For Foodies


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Now a story about an enterprising foodie in Cuba. Hundreds of new restaurants have opened since President Raul Castro began allowing some small-scale private enterprise. Most serve typical Cuban or Spanish fare, and that's where a Londoner named Cedric Fernando saw a business opportunity.

Nick Miroff has this story about Havana's Bollywood, the first and only Indian restaurant in Cuba.

NICK MIROFF, BYLINE: In the converted garage of a two-storey home in Havana's Nuevo Vedado neighborhood, a team of Cuban chefs is rolling up samosas and sizzling onions for a plate of Bollywood prawns.

It's a recipe from Sri Lanka, passed down to Cedric Fernando by his father. The hot curry and other spices came to Havana from London, the same path Fernando took 16 years ago when he met his Cuban wife, who's also now his business partner.

CEDRIC FERNANDO: We thought it would be a good idea, especially with these new laws that are promoting businesses, to open an Indian restaurant. In Cuba, there are no spicy - good spicy restaurants. I don't think there are any real spicy restaurants.

MIROFF: Fernando called it Bollywood, figuring that Cubans would at least recognize the Hollywood name. His family lives upstairs, and the restaurant below has posters of Indian movie stars on the walls. The Cuban waiters wear bright, silky outfits that Fernando says are basically wedding costumes. But Cuba is not an easy pitch to play cricket on, as Fernando says. Supplies and electricity are erratic, and the Communist Party daily newspaper Granma doesn't sell advertising. So like any resourceful Cuban, Fernando has improvised.

FERNANDO: Here we go.


MIROFF: This is Fernando's main promotional vehicle, literally, a white 1955 British MG convertible that he drives around Havana and parks outside the restaurant. A bright pink Bollywood sign with the Taj Mahal is painted on the door.

FERNANDO: It has an old horn...


FERNANDO: ...which is quite attractive.


MIROFF: Traditional Cuban dishes are typically deep fried and lacking in sauces or seasonings, but other new restaurants are helping diversify Cuba's cuisine, which Fernando prefers to call nonspicy rather than bland. Sushi, falafel and Mexican tacos are showing up at new privately-owned Havana eateries. Since opening in December, most of Fernando's clients have been tourists or foreigners living in Havana, but he says about a quarter of his customers are Cubans.

Bollywood was packed on a recent Saturday night with Sri Lankan music on Fernando's stereo and all six of his tables full. Among the Cubans trying dishes like lamb rogan josh for the first time was 33-year-old Lizette Barros.

LIZETTE BARROS: (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: As a Cuban, I wouldn't want to eat this every day, Barros said, but it's great to be able to try something different. What's less clear is how much appetite Cuba's communist leaders have for expanding private enterprise. As new businesses cut into the profits of state-owned restaurants and other government property, there's a fear authorities will choke the private sector before it can really flourish. Fernando says, so far, he's been paying his taxes and hasn't been hassled.

FERNANDO: They're not on your shoulders, but they're not off your shoulders, either, but they're not trying to shut you down. I think they genuinely are trying to promote small businesses.

MIROFF: Fernando is expanding the restaurant with plans for a bar and twice as many tables. He's advertising on Google and even has a new website. Few Cubans have Internet access, of course, but Fernando's hope is that any tourist headed for the island who searches for Havana and restaurants will see his Indian menu at the top of the list. For NPR News, I'm Nick Miroff in Havana.

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