Every great city in the world has a standout Cuban food truck.
Hidden behind trade restrictions since 1958, many of us only know Cuban culture through its food. With travel becoming slightly easier in recent years, we’re only now beginning to discover more about a country full of pride and deep tradition. We spoke with Cuban native Leo Lopez and his wife Carla, founders of Melbourne’s (delicious) Don Lopez ‘El Cubano’ food truck to learn what makes the small island so fascinating.
“Everyday starts with a cup of coffee in Cuba”, according to Leo. Cuba’s weather is perfect for three things: beach side Mojitos, a white linen get up and growing arabica coffee beans. The essence of Cuban culture unravels with the way in which they begin and end their day. Scrap all the fancy names like long black, frappuccino, latte and flat white. It’s all about the espresso, with a traditional Cuban twist of course.
You collect the organic coffee beans direct from a farmer, you dry it, roast it, toast it and grind it. Once you’ve finished making a pot, the fragrant aroma of uniquely Cuban coffee has neighbours and passersby alike forming a queue at the front door. In Cuba, there’s an open door policy and hospitable nature that strikes you as soon as you get out of the airport.
“The Cuban cigar and coffee, they’re like a couple. That’s a marriage”, says Leo with a cheeky grin. An aspect of the culture that’s deeply rooted in tradition, the Indigenous Cubans would wrap tobacco in plantain leaves and smoke it. This was passed down generation to generation and has evolved into a process that involves three layers of leaves to wrap the tobacco. Crafted perfectly utilising different parts of the plant, sometimes from different parts of Cuba. Though you can harvest the ingredients for the world’s best cigars all over the Caribbean island, the very best conditions are in Pinar Del Rio. Of course, “the day ends with a coffee and a cigar” says Carla.
“In Cuba you cannot have a party without food. It’s a rule – you cannot drink without having food”. Food and music are as much an unwritten rule of Cuban life as coffee and cigars. Everyone chips in for ‘picar’ at the start of every party – a new term in my vocabulary I must admit. ‘Picar’ is a colloquialism that translates to ‘to pick’, and means to have finger food and some drinks – mantra to live by.
From the farmer that brings your days fruit and vegetables, to the way in which everybody brings a little something to contribute, food is an experience made to be shared; You can’t help but envy the Cuban culture after checking out of another soulless supermarket. Much of the food that you’ll find in Havana and beyond is influenced by its rich history. ‘Comida criolla’ translates to Creole food, a blend of Spanish, African and Caribbean flavours, cooking techniques and spices.
“If you’re going to make it, make it right”, a statement by Leo that begs the question, what classifies as right? “Full of flavour, full of love”.
The Spanish and African influence is evident in more than just the food! Behind those colourfully painted front doors, “there is always music in the background and a glass of rum on the table”, says Leo. Havana’s iconic peeling paint creates a certain aesthetic that reflects the time warp of a country that has been seemingly stuck in time.
“There’s a lot of history in Cuban houses. The architecture’s beauty is because it hasn’t been touched”, according to Leo. The lack of accessibility to wifi, the trade embargo, the deeply rooted traditions all create a unique expression of time and an appeal that makes this the perfect destination for The 5TH team.