Plantain is the first item on almost every menu of restaurants we visited in Cuba (Havana, Trinidad de Cuba, Santa Clara, Cienfuegos, Cayo Santa Maria) – fried crispy thin, or chewy-soft filled with tuna, ham, minced meat or cheese, or boiled in syrup.
It is less sugary and more starchy than its relative, the banana.
Black beans are another staple, best eaten with rice or in a soup or stew. Yam fritters are also delicious, especially when dipped in syrup or honey, Cuba being a sugar cane-growing country.
Another tasty appetiser is aubergine slices grilled with cheese, also sometimes served with a little pot of syrup for dipping.
Cuban rice, surprisingly, is often salted, even when served plain. Chicken done in different ways with an accompaniment of rice and vegetables is the standard main meal (at least for tourists): arroz con pollo.
For something different, ropa vieja, soft shreded beef slow-cooked with cumin, tomato and vegetables, is a must-try. It is nicknamed Old Clothes because it looks like rags bunched together. Luckily it tastes far better than it looks.
Ceviche is very well made, both in Havana and at our beach resort, Cayo Santa Maria. The tanginess and saltiness of it make it a lip-smacking appetite launcher.
Grilled plantain slices topped with tuna and cheese.
For pork eaters, there is smoked pork fillets and crispy fried skin or pork belly, and whole pig roasted till the skin is crispy. The sliced meat is served with spicy mojo sauce.
Once, my other half and I made the mistake of eating lunch in a cheap restaurant. He ordered spaghetti (1.50 CUC or RM6) and I, pizza (same price). His came with tasteless tomato sauce and a mound of shredded insipid cheese on top. Mine had a soft, thick bread base, but at least with tasty salami.
Set breakfast at inns and hotels usually consists of a platter of slices of papaya, guava, pineapple, watermelon and sometimes orange; fried eggs or omelette with ham and cheese, or not-too-exciting little Cuban pastries. Cuban bread and butter are nothing to write home about. Their cheese is sometimes palatable.
(It is reported that Cubans, although sometimes undernourished, are getting heavier with cases of diabetes on the rise.)
Cuban flan is the standard dessert in almost every restaurant. It differs from the French flan in that it contains whole eggs and two kinds of milk, including sweetened condensed milk. Baked with caramelised sugar, it is an irresistible finisher. I have since been inspired to slow-bake my own Cuban flan.
It looks like shredded rags and in fact its nickname is Old Clothes, ropa vieja – delicious shredded slow-cooked beef.
The other regional cake to indulge in is the tres leches cake, which is a milky sponge cake poked with holes and drizzled with a condensed milk mixture, sweetened as well as unsweetened, and topped with whipped cream.
Dinner for two usually costs 30 to 40 CUC (RM120 to RM160).
Every cup of coffee (1 to 2 CUC, or RM4 to RM8, depending where and what kind) is accompanied by a little stick of sugar cane for stirring and chewing on, if you wish. Cafe con leche is milky coffee and cafe cortado is coffee or espresso with less milk. There is also cafe tres leches in fancier cafes.
My personal favourite was cafe frio con leche sin azucar – cold milky coffee without sugar.
If you like rum, try all the kinds available to see which your favourite is, so you can take home a bottle. Smooth and flavourful or not too smooth – it’s up to your tastebuds.
Tourists who opt for a stay in an all-inclusive beach resort (unlimited food and drinks) will, apart from Cuban and Creole food, no doubt try as many cocktails as they like, including but not limited to daiquiri, mojito, pina colada and margarita. My other half says Cuban beer is good; percentage of alcohol varies.
Recommended restaurants: La Cocina de Esteban in Havana, Hostal Florida restaurant in Santa Clara, Sol y Son in Trinidad de Cuba.
- Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
- In late 2016, reports emerged that US and Canadian diplomatic personnel in Cuba were suffering from some sort of brain injury linked to hearing strange sounds.
- The cause was unclear, though some speculated that a form of sonic weapon could be responsible.
- A new study of affected patients shows signs of trauma and common factors, but the mystery persists.
No one knows exactly what caused the strange symptoms US diplomats in Cuba experienced after they reported hearing strange noises that some have linked to “sonic attacks.”
But a new study of the victims of these mysterious phenomena suggests a new, disconcerting possibility: Some unknown force projected in the direction of the patients could have somehow injured their brains.
“The unique circumstances of these patients and the consistency of the clinical manifestations raised concern for a novel mechanism of a possible acquired brain injury from a directional exposure of undetermined etiology,” the study’s authors wrote.
The saga began in late 2016 when American diplomatic staff (and some Canadians) that had been in Cuba began to report odd physical and mental symptoms. Some could no longer remember words, while others had hearing loss, speech problems, balance issues, nervous-system damage, headaches, ringing in the ears, and nausea.
Some even showed signs of brain swelling or concussions – mild traumatic brain injuries.
Many of the victims remember strange occurrences before the symptoms appeared, though others didn’t hear or feel anything. One diplomat reported a “blaring, grinding noise” that woke him from his bed in a Havana hotel, according to the Associated Press. The AP also reported that some heard a “loud ringing or a high-pitch chirping similar to crickets or cicadas” in short bursts at night, while others said they could walk “in” and “out” of blaring noises that were audible only in certain spots.
The US State Department eventually determined that the incidents were “specific attacks” and moved to cut its Cuban embassy staff by 60%.
But despite that determination, no one understands those “specific attacks” or is even sure they’re responsible for everything that’s happened. According to ProPublica, the FBI hasn’t even been able to rule out the possibility that some of the patients were never attacked in the first place.
- REUTERS/Enrique de la Osa
Studying the victims
Most of the victims were first examined in Miami, but a team of researchers from the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Brain Injury and Repair were selected to help further evaluate and treat at least 21 patients, whose cases are described in the new study.
By studying those 11 women and 10 men, the researchers were able to establish a significant amount of common ground among the patients. More than 80% reported hearing a sound that had a “directional” source – it seemed to come from somewhere. After three months, 81% still had cognitive issues, 71% had balance problems, 86% had vision issues, and about 70% still reported hearing problems and headaches.
The fact that a number of these symptoms could be subjective has raised questions about the possibility that this group of people is suffering from some sort of collective delusion, according to the study authors. But they say that mass delusion is unlikely, since affected individuals were all highly motivated and of a broad age distribution, factors that don’t normally correspond with mass psychogenic illness. Plus, objective tests of ears and eye motion all revealed real clinical abnormalities.
All these symptoms seem consistent with some form of mild brain trauma, according to the researchers. But these symptoms persisted far longer than most concussion symptoms do, and were not associated with blunt head trauma.
“These individuals appeared to have sustained injury to widespread brain networks without an associated history of head trauma,” the study authors wrote.
- The Cuban national flag is seen raised over their newly reopened embassy in Washington, July 20, 2015.
- REUTERS/Carlos Barria
Mysterious weapons – or something else?
Despite having identified common symptoms and clinical evidence of some sort of injury, researchers are still at a loss about the cause.
If there is some kind of weapon involved, no one knows what kind it was or who would have used it. The Cuban government has denied any connection and investigators haven’t found any link to Russia, which intelligence analysts had speculated might have the means and motivation to carry out an attack.
The reported presence of strange audio and of the feeling of changes in air pressure have led to speculation about some kind of sonic or audio-based weapon. But even though sonic weapons exist, they’re very visible and easy to avoid, according to Seth Horowitz, a neuroscientist who wrote the book “The Universal Sense: How Hearing Shapes the Mind. Plus, the specific symptoms make that unlikely.
“There isn’t an acoustic phenomenon in the world that would cause those type of symptoms,” said Horowitz.
He speculated that perhaps some sort of mysterious pathogen or other phenomenon could have caused the symptoms, but the authors of the new study report that no signs infection (like fever) were identified. They determined it was unlikely a chemical agent would have caused these effects without damaging other organs.
In an editorial published alongside the new study, two doctors wrote that without more information and more data on the patients before they reported feeling ill, we can’t be certain what went wrong.
“At this point, a unifying explanation for the symptoms experienced by the US government officials described in this case series remains elusive and the effect of possible exposure to audible phenomena is unclear,” the editorial’s authors wrote. “Going forward, it would be helpful for government employees traveling to Cuba to undergo baseline testing prior to deployment to allow for a more informed interpretation of abnormalities that might later be detected after a potential exposure.”