Made with an archivist’s heart and a gourmand’s soul, mouth-watering, personal documentary “Cuban Food Stories” chronicles director Asori Soto’s road trip around the island of his birth, searching for the flavors of his youth and the stories behind the distinctive (and sometimes disappearing) tastes of regional cuisines. Soto, a longtime U.S. resident, captures his native country at a time of transition and smartly probes the relationship between culinary traditions and cultural heritage. The result is a natural for both big- and small-screen play, and sure to be served up around the world on a variety of platforms.
Eye-opening in every way, especially for those who may think that Cuban food is just rice and beans, the film makes extensive use of Soto’s engaging voiceover narration. He provides fascinating historical and sociological context throughout, and contrasts Cuba’s current culinary achievements with the hardships that the island suffered after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when shortages led many Cubans to lose their passion for cooking.
The film is divided into nine chapters set in different far flung locations. Indeed, some locations are so physically remote that they are only accessible by boat, raft, horseback, or swimming.
In isolated spots like Baracoa, on the far eastern tip of the island, the population used to have closer economic ties with French Louisiana and Haiti than the rest of the country. This historical background and the growing of coconut trees and cocoa beans led to a unique local cuisine featuring extensive use of coconut milk, coconut oil, and chocolate.
Gibara, in the Holguin region, about 16 hours east of Havana, also evolved a distinctive local cuisine because of flavors influenced by the residents’ Canary Islands heritage and their access to good quality seafood. Soto’s shots of succulent dishes such as Arroz with Coquina Clams, Stuffed Blue Crabs, or Shrimp Boat should inspire further foodie pilgrimages.
Family traditions and recipes also play an important part in the stories that Soto captures. High in the Sierra Maestra mountain range lies the coffee plantation of Gerardo Flores. He learned the particulars of his business by observing his forebears; his young son Emmanuel is learning from him in the same way. Although just a lad, Emmanuel follows his father from dawn to dusk, has his own patch of land, and specially bred beans that he knows how to make into a fragrant brew.
Meanwhile, in the Viñales valley in western Cuba, we see three generations of one family as they come together to roast a pig for New Year’s Eve. The middle-aged farmer father still takes tips from the senior men, and at the same time coaches and encourages his teenage son. Without such passing on of knowledge, artisanal secrets such as the construction of the hammock on which the pig lies above the coals, might become a lost art.
Family connections also lie at the heart of the businesses that Soto visits. There’s the smoked meats food cart run by multiple generations in a busy piazza during a long night of carnival fireworks, a casa particular (a guest house for foreign visitors) in the city of Trinidad operated by a young family, and entrepreneur Jose Carlos Imperatori’s Old Havana establishment El Del Frente, which specializes in new takes on food that would have been found in his grandmother’s kitchen.
Director-writer Soto, a founder of the Cuban Independent Film Movement, imbues his partially crowd-funded film with a hand-crafted charm that perfectly suits the stories and foods he focuses on. Indeed, “Cuban Food Stories” sets the ideal template for Soto’s upcoming project, “Food Stories,” which promises to be an immersive food and travel series in which a local foodie filmmaker will take audiences on a personal journey through their homeland’s culinary traditions.