Recently, I wrote about what it's like to return to the United States and shop at Costco after living in Cuba for two years. Before our trips to the U.S., I spend weeks compiling my shopping list; it's kind of like a game of "What I'd Take to a Deserted Island" except, in this case, the island is real. If I had to narrow it down to five items, here are the top things I take when I go to Cuba:
1. Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese: My time in Italy taught me to use it sparingly but constantly. I grate it into salads and pastas, fold it into meat, fish, and poultry dishes, and throw chunks of it into soup. My kids eat it on its own, satisfying their predilection for salt. I buy the cheese in heavy 2 or 3 pound triangles and keep a reserve of them in our fridge — the longer you keep it, the better it tastes. We won’t settle for the grated Kraft stuff (which costs $15 in Cuba, on the rare days when you can find it).
2. Vegetable/fruit seeds: If you can't buy it, grow it. There's a scene in the movie The Martian with Matt Damon that all of us who live in Cuba can relate to -- the one where he's hunched down, counting the remaining potatoes in his drawer. Then he decides to grow them. Yes, it may be technically illegal to bring seeds to a foreign country, but I already have a defense if I’m asked at customs: how can I deprive my children of cherry tomatoes? To make up for the lack of diversity of fruits and vegetables in Cuba, I’ve experimented with many different seeds, from zucchini to kale in our backyard. The most successful of the seeds have produced large harvests of kale, arugula, and cherry tomatoes. (Credit for the kale goes to my friends Kristin and Derek, who first brought in the seeds.)
3. Trader Joe’s Chai Latte mix: This is just one of those silly comfort items, and gives me a small boost in between all those Cuban espressos. The fact that it’s one of our rare convenience foods makes us cherish it more in Cuba than in the U.S.
4. Granola bars: We stock up on a huge assortment of Nature Valley, Quaker, and Kashi bars. They get us through our travels through Cuba. Sometimes, when you are outside of Havana, it can be a challenge to find a decent meal that takes less than two hours. Also, they’re an easy, instant snack that I can put in my kids' lunches.
5. Tortilla chips: Before moving to Cuba, I'd thought that Cuba’s proximity to Mexico meant there would be many similarities in the food. Nothing could be further from the truth. Aside from the rice and beans aspect, Mexican food and Cuban food have little to do with each other. (Cubans, for the most part, don’t eat anything spicy.) Tortillas and tortilla chips are extremely rare in Cuba. I’ve managed to make tortillas from scratch, but I’ve yet to master that extra step of baking or frying them into chips. I've learned not to check them in our baggage (you'll end up with a whole bag of tortilla shards), but rather to carry them on in a canvas bag.
What would you take to Cuba (or a deserted island)? Share your thoughts on my Facebook page.