“CUBAN FOOD STORIES”— Keeping Traditions

“Cuban Food Stories”

Keeping Traditions

Amos Lassen

Asori Soto’s film “Cuban Food Stories” is about the director returning to Cuba and finding the remnants of Cuba’s culinary history in light of the Castro regime. Soto remembers and longs for the time when Cuba was an exciting destination for tourism and specifically fine dining. After  his immigration to the United States, he learned that Cuban food became watered down when it fused with American influences and American ingredients. In Cuba, the Castros almost completely obliterated its cultural heritage by allowing only the most basic ingredients to be distributed to its people, such as rice and beans or overly regulating the source of food to Havana restaurants, thereby limiting a menu. This limited amount of distribution made passing on family recipes and traditions almost impossible.

With the doors to Cuban tourism slightly opening now, Soto takes us on a culinary tour of Cuba and shows the struggle of its people to maintain traditions in some areas and the victories is others. He has divided his film into  nine chapters that explore specific regions of Cuba showing us that Cubans have struggled to keep their traditions strong and one of those traditions is their food. Some of the locations are so physically remote that they are only accessible by boat, raft, horseback, or swimming making it all the more interesting. Director Soto explains in the more oppressed rural areas that many staples we take for granted here are not there and have to be substituted. For example, beef is often replaced with soy and cooking oil is replaced by water.

In Juragua, the site of what would have been Cuba’s first nuclear power plant run by the Russians, the locals relied on that plant for employment. With Cuba banning boats (in fear of mass defections), poverty reigned, and on-shore fishing limited the amount of fish that could be caught to sustain the town’s economy. Yet, the human spirit remains resourceful. Every region has its own culinary challenges and the people of Cuba have somehow manage to overcome them. Soto’s documentary is half travel guide and half culinary guide and we see that despite its economic struggles and limited resources, Cuba still remains a beautiful country. The resurgence of Cuban culture is strong and beckoning us to consider Cuba as a place to visit.

The film is a gorgeous love letter to the people and country of Cuba. Since the focus is on food, United States/Cuban politics are presented as historical facts and not as commentary. We take a road trip around Cuba and hear the stories behind the distinctive (and sometimes disappearing) tastes of regional cuisines.

Soto has an archivist’s heart and a gourmand’s soul and it is not good to watch this if you are hungry. Soto, captures his native Cuba at a time of transition and smartly probes the relationship between culinary traditions and cultural heritage. The film has something for everyone and opens our eyes to Cuban food. We begin with an introductory voiceover with filmmaker Asori Soto confronting some glaring political and social contradictions about his native country but he ultimately falls prey to a tourist’s version of simplistic nostalgia. 

Having grown up during Cuba’s “Special Period” in the 1990s, a time of great economic and cultural hardship that forced people to use whatever ingredients were available, Soto’s memories of food are quite vague. After spending years studying in America, he decides to return home so he can better understand the culinary traditions of his native land. This film is the result of that and we so lucky to have it.