piggy on giant spicy shrimp, herby marinated fish fillets, Chinese-style fried rice and homemade coconut flan. Believe me, after a week eating at state-run restaurants, this is gourmet stuff.
Some go so far as to hail paladares as the source of a sweeping movement optimistically termed Nueva Cocina Cubana (New Cuban Cuisine). But it’s not really new, and it’s not really cuisine. It’s just well-cooked and a little more varied than the slop served in state-run eateries.
It was, they say, a hugely popular 1980s Brazilian soap opera Vale Tudo (‘Anything Goes’ in Portuguese) that sparked off this culinary revolution. If you saw Cuban TVtwo fuzzy channels of government propaganda and hand-me-down, low-budget soap operas from struggling Latin American countriesyou’d know it doesn’t take much to be popular. The plot goes like this: A near-destitute mother starts cobbling together a few cents each day selling sandwiches on the beaches of Rio de Janeiro. Soon she opens her own restaurant, which she calls Paladar, meaning ‘palate’ or ‘taste’ in Portuguese. That’s it.
That Cubans can be inspired by a story of a middle-aged woman who saved herself from near-destitution by selling soggy sandwiches says a lot about the national psyche. And, perhaps, the food.