Osmani Castillo — Cuban chef came to China for love

Updated: 2014-07-22 08:14

By Mike Peters (China Daily Latin America)

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Osmani Castillo — Cuban chef came to China for love
Chef Osmani Castillo went to China with a sense of adventure -- and his grandma's flan recipe. Aljibe chicken is a classic roasted bird that's piquant with a citrus marinade, garlic and black pepper.The pork chop, well-seasoned with garlic, lemon, cumin and fresh black pepper, is flash-fried crispy on the outside and succulent inside, served with Cuban rice, lightly fried yucca and mojo sauce. Photos by BRUNO MAESTRINI / China Daily

Expats in China often complain that good Latin food is surprisingly hard to come by. Cuba's Osmani Castillo has been working to change that for five years.

"I came to China for love," the big chef says with a hearty laugh. Castillo was cooking in a Havana hotel when he met a Chinese woman who was staying there while launching a fabrication plant for plastic goods. They've been a couple ever since, and Castillo enjoyed being a tour guide as they visited old Havana, beautiful beaches and scenic spots such as Pinar del Rio and Artemisa.

Since arriving in China in 2009, Castillo has run kitchens in the capital and in Tianjin before joining a partnership to be executive chef at Caribeno in Beijing's central business district. He delights in serving up Cuban specialties to guests — such as ropa viejo (literally "old clothes"). The dish is a pile of shredded beef cooked with bell peppers, onions, rosemary and coriander in a sweet red wine and tomato sauce. The Caribeno kitchen serves this with sides of Cuban rice, smashed green plantains and avocado.

It's not hard to get most of his ingredients, but a few have required some ingenuity — or having the right friends.

"We use the yerba bueno in our mojitos," he says of the fragrant herb often called Cuban mint. "It was nowhere to be found in the markets, but I was lucky — someone started a patch growing in the garden at the Cuban embassy." The plant grows quickly, so a little sharing went a long way.

While Castillo is not a diplomat, the gregarious restaurateur has made Caribeno a cultural outpost for his country. Chinese and expats come not only for the food but the lively music and the recently organized Friday-night salsa performances. Photos on the wall include ambassadors and entrepreneurs from many Latin countries, as well as scenes of Havana life, Caribbean beaches and icons like Che Guevara, who looks across the restaurant from an enlarged print of a Cuban 3-peso bill. (Guevara was once head of the central bank.) In 2010, Osmani catered the food for an exhibition of photographs taken by Guevara on his world travels.

Fine Cuban cigars are on hand for restaurant patrons as well.

Since the restaurant has been a haven for food lovers from many Latin countries, Osmani plans to broaden the menu, to feature popular dishes from countries like Argentina and Mexico as well as the region's cultural font, Spain. He is intrigued by the experimental approach of Spanish chef Ferran Adria, a superstar in the molecular-food movement, and hopes to bring such cutting-edge thinking to his own restaurant — if he can get the right equipment.

Mixing adventure and comfort foods from home is classic Castillo. His current menu features an exotic "coffee lobster" and a hip mojito cheesecake loaded with rum, pineapple and coconut. But it's probably be the Cuban basics that keep fans coming back for more, such as arroz con leche, an authentic confection of rice, raisins, butter and milk, and the homespun "Grandma flan", a traditional creamy vanilla custard that tickles our taste buds even in memory.