Cuban Food Stories Brings Cuba's Culinary Heritage to the Big Screen

From stories of unlikely and booming private restaurants to the Duchess of Cornwall’s unsubtle jab at food on the island, there’s little uniformity to how Cuba’s cuisine is represented in today’s media. One thing is common: Cubans generally aren’t the ones telling the stories of Cuban food. Asori Soto’s Cuban Food Stories aims to change that.

“We set out to make a film about what real Cubans do to keep their culinary heritage alive,” says the film’s Cuban director and producer Asori Soto. “For us, it was essential that people from all walks of life in Cuba could see themselves represented or their family in this film.“

The film about “food, society, and culture on the island of Cuba” brings viewers to the far reaches of the island — bringing light to some parts of Cuban culture so remote they must be reached by horseback.

From remote island ceviche to rural ropa vieja to blue crab polenta in Gibara, Cuban Food Stories shows that the best Cuban food is still found in Cuba — and that the best way to get to know the island is through its culinary heritage.

We got the chance to talk with Asori Soto about Cuban food, his story and mission, and the importance of sharing a meal.

You’re Cuban, why was it important to you to tell this story?

Ever since I can remember, food has always been a very complicated subject in Cuba.  I spent my early childhood in New York and returned to Cuba in 1991, right after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The 90s were very dark times for Cubans on the island. Food basically disappeared. During that period, many families ate only water with sugar and bread with oil and salt for dinner. Even today, many people would tell you that there is no food in Cuba,  and it's true that food is very scarce,  but if we are proud about our food traditions, a new culinary future in Cuba is still possible. 

I believe in the power of storytelling to improve the world that we live in. I also think that it is essential for every segment of society to feel represented to value its own heritage. So we set out to make a film about what real Cubans do to keep their culinary heritage alive. For us, it was essential that people from all walks of life in Cuba could see themselves represented or their family in this film. A story of Cuba told by Cubans. 

How did this project differ from other projects you’ve made in the past?

This film is very personal, it's not only a film about Cuban food and culture, but it's also a journey to reconnect with my Cuban heritage. During 45 days we interacted with everyday fellow Cubans, we lived with them, eat with them and became friends. Spending all that time with them, made me realize the power of food to bring people together. Even if you don't see eye to eye with someone, if you share a meal and talk, you can get to common grounds. Because of that, Cuban Food Stories has become much more than a film project for us. 

Now that we released the film, we are working in the creation of the "CFS Culinary Initiative." A public benefit venture with the mission of honoring and modernizing Cuba's rich and diverse food culture using sustainable and innovative food production techniques. The work of the Initiative it's self-funded, and we hope to add partners inside and outside of Cuba that share our vision for a new culinary landscape in Cuba. 

Did anything surprise you about Cuba when you were filming?

The biggest culinary surprises we had in Cuba were in Gibara and Baracoa. The two cities have very distinct regional dishes that are not found in the rest of the island. 

In Gibara, the flavors are influenced by their heritage from the Canary Islands and their access to good quality seafood. Whether it is a restaurant or a house, they cook unique dishes like “Arroz with Coquina Clams,” “Stuffed Blue Crabs,” or a “Blue Crab Polenta” with flavors that you will not find on the rest of the island.

In Baracoa, the difference from the rest of the island is even more extreme. Baracoa was the first city founded in Cuba, but until the mid-1900s, Baracoa remained isolated from the rest of the Island. At some point in the 1800s, the people of Baracoa had closer economic relations with French Louisiana and Haiti than the rest of Cuba. In Baracoa, coconut and chocolate are the primary agricultural cultivations. These historical conditions influenced the cuisine there. The use of coconut milk, coconut oil, and chocolate in their cooking is unprecedented in the rest of the country. 

Because of the remote geographic locations of both Gibara and Baracoa, their cuisine is mostly unknown to the rest of Cuba and the world. 

What do you hope audiences take away from Cuban Food Stories?

We want the audience to know that Cuba is more than rice, beans, and pork. It's a big nation full of beautiful people that go to the extreme to preserve their traditions and to share anything they may have. Whether it is their food, their roof or their friendship. We want people to engage with real Cubans and get to know them without any prejudice, they may not come from the same socio-economical background, but there are many real-life lessons to learn from the Cuban way of life.  

What’s your favorite Cuban dish?

This is a very tricky one, I love food, so whether it is Cuban or international cuisine I do not have a favorite dish, It always depends on my mood on the day. But related to Cuban cuisine I can tell you this, when I feel homesick, there are a couple of dishes I like to cook: Braised Lamb Ropa Vieja with Garlicky Tostones and Cilantro, or a good old fashion Gibarian Paella. We will be posting these recipes and more at our blog. 

Isabel Albee