Old Havana holds a very special place in my heart, and I begin my monthly contribution to Startup Cuba with some of my thoughts and photographs, as well as a recipe from Al Carbon Havana, one of the top paladares in this magical and mysterious neighborhood.
This month’s recipe, excerpted from A Taste of Cuba, is the classic Arroz con Pollo (Chicken with Rice), brought to you by well-known chef and restaurateur Iván Rodríguez López, owner of Al Carbón and Iván Chef Justo paladares.
This article will be the first in a series based on my recent book, A Taste of Cuba, highlighting neighborhoods in Cuba, and will include recipes given to me exclusively from top chefs in these areas.
Located at Chacón and Aguacate, the entrances to these paladares are around the corner from each other in Old Havana, in a building from 1766, and just across the street from the National Museum of Fine Arts. Both restaurants are decorated with antique objects and iconic photographs of famous American actors and Cuban stars from the first half of the 20th century covering every inch of the wall. Ivan says the decorations “reflect the stuff, noise, people, activity, and energy of the outside world.”
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The historic house he converted into a restaurant has very little storage space, so he is in constant contact with food suppliers, which has helped him develop special relationships, particularly with local farmers.
Arroz con Pollo Courtesy of Al Carbon Havana
We hope you enjoy this classic recipe courtesy of Iván Rodríguez López and the book A Taste of Cuba, A Journey Through Cuba and Its Savory Cuisine. ¡Buen provecho!
Al Carbon’s Ingredients: Serves 4
6 ounces boneless skinless chicken (dark or white meat), cut into ½ inch pieces
½ cup olive oil
½ medium yellow onion, chopped
1 Ají pepper, chopped (or ¼ jalapeño)
¼ Cachucha or red pepper, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons white rice
2 teaspoons white wine
¼ teaspoon ground cumin
¼ teaspoon saffron
3 cups chicken broth, heated to simmering
splash light beer
2 tablespoons ketchup
salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon parsley chopped for decoration
2 tablespoons cooked peas for decoration
hard boil egg slices for decoration
chopped red pepper for decoration
Season chicken pieces with salt and pepper. Heat olive oil in large frypan over high heat for one minute. Add chicken and sear on high heat, turn pieces until brown on all sides. Lower heat to medium and add the chopped onion, chopped Ají pepper, chopped cachucha or red pepper, and garlic. Sauté for 3 to 5 minutes over medium heat. Add rice, white wine, cumin and saffron and stir well. Add hot chicken broth and ketchup and stir. Lower heat to medium and cook until rice is absorbed and soft to the bite. Add a splash of beer and cook until all liquid is absorbed.
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Serve hot with chopped parsley, cooked peas, sliced hard-boiled eggs and sliced red pepper.
Old Havana: The Backstory
This article will be the first in a series based on my recent book, A Taste of Cuba, highlighting neighborhoods in Cuba, and will include recipes given to me exclusively from top chefs in these areas. Since tourism to Cuba will be very limited in the near future, through Startup Cuba we’re bringing you on a virtual food tour around the island, starting with one of the most iconic destinations: Old Havana.
Walking around the old city in Havana is a mysterious and timeless walk through past centuries. Every street has witnessed life and the varied stories of leaders, celebrities, and other voyagers who have traveled to this remarkable district known as Old Havana. My own tale and first experience in this historic neighborhood began many years ago.
I met a Cuban man on my first trip in 1992, and we’ve been married for 27 years now! Since then, I have been inspired and attracted to the beautiful character and spirit of the Cuban people. Their love of laughter, in spite of dire circumstances and uncertainties, their emotional strength, resilience, and heartfelt values for education, family, friendship, food, art, community and hard work; this was a wonderful perspective I aspired to share through my photography of this mesmerizing Caribbean island just 90 miles south of the United States.
When I wander around the five main sections of Old Havana, I revel at the distinct character and historic relevance of each area. I am constantly looking up at the newly restored ceilings; looking down to watch my step amongst rubble; and looking around at the interesting art, performances, monuments, beautifully restored windows, columns, balconies and arches built around courtyards decorated with tropical flowers and foliage.
I appreciate the pulsating sounds of musicians and I enjoy shopping the stands and stalls of vendors selling t-shirts, art, jewelry, handmade crafts, amongst food markets and street cart displays of garlic, herbs, vegetables and homemade snacks.
My focus on Cuban cuisine, with a spotlight on these creative Cuban chefs and paladares reflects both the wonderful Cuban food and the entrepreneurial spirit of its people. My longtime friend, Valerie Feigen, translated, tested, and adapted each recipe for an American kitchen. I encourage everyone to experience Cuba through the photographs and recipes in these upcoming articles as well as through our book, a guide and window into the adventure of Cuban culture.
My focus on Cuban cuisine, with a spotlight on these creative Cuban chefs and paladares reflects both the wonderful Cuban food and the entrepreneurial spirit of its people.
Cuban chefs are alchemists who transform limited ingredients into savory dishes full of flair and flavor. For our book, we had the great honor of collaborating with Cuba’s most distinguished entrepreneurs, restaurant owners, chefs, and their staff. I was welcomed into the kitchens of their privately run paladares. With this book, we gave voice to Cuba’s most notable chefs working today. We share their recipes, and their stories, inspirations, and techniques.
We also extend an invitation to you to travel with us, to their restaurants and their neighborhoods. My hope is that you’ll be inspired to make Cuba’s most flavorful dishes in your own home.
Note from El Equipo: This piece shares the delicious recipe for Arroz con Pollo recipe exclusively given to Cynthia Carris Alonso from the chefs at Al Carbón in Havana. Cynthia Carris Alonso is the author of A Taste of Cuba: A Journey Through Cuba and Its Savory Cuisine (Apollo Publishers, 2018), and a book of photography, Passage to Cuba, an Up-Close Look at the World’s Most Colorful Culture (Skyhorse Publishing, 2015).