Ricardo Pimentel bought croquettes at a state-owned establishment in Cuba at the beginning of March to make for his 12-year-old daughter.
Pimentel, 54, brought his own container to take them home in, and as can be the case with other foods sold on the communist island, the food had no packaging listing ingredients, cooking instructions or nutrition information.
He put the familiar croquetas, as they’re called in Spanish, in a frying pan with oil on the stove, waited for it to get hot and put some of the croquettes in to cook. Soon after, the croquettes disintegrated like dynamite, shooting sparks of oil into the air.
“I fried them as usual and let them toast a little bit, because my little girl likes them that way. But when I got closer to look at them, one exploded and bathed my face and chest in boiling oil. Then all the others began to explode,” he told Noticias Telemundo from the province of Camagüey, in the center of the island. “I still have the burn marks.”
On Facebook, Daysel Pimentel, his son, posted pictures of his father’s burns with some sarcastic remarks that at first poked fun at the incident — he joked that CIA “commandos” had infiltrated a Cuban food factory and put highly explosive ingredients in croquettes — but he then accused the government of selling croquettes that were not appropriate for human consumption as people went hungry.
Pimentel’s culinary accident isn’t unique.
Dozens of Cubans have been complaining about exploding croquettes on social media for months, posting photos of people with burns on their faces, eyes and torsos.
Specifically, Cubans pointed on social media to Prodal, a state company based in Havana. After complaints and pictures of people with burn marks were publicized, the company responded on Twitter by publishing specific instructions about how to fry its croquettes to avoid “violent” incidents.
“The oil should be at about 180°, the croquette should be at room temperature and do not fry many at the same time. In the case of Croqueta Criolla, as they have a denser dough, they open with more ‘violence,'” Prodal said in a tweet, responding to a user who had complained that the croquettes exploded and stained the wall of her kitchen.
Prodal told Noticias Telemundo by email that the company, which sells almost half a million croquettes a day in the Cuban capital, has opened telephone lines to the public and wants to collaborate, although it hasn’t paused any commercial activities or said whether it is formally investigating the possible causes.
“We are able to individually address any complaints from customers who provide the information needed to reach them,” the company said. “Everything that has happened has strengthened and perfected us.”
The exploding croquettes are the most recent tragicomic turn for those with fewer resources on the Caribbean island, which imports 60 percent to 70 percent of its food, according to official figures, because national production can’t meet the needs of its 11 million inhabitants.
Anselmo López Galves of Havana reported last month on social media that he suffered burns all over his body when he tried to fry Prodal’s Creole croquettes, which the company refers to as its “star product.” He says he bought them March 24 at a state market.
“To my surprise, these croquettes started exploding in my face, causing burns all over my body and disfiguring my face,” he said on Facebook.
López Galves claimed to have gone to a hospital in the capital, where health personnel reassured him that his wasn’t the first case of serious burns after frying the “explosive croquettes,” as they began to call the product.
Last year, Raúl Rodríguez, a journalist in Cuba, reported the burns on a friend’s face for the same reason, warning people that some croquettes are explosive.
“They were croquettes bought legally,” Rodríguez said on Facebook, describing the friend’s injuries and writing that he wanted as many people to know — “but especially those who are responsible for making the product.”
In another complaint, a Twitter user shared a home video showing the croquettes exploding even after they have been taken out of the pan and are resting on a plate.
According to official data, Prodal produced 20,000 tons of food last year, most of it sausages and croquettes, which are sold in government stores. The company’s chicken croquettes have won quality awards at international fairs such as ExpoCuba and FIHAV, the Havana International Festival.
The country’s Ministry of Food Industry, known by its Spanish initials as MINAL, didn’t respond to a request for comment from Noticias Telemundo.
Cuba’s consumer protection arm, part of the country’s Ministry of Domestic Trade, said by telephone that it hasn’t investigated the complaints, saying the complaints “must be presented formally,” not through social media.
“We are investigating an incident with croquettes, but not with those of that company,” said an official who asked not to be identified by name, adding no further details.
But Pimentel said filing a claim wouldn’t change “nothing.”
Cuba’s official press agency said in an article March 15 that “consumer protection is a priority for Cuba,” citing laws, decrees and resolutions approved by the government, but it didn’t mention the croquettes or the consumer complaints.
Cubans say that in practice, they have little or no guarantee when they buy food in government establishments and that they are rarely compensated for having bought food that is in poor condition or otherwise defective.
‘How can we not keep buying them?’
In a phone interview from Havana, Delvis Rosabal, 55, said people continue consuming the “explosive croquettes” not because they have the “great acceptance” that Prodal boasts, but because it is their only option.
“How can we not keep buying them? What are we going to eat?” said Rosabal, who said she walked to several towns earlier in the week in search of food, only to return with empty bags.
“I went out to the streets Monday morning to get food, and I returned at 6 in the afternoon with nothing. … People are in the queues who can’t take it anymore,” she said. “The day goes by, and sometimes you can’t buy anything.”
The government has blamed the food shortages on U.S. sanctions and travel restrictions due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which has reduced tourism — Cuba’s second-biggest source of income after medical missions — by up to 90 percent. Government critics blame the inefficiency of the communist system and its leaders, as well as corruption and inflation.
‘A terrible mystery’
In the absence of an official explanation, Cubans on social media have taken to posting funny memes or theorizing about why the croquettes explode, positing that they could have air pockets or pieces of ice. Others say that they have too many preservatives or that the company is replacing wheat flour with lower-quality ingredients.
Verónica Cervera, a Cuban American chef and cookbook author, told Noticias Telemundo that she can’t find any culinary explanation or logic to the “explosive croquettes,” which, according to the company, contain only wheat flour, water, fish mince, vegetable oil, spices, salt and sugar.
“This is a terrible mystery,” said Cervera, the author of “La cocina cubana de Vero.” “Normally, a croquette doesn’t explode.”
She said that while croquettes may open up if the oil isn’t hot enough or splatter or jump if a drop of water falls on a hot pan, “the truth is that it’s hard to explain why they explode.”
Cervera said the government should alert the public and take the croquettes off the market while it investigates, and she urged consumers to demand action.
“Imagine burning your face,” she said, “and being disfigured for life by a croquette.”
An earlier version of this article was originally published in Noticias Telemundo.
Follow NBC Latino on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.