How Traveling to Cuba Inspired My Healthier Kitchen

Somewhere between Dirty Dancing and the forbidden political system, I got tangled in the romantics and the mystery of traveling to Cuba. I expected both the adventure and the dancing, but what I was really on a mission for was the food. My traveling companion and I struck culinary inspiration from the unlikely Vinales, a farm town world famous for its coveted cigars, located just a quick two hours outside of the bustling, lively streets of Havana.

The casa we stayed at had a small menu on our nightstand. Perhaps it was the tropical vibes of the lush Vinales Valley, the open-roofed garden in the middle of our casa, or just the Rupert Holmes song that’d been stuck in my head since we’d arrived. Whatever it was, I needed a Piña Colada.

Our hosts, being just as delightful as everyone we had met in Cuba thus far, simply went to the back of their garden, grabbed a pineapple, cracked a coconut, and threw them into a blender with some rum and ice. The result? Absolute magic. As I picked shreds of pineapple from my teeth and enjoyed the most amazing beverage I’d ever had, I knew instantly we’d hit the jackpot. We asked if we could pay them to cook us dinner that night. Luckily they agreed, and what followed was a culinary experience worth celebrating.  

After a day exploring the Vinales Valley we were greeted by an incredible, elaborate spread that we could’ve smelled a mile down the street. One bite and we knew it would be an unforgettable meal. Normally if I ate as much as we scarfed down I’d be comatose for the next half a day, but a quick fifteen minute horizontal-sesh and we were absolutely fine. With everything entirely locally grown, free from any harsh chemicals or processed products, my body could heal and digest. I was back and energized immediately after eating. My body welcomed the fresh, quality nutrients with open arms. The only additive our host had access to was a tiny, government rationed bag of salt.

Our chicken, fresh from the backyard, was perfectly tender and seasoned with local cinnamon. To satisfy our sweet tooth we had slices of fresh goat cheese over a sea of pureed berries. There was a side of “potato chips” that almost fooled us. I thought, “How am I eating potato chips in Vinales, Cuba?” Then I noticed they were warm! After a few minutes of my confusing spanglish, our host simply walked back to her garden and pulled out a malanga, a root vegetable native to Cuba. She showed us how she thinly sliced it with a mandolin-like tool, drizzled the slices with coconut oil and tossed them in the oven. Creativity was clearly at the forefront of this fresh, healthy kitchen.

Our hosts weren’t the only ones willing to share with us the fruits of their labors (literally!). It was not uncommon for people to take us to their gardens when we asked about the exotic fruits and vegetables. There was a sense of deep appreciation for their land and everything it provided. The next day in Vinales we took a salsa dancing lesson from a local we met in town named Omar. He mentioned a Cherimoya fruit, which I admitted I’d never heard of. Naturally, he led me out back to his garden, casually climbed a twenty foot tree, and brought one down for me. It was absolutely delicious– and rich, almost like a small coconut but softer and creamier. It would’ve made an incredible, vegan custard.

Obviously it’s easy to try local foods when you’re traveling and a stranger hands you an exotic fruit. It’s not as easy when you have a grocery store down the street filled with unhealthy alternatives that beg your name. It makes eating local seem like a daunting task. However, seeing a struggling country like Cuba flourish despite lacking the resources to eat unhealthy, it’s easier to gain perspective. Cubans don’t have the luxury of over complicating things with added ingredients– they have to get creative with what they have. Maybe having access to twenty different kinds of potato chips restricts me.

Since I got back, I’ve been approaching my trips to the grocery store with a new outlook. Apart from feeling grateful that I have the opportunity to choose what I eat, I’ve been trying to think simpler with how I cook. Before Cuba, I thought healthy meant a twenty dollar salad from Whole Foods or a recipe with twenty ingredients I couldn’t pronounce. Cuba showed me that healthy just means real. There’s something beautiful in the simplicity of rice and beans. Maybe healthy just means getting back to the basics, which just might be as easy as a Piña Colada with a real pineapple and coconut.    

Artwork by Michelle Favin of Whys LA for Poppy & Seed. Connect with her @whyslosangeles.

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