Varun Mehra, former assistant to Alice Waters, executive chef of famed organic restaurant Chez Panisse in Berkeley and a consultant to Scribe Winery in Sonoma, has recently returned from Havana, Cuba.
Mehra first visited the Cuban capital in 2012 to research the country’s food traditions and agriculture, and like many, he’s hoping that the détente between the United States and the island nation — the hallmark thus far being that President Obama has removed Cuba from the state sponsor of terror list, after his historic handshake and meeting last weekend with Cuban president Raul Castro at the Summit of the Americas in Panama —will lead to increased cooperation between the two countries on a range of different issues, including food and nutrition.
Last summer, Mehra was licensed by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) for a project designed to enable Cubans and Americans to collaborate around food. With the help of 10 U.S. cooks who are “eager to roll their sleeves up” and a local cooperative in Havana, he’s hoping to bring to light new ways to enhance local food preparation for flavor and nutrition and bring back to light some of the older Cuban recipes from around the nation that over the course of history, have been lost.
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“People are making these recipes in their homes,” Mehra says, “but they’re being made with what they have and what’s available, and not necessarily how they were traditionally made.”
His project, he hopes, will help bring together the old and the new, merging taste and flavor with local ingredients — fruits, vegetables and herbs — to enhance health and nutrition.
Certainly, the ingredients for this are present in Cuba, and ironically, they’re in large part a result of the years of harsh sanctions the country has endured. The Cuban government’s efforts to promote agriculture, for example, and encourage the growth of a variety of organic produce through innovative ways was a by product, some say, of its limited access to pesticides, but one that has paid off, since today, Cuba boasts a wide range of different fruits and vegetables, including broccoli and cauliflower.
But while the Cuban government does promote holistic health and overall wellbeing — it’s known for having made progress in the area of alternative and plant-based medicine — Cuba isn’t the organic and natural health idyll many Americans believe it to be.
Proper nutrition is still sorely lacking in Cuba, says Julia Wright, a professor at Coventry University in the U.K. and an expert on Cuban agriculture, and though in recent years the state has been promoting the consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables, and people have been eating more of these, “the favorite dish of the Cuban people is meat, rice and fried carbohydrates.”
Cuba, like many other nations, also has an obesity problem, she says, and other illnesses like diabetes and heart conditions are a problem.
The availability of food has been a constant problem in Cuba, exacerbated after the Soviet Union crumbled. Rations are the norm and people still eat to fill their bellies. Today, although there’s greater availability of varied produce, accessing these fruits and vegetables is a problem for most Cubans, says Conner Gorry, an American journalist who’s been based in Havana for 13 years, and even if they have access to them, most Cubans can’t afford to buy fresh fruits and vegetables.
The prevailing food culture is also an issue and centuries of deep-rooted traditions play their part in downplaying the potential nutritional value of food.
“If someone were to get an eggplant, for example, they wouldn’t know what to do with it,” Gorry says. “Things like eggplants and cherry tomatoes are exotic in Cuba and when people are trying to make ends meet with limited budgets, they stick to what they know, and they’re not going to opt for the more expensive, healthier vegetables. Same thing with fish: Cubans don’t really like fish, which would be a much healthier option than meat.”
These sorts of mindset changes are a part of what Mehra hopes his collaborative project will bring about.
He firmly believes that Cuba has all the elements for both tasty food and proper nutrition, and for Cubans as well as Americans, he’s hoping to highlight the value of local species like the Moringa tree, whose leaves, fruits and flowers are a rich source of micronutrients, valuable enzymes, amino acids, minerals and proteins.
There’s also the Noni fruit, which Cubans call garañón, and which has natural antibiotic activity, and has been used by numerous cultures around the world for health purposes.
Being able to mix things up in the right way using local produce and herbs, coupled with some culinary savoir faire, could go a long way toward benefiting both Cubans and Americans, Mehra says.
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