On a beach in the Middle East, eastern flavours collide into Cuban ingredients and culture, and a taste sensation is born. Liz Totton learns how Asia met Cuba and forged this innovative cuisine.
For decades, the island of Cuba has cajoled visitors with its good looks, steamy weather, anachronistic American cars, colourful mixed drinks, and flamboyant Afro-Cuban beats. Asia has historically mixed and mingled exotic ingredients in innovative ways that have beguiled diners for millennia. When the two cuisines crossed paths in the Caribbean, an exceptional gastronomy was born.
If the idea of languishing beachside, casually sipping a pineapple drink while listening to soft conga drums in a one-two beat in the sun sounds good to you, then you need to make a reservation at Asia de Cuba today. The venue – one of Abu Dhabi’s newest imports from New York City – has opened its doors in the Nation Riviera Beach Club. Between the drinks, the view and flavour riot of the food, you’ll be getting in the conga line for a coveted seat every weekend night.
If the food of Asia and the tiny island of Cuba seem an unlikely combination, try it. You will spend the evening wondering how it’s possible that you have not been devouring this combo your entire life.
Asia de Cuba is the vision of global chef Luis Pous who hails from Cuba. The merging of the food Cuba and Asia has a name and a history. It’s called ‘Chino Latino’, and according to Luis, ‘It was created by Chinese immigrants in Cuba who were brought to Cuba as labourers in the 1850s. These migrants blended Chinese cuisine with Cuban ingredients and from that a new cuisine was born.’ Luis adds, ‘It all began in El Barrio Chino – Havana’s Chinatown. Before 1959, it was one of the oldest and most thriving Chinatowns in the Americas.’
We ask Luis how the cuisine then migrated to Miami and New York City. Luis explains, ‘After the Cuban Revolution in 1959, many Cuban Chinese left the island. The majority established Cuban Chinese restaurants in the US, mainly in New York City and Miami.’ And how then did it travel across the world to London and now Abu Dhabi? Luis adds, ‘It was so well received and sought after there, it expanded and it continues to expand.’
We ask Luis to attribute the success of the Asian-influenced Latin American food as we wonder what makes it such a stand out? He offers, ‘They both have bold flavours, the roots are the same in terms of sharing plates and being so well suited to large family gatherings. We also use similar ingredients such as black beans and a lot of the same vegetables and herbs. Many of these ingredients are also common in the Middle Eastern kitchen.’ Luis adds, ‘That’s helpful because the ingredients are easier to source locally. Many of the Cuban ingredients are similar to those in the Middle East, such as the grains, dry herbs and spices, such as cardamom, cinnamon, cumin, garlic and onion. Sourcing guava has been a challenge, but they’re important, so we do our best to find them.’
Asia de Cuba is being very well received in the UAE. We ask if Luis might name a favourite dish. Luis replies, ‘There are so many, but if I had to choose just one, it would be the cumin roast lamb which truly represents Cuban culture due to its ability to accommodate a large family gathering. It’s also festive. Who doesn’t like a roast with traditional accompaniments?’
Luis Pous has not become a world-renowned chef for no reason. He not only masterfully blends ingredients and cooking styles, but he also turns dishes on their heads in order to create something new and completely unexpected. Take for example, his delectable shrimp churros. For those unfamiliar with Latin American cuisine, a ‘churro’ is a sweet fried-dough pastry eaten for breakfast and often dipped in hot chocolate or a café con leche (Spanish for coffee with milk). Luis took the sweet breakfast treat, made it savoury and serves it as an appetiser. He added shrimp, sesame and coconut curry to render the tasty ‘Latin American’ snack food distinctively ‘Asian’. What’s that noise? It’s just your taste buds doing a rumba in your mouth.
He has done the same with almost the entire menu. Luis does everything, from mixing ceviche with miso to serving foie gras with honey tamari glaze, to topping miso-glazed black cod with an avocado poblano puree, and finally there are the desserts. Imagine a dreamy très leche chocolate cake topped with chocolate Szechuan peppercorn ice cream. If you like unusual juxtapositions and food that surprises you more with every course, Asia de Cuba is the place to being exploring both the world of gastronomy and the world itself.
If you feel at all timid about such a culinary exploration, don’t be. Asia de Cuba has a friendly and knowledgeable staff, and they know their ingredients. If you are concerned about some of the more mysterious-sounding ingredients on the menu, such as fufu, chayote, or escabeche, don’t worry, the staff are fully clued up. Let them be your guides on your culinary journey in the place where Asian and Cuban food meet.
Then there’s the location. Asia de Cuba has it all; mouth-watering food, a stunning sea view, beach cabana seating, cool drinks, an outdoor open bar and an ambiance that immediately transports you to another place far, far away from your day-to-day stress. Colourful, jangly glass bottle lanterns alight the terrace at night and are reminiscent of El Chino Barrio. The moment you walk in, you switch your internal clock to ‘island time’ where the hardest decision you may have to make is which mocktail to order. Or, should you have ceviche de pescado or go straight in for the irresistible guava whipped cheesecake?
Finally, don’t leave without trying the hamachi sashimi, chicken chicharrones and the très leches de chocolate for dessert. You’re welcome!
Asia de Cuba, open for lunch from noon-3pm and for dinner from 6pm-midnight. Nation Riviera Beach Club, St. Regis Abu Dhabi, make reservations online at www.asiadecuba.com (02 699 3333).