A Little Piece of China in Havana

It was shortly after we met our Cuban counterparts on the island that we were invited to the group’s boisterous ringleader’s house to go out.  As we drove down Zanja St. in Havana, a long winding road that was the original site of a large canal built by the Spanish in colonial times, we dove further and further into the heart of Havana.  As our taxi slowed to a stop, I noticed a bright orange sign welcoming us to “Barrio Chino” in Havana.  I was surprised to see a Chinatown on this American tropical island, but Chinatown actually has a very long history in Havana.  So it ended up that the ringleader, named Watson (a whole other story in itself) had been raised in Chinatown, who had impressed us with his Tae Kwon Do black belt, and offered to walk us to dinner.

barrio chino2

As me, Shea, and Wes walked down the dusty, winding, dark roads (and sometimes alleys) with the three Cubans we had met with at around 9:30 pm, we stopped at an inconspicuous door with a sign announcing a restaurant.  Watson led us up the stairs and I told him we would be done by 10:30 pm and to come get us.  They hesitated to leave and we anxiously entered the dining area.  I frankly don’t remember what I ate that night, but clearly remember the terror and chaos as we realized that they hadn’t arrived at our decided time and likely weren’t coming to get us.

Wes, our brave warrior-adventurer, was sent out first to figure out how to get back to the third floor apartment to our new companions in densely populated Chinatown.  When Wes came back 15 minutes later with no idea where we were or how to get back, we all left together in search for something that would call our attention.  So we wound our way back through the alleys, stray dogs, and Truman-era cars, in what I can only describe as a divinely guided journey.  There was no way in hell we could have gotten back by ourselves.

Three girls walking down Escobar Street in Centro Habana raise their hands and smile after spotting a photographer shooting scenes at the intersection. Someone has painted "Manchester United" on a wall. Havana, Cuba
Three girls walking down Escobar Street in Centro Habana raise their hands and smile after spotting a photographer shooting scenes at the intersection. Someone has painted “Manchester United” on a wall. Havana, Cuba

http://joelcarillet.photoshelter.com/image/I0000KlWE_ku912U

 

As we spotted familiar looking balconies, we weaseled our way into the apartment building, and climbed the narrow, marble staircase to the apartment with the most noise emanating from inside.  We knocked on the door and a young, beautiful, woman opened the door cautiously.  The three of us walked in, and must have had a look of utter shock and frustration on our faces, as we saw our three deserters sitting, talking, and joking.

I stood and firmly and began to admonish Watson on his lack of punctuality and their abandonment of us in a place that was so foreign to us.  He just sat and listened and nodded.  I don’t think I’ve seen him so quiet since that moment.

My first memory of Chinatown in Havana, was memorable, but not for its food.  After this instance, I quickly realized the glory and ubiquity of fried rice in Havana.  In food stalls, paladares, state run restaurants; it became my failsafe option when I needed something reliable to eat.  Years later when that ringleader and I were finally together in our first apartment in the States, this one only two floors up, was when I missed that Cuban fried rice.  The smell of pork frying, and soy sauce being added to the simplest of belly-fillers, white rice, to combine and make a savory, satisfying dish that I still rely on today.

 

Basic Fried Rice

(serves about 4 people)

Notes: As with most savory dishes, the below amounts are a good starting point, but don’t let that cloud your intuition.  TASTE, SMELL, and TEXTURE are always the most important aspects of cooking at home.  If you add all of the soy sauce called for and it isn’t dark enough, or barely has flavor, just add more and taste often.  Also, adjust the add-ins to your liking.   Please (and I speak from experience) do not cook the rice immediately before preparing this dish, because it will turn into a gloopy mess.  The refrigeration removes some of the excess moisture, which allows the grains to stay separate during frying.  I would say the most important part of this recipe is getting all of your ingredients ready and set in an easily accessible place (or mise en place) ready.  This will allow you to go quickly once you get the rice in the pan.  In Step 4, I didn’t add time for the pan to heat as is typical, because just for browning the bacon, it is not necessary.

Typical accompaniments for this dish are shredded cabbage and sliced tomato dressed in oil and vinegar, and fried pork cutlets, marinated in mojo.  The bean sprouts aren’t very traditional in a Cuban fried rice, but I really think they add a lot here, so I keep them in the recipe.

Ingredients:

4 cups cooked white rice that has been refrigerated overnight

Soy sauce

4-5 scallions

One egg

3 – 4 strips of bacon

Olive Oil/Bacon Fat

½ teaspoon Ground Ginger

One small white or yellow onion

1 ½ cup bean sprouts

Implements:

Your best chopping knife

12 inch non-stick skillet

Cutting board

Plate/board/small bowls for mise en place

  1. Take rice out of refrigerator and break up large pieces that may have stuck together.
  2. Finely dice your onion and set aside.  Slice scallions cross wise to make small rings, set aside.
  3. Cut your bacon into lardons, or small pieces.  I do this by placing the bacon slices on top of each other slicing them into ¼ inch wide pieces.
  4. Heat a large 12-inch non-stick skillet over medium heat.  Place bacon pieces in the pan and separate with a wooden spoon.  Allow them to brown evenly until they begin to crisp up.  Once they are starting to crisp, but are not yet shatteringly crisp, remove them from your pan and place into a small bowl or plate (no paper towel lining necessary).  Try to leave as much bacon fat in the pan as possible.
  5. Lower the heat on the pan with the bacon fat in it to about medium low.  If necessary, add olive oil until there is a thin oil coating over about half of the pan.  Add the onions and ground ginger to the pan and stir until onions have softened.  Once the onions have softened, remove them from the pan and place on a plate.
  6. Raise the stove temperature back to medium.  Add more a small amount of oil if necessary to be able to fry the egg.  Crack the egg into the pan directly and stir to mix the yolk and whites.  Stir and break into pieces until fully cooked.  Remove from pan and place on plate next to onions.
  7. Add more oil to pan, let heat for around 30 seconds or until oil is shimmering and then add rice to pan.  Stir the rice until evenly coated in the oil.  Allow the rice to cook for a minute or two by itself.
  8. Make a well in the center of the rice.  Add the bean sprouts and allow to cook for about a minute until they begin do wilt very slightly. Add onions and egg to the well and then mix to evenly distribute throughout the rice mixture.
  9. Add soy sauce to the rice mixture and stir to coat evenly.  Taste to make sure you have the right amount of soy sauce, add more to taste if necessary.
  10. Add in bacon pieces and scallions and stir to evenly mix.  Turn off the stove.
  11. Plate up and enjoy!

 

 

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