Cuba has hot weather, hot music, hot politics and hot Cubans. So why is the food so bland?
Tourists who have visited the island, particularly Cuba's state-run restaurants, know that Cuban chefs are deeply fond of frying their ingredients, but the range of seasonings tends to span from salt to garlic, with not much else in between.
Enter the Spice Man. He is Cedric Fernando, co-proprietor of the first and only Indian restaurant in Cuba, called Bollywood. And he's definitely turning up the heat in the kitchen.
Fernando has experience on islands with a somewhat insipid culinary tradition. He was born in London. But his parents are from Sri Lanka, and he grew up in a household of hot curry and South Asian spices.
Fernando met his Cuban wife, Ojacy Curbello, on a trip to Havana 16 years ago. The couple has lived mostly in London since then, visiting Curbello's family back in Cuba several times a year. They ran an Indian restaurant in Uruguay for a time too, but Fernando said the Southern Hemisphere's tourist season was too short, and he was looking for a good business opening in Havana, where good restaurants are hard to find.
When Cuban President Raul Castro began expanding opportunities for small-scale entrepreneurs, Fernando and his wife took something that had been a frequent dinner-table conversation of theirs — "why doesn't Cuba have any good spicy restaurants?" — and turned it into a business: Bollywood.
They opened the restaurant in December, converting the ground floor of their 1950s home in Havana's Nuevo Vedado district. Like many of Cuba's other home-based private restaurants that have opened in recent years, it's a small place, with capacity for about 25 chairs. But Fernando and Curbello are already working on an expansion to double that, since the place is often jammed on weekends.
"You won't make millions here, and you have to work really hard to make a small amount of money," Fernando said. "But it's fun at the same time. We have a lot of friends we can entertain."
Since advertising is limited, he promotes the restaurant on the side of his 1955 MG convertible. But he's optimistic that business opportunities here will continue to grow, as they have in countries like China and Vietnam.
"In Cuba," he said, "things are slowly turning, I think."
Fernando has a real estate business back in London, so making money in Havana was never the main goal. Rather, it's a way to fill a void in the country's spice cabinet, bringing flavors that are almost totally unknown on the island (Fernando hauls his curry from London).
Fernando keeps the Bollywood menu short. It's got dishes he says his Cuban chefs can really master, like Chicken Tikka Masala, Bollywood Prawns and Lamb Rogan Josh. The food, he insists, "is totally authentic."
Most of Bollywood's patrons are tourists or foreigners living in Havana, and the restaurant has been a hit with embassy workers stationed in Havana from Europe and Asia. But Fernando says about a quarter of his clients are Cuban, many trying Indian food for the first time.
Fernando's success notwithstanding, it's not as if foreign entrepreneurs can simply swoop in and set up Thai restaurants or burrito shops.
"The openings are for Cubans, not foreigners," said Fernando, emphasizing that under Cuban law, he's can't technically be Bollywood's owner. "Unless one is married to a Cuban and you have some experience in owning a restaurant, it's not going to be forthcoming," he said.
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Now a story about an enterprising foodie in Cuba. Hundreds of new restaurants have opened since President Raul Castro began allowing some small-scale private enterprise. Most serve typical Cuban or Spanish fare, and that's where a Londoner named Cedric Fernando saw a business opportunity.
Nick Miroff has this story about Havana's Bollywood, the first and only Indian restaurant in Cuba.
NICK MIROFF, BYLINE: In the converted garage of a two-storey home in Havana's Nuevo Vedado neighborhood, a team of Cuban chefs is rolling up samosas and sizzling onions for a plate of Bollywood prawns.
It's a recipe from Sri Lanka, passed down to Cedric Fernando by his father. The hot curry and other spices came to Havana from London, the same path Fernando took 16 years ago when he met his Cuban wife, who's also now his business partner.
CEDRIC FERNANDO: We thought it would be a good idea, especially with these new laws that are promoting businesses, to open an Indian restaurant. In Cuba, there are no spicy - good spicy restaurants. I don't think there are any real spicy restaurants.
MIROFF: Fernando called it Bollywood, figuring that Cubans would at least recognize the Hollywood name. His family lives upstairs, and the restaurant below has posters of Indian movie stars on the walls. The Cuban waiters wear bright, silky outfits that Fernando says are basically wedding costumes. But Cuba is not an easy pitch to play cricket on, as Fernando says. Supplies and electricity are erratic, and the Communist Party daily newspaper Granma doesn't sell advertising. So like any resourceful Cuban, Fernando has improvised.
FERNANDO: Here we go.
(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE STARTING)
MIROFF: This is Fernando's main promotional vehicle, literally, a white 1955 British MG convertible that he drives around Havana and parks outside the restaurant. A bright pink Bollywood sign with the Taj Mahal is painted on the door.
FERNANDO: It has an old horn...
(SOUNDBITE OF HORN)
FERNANDO: ...which is quite attractive.
(SOUNDBITE OF HORN)
MIROFF: Traditional Cuban dishes are typically deep fried and lacking in sauces or seasonings, but other new restaurants are helping diversify Cuba's cuisine, which Fernando prefers to call nonspicy rather than bland. Sushi, falafel and Mexican tacos are showing up at new privately-owned Havana eateries. Since opening in December, most of Fernando's clients have been tourists or foreigners living in Havana, but he says about a quarter of his customers are Cubans.
Bollywood was packed on a recent Saturday night with Sri Lankan music on Fernando's stereo and all six of his tables full. Among the Cubans trying dishes like lamb rogan josh for the first time was 33-year-old Lizette Barros.
LIZETTE BARROS: (Foreign language spoken)
MIROFF: As a Cuban, I wouldn't want to eat this every day, Barros said, but it's great to be able to try something different. What's less clear is how much appetite Cuba's communist leaders have for expanding private enterprise. As new businesses cut into the profits of state-owned restaurants and other government property, there's a fear authorities will choke the private sector before it can really flourish. Fernando says, so far, he's been paying his taxes and hasn't been hassled.
FERNANDO: They're not on your shoulders, but they're not off your shoulders, either, but they're not trying to shut you down. I think they genuinely are trying to promote small businesses.
MIROFF: Fernando is expanding the restaurant with plans for a bar and twice as many tables. He's advertising on Google and even has a new website. Few Cubans have Internet access, of course, but Fernando's hope is that any tourist headed for the island who searches for Havana and restaurants will see his Indian menu at the top of the list. For NPR News, I'm Nick Miroff in Havana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.