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We spoke to Cubana founder and Managing Director Phillip Oppenheim about opening Cubana 12 years ago, scouring Cuba for pre-revolution recipes and serving the first mojitos in London:
Choosing Cuban Cuisine
I was always fascinated by food and drink and fortunate to have travelled widely. I was a journalist in the early part of my career but I always wanted to do a restaurant. I thought of sushi in London or a greasy spoon in Paris. I wanted to do something different, not a theme bar. By the time we got round to it, sushi had already been done in London.
My then-girlfriend had studied Cuba at university. Although I had travelled a lot, I wasn’t very familiar with Latin America so we went there. We discovered cocktail culture (we served the first mojitos in London), cigars and salsa but the food had gone into decline after the Communist revolution.
To research the food, we found old pre-revolutionary cook books in a book market in Havana and we also found old plantation cooks in the countryside who gave us recipes. We also got some from Cuban-Americans in Miami. We found the mojito recipe from a barman in an illegal private bar in Havana – at that time no-one did mojitos and we brought them to the UK.
Cuban Food at Cubana
Cuban food is obviously Latin American but Mexican is spicier. Cuban food is based on very good ingredients so they don’t need to use too much spice. It’s an eclectic cuisine with North African and Spanish influences.
Our food is always made from fresh ingredients – we never use anything pre-prepared. Everything is free-range – we’ve even received an RSPCA award. Our steaks are from a top quality supplier. We use fresh fruit to make our cocktails – apart from cranberry juice!
We have two signature dishes: Pollo Criollo, that’s free-range chicken marinated in orange juice served with fried plantain and black bean rice. And Ropa Vieja which means “old clothes”. It’s a gloopy, shredded beef stew that takes a day to cook – it’s real comfort food. We sell a lot of it at Glastonbury festival.
Bringing Cuba To London
There aren’t vast numbers of Cubans in London but we get a steady flow in Cubana. The guys from the Embassy often come in and we have Cuban bands that play here. We have lots of Spanish and South American staff.
We do Cuban music and street food as part of Waterloo Carnival and Waterloo Quarter – there are music and street food events throughout July. We also have a Cubana event at Glastonbury festival.
Why Visit Cubana?
Fresh food, great cocktails, reasonable prices.
Cubana, 48 Lower Marsh, SE1 7RG
Where else can you enjoy Cuban culture in London? Tell us in the comments below.