If you can't just hop on a plane to Havana and start inhaling ropa vieja, these books are the next best thing.
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Havana, Cuba
Credit: Vivienne Gucwa/Getty Images

"When people visit Cuba, they love it. But somehow, you always hear, 'Well, the food wasn't that great...'"

Cynthia Carris Alonso smiles and shakes her head. She is the writer and photographer behind a notable new cookbook, A Taste of Cuba, and she can't believe how wrong people are.

I recently spoke with Carris Alonso about her latest work — a conversation that inevitably turned to broader questions about Cuban cuisine, the impact and idiosyncrasies of tourism, and misinformation about the country she has spent so long documenting. Hers is one of a recent wave of cookbooks examining the traditional recipes and contemporary gastronomy of this nation in flux: a growing draw for travelers, and Travel + Leisure's Destination of the Year in 2015, but still vastly misunderstood and clouded by confusing government policies and lingering suspicions.

"Back in 1992," she says, "I started documenting Cuba as a photographer and journalist. I was there during the era of Elián González, the groundbreaking visit from Pope John Paul II." Remarkable photographs from her 20+ years in the field are featured in her first book, Passage to Cuba: An Up-Close Look at the World's Most Colorful Culture. But despite increased access and interest in the island, she knows that there are stories yet to be told.

"I knew there was a great culinary movement happening," she says, concerned by the misconceptions about Cuban cuisine. "It's not just black beans and rice." (Though, she adds, the black beans are often great — Michael Calvo, the chef at El Atelier, adds cloves to the mix). "You'll find Spanish influence in the north, French influence in the south, and a large West African influence from the Yoruba community, especially in Old Havana."

stilt walkers in Old Havana from A Taste of Cuba by Cynthia Carris Alonso
Stilt walkers in Old Havana.
| Credit: Cynthia Carris Alonso

The Cuba she has seen is one of young chefs and entrepreneurs who draw on a rich and diverse cuisine influenced by centuries of colonialism, immigration, and passed-down knowledge of indigenous plants. Dining in Cuba is anchored by the country's vast network of paladares, or privately owned restaurants; officially illegal in the Soviet era, these establishments have become an indispensable part of the social fabric in the age of economic reform.

Compelled by Cuba's rising restaurant scene — and the growing interest in food as a guiding principle for travel — Carris Alonso and her Cuban-born husband, José Luis Alonso, planned a culinary research trip. They toured the country's preeminent paladares, doing oral history work with the chefs and gathering favorite recipes, new and old. During her travels, she found "high end, elaborate, sophisticated cooking" and "internationally-trained chefs cooking traditional Cuban recipes, sometimes with a twist."

These stories, photographs, and dishes are collected in A Taste of Cuba — "the recipes are exclusively from Cuban chefs cooking in Cuba" — which is organized by region, each chef and business owner telling the story of their restaurantin their own words.

Malanga Fritters at El Atelier from A Taste of Cuba by Cynthia Carris Alonso
Malanga fritters at El Atelier, in Havana.
| Credit: Cynthia Carris Alonso

Converting well-loved recipes and colloquial measurements into modern format was not always easy. Valerie Feigen, recipe tester and Carris Alonso's culinary collaborator, emphasizes the amount of translation involved. "Not just language, but metrics, ingredients. One recipe called for a 'coffee-cup-full' of olive oil — I had to experiment to figure out that the coffee cups are very small there." Plus, the agricultural and geopolitical landscape in Cuba means some inherent differences in availability of ingredients. "Some things aren't the same," says Feigen; "the sugar is different, beef is scarce in certain areas, and everything is organic by default."

Their work has paid off. Inside, you'll find old favorites — ropa vieja, fried plantains — and one-of-a-kind preparations, like the Bebida Anti-Estrés from Finca Agroecologica el Paraiso, a sustainable farm near Viñales, or a tomato-prosciutto terrine served at El Atelier, in Havana, once host to Michelle Obama.

Grilled fish at La Guarida from A Taste of Cuba by Cynthia Carris Alonso
Grilled fish at La Guarida, in Havana.
| Credit: Cynthia Carris Alonso

With these recipes, the authors hope to show Cuba as a real place where real people live (and cook, and eat) and dispel some of the fear that is clouding U.S. perception. Despite the whispers, says Carris Alonso, "it's not difficult to visit Cuba right now. It's on a 'dangerous countries' list somewhere because they had to pull people from the embassies — but there's actually a new legal travel category called 'Support for the Cuban People.'" Eligibility, she says, requires avoiding establishments and hotels with ties to the military and spending money only to support individual Cuban business owners.

While information remains scarce (the embassy website mentions this in passing, and a travel advisory remains in effect) one thing is clear: U.S. travelers are still going to Cuba, and there is a world of deliciousness waiting for them.

A Taste of Cuba
Credit: Courtesy of Cynthia Carris Alonso/From A Taste of Cuba cookbook

A Taste of Cuba: A Journey Through Cuba and Its Savory Cuisine

By Cynthia Carris Alonso with Valerie Feigen and José Luis Alonso
Apollo | May 2018

To buy: $22.50, amazon.com

2018, it seems, is the year of Cuban cookbooks. A number of others have debuted in recent months, with more on the horizon — perhaps signaling that, despite the theater of geopolitical posturing, interest in Cuba and its culture continues to deepen.

Here are three more titles that dig into the diverse culinary landscape of the island:

Cuban Flavor
Credit: Courtesy of Liza Gershman

Cuban Flavor: Exploring the Island's Unique Places, People, and Cuisine

By Liza Gershman
Skyhorse | February 2018

This is the twelfth book for Gershman, a food and travel photographer by trade, following previous photography-led titles such as Passage to China and Drink Vermont. Inside, you'll find around 50 foundational Cuban recipes from paladares around the island — picadillo, Cubanosandwiches — but the photographs are the driving force, a strong collection packed with colorful cityscapes and architectural shots, scenes of farming and rural life, portraits of Cuban chefs and makers, and vibrant pictures of Cuba's diverse canon of classic dishes.

To buy: amazon.com, $18

Cuba: The Cookbook
Credit: Courtesy of Phaidon

Cuba: The Cookbook

By Madelaine Vázquez Gálvez and Imogene Tondre
Phaidon | June 2018

A recent addition to Phaidon's growing list of "national culinary bibles" is this title by two notable names in the world of Cuban food studies. Gálvez has worked in Cuba's government Office of Social Food Systems and Gastronomy and helped open her country's first vegetarian restaurant; Tondre has lived in Cuba for over a decade and has a master's degree in Cuban food culture from the University of Havana. Inside, they gather over 350 recipes from home cooks, neighborhood restaurants, and community elders, compiling perhaps the most comprehensive compendium of traditional Cuban recipes to date — with an eye to preserving heritage techniques and preparations that are in danger of being lost in a fast-changing Cuba.

To buy: amazon.com, $37.50

Cuba Cooks
Credit: Courtesy of Rizzoli

Cuba Cooks: Recipes and Secrets from Cuban Paladares and Their Chefs

By Guillermo Pernot and Lourdes Castro
Rizzoli | September 2018

This forthcoming book is a collaboration between Guillermo Pernot — James Beard Award-winning author and chef-partner at Philadelphia's Cuba Libre — and Lourdes Castro, a Cuban-American professor and author with three Latin American-focused cookbooks under her belt. Pernot (who José Andrés calls "the Maestro of Cuban cooking" in the book's introduction) has long been involved in Cuba's world of paladares; his long-running "Pop-Up Paladares" series brings Cuba's best chefs to the U.S. for stints in the Cuba Libre kitchen, and he has led regular culinary tours of Havana since 2012. The cookbook born from Pernot and Lourdes' mutual passion includes a detailed look at the varied influences on Cuban cuisine — Spanish colonizers, African slaves, indigenous techniques, later waves of immigrants from Europe, Asia, and beyond — as well as recipes from paladares around the island and Pernot's own kitchen.

To pre-order: amazon.com, $40

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