Fidel Castro's recent flirtation with free enterprise has sparked a home-cooked culinary revolution in Cuba, says Martin Horsfield

Paladares - and their guest-house equivalents casas particulars - offer more intrepid tourists the opportunity to dine in authentic local surroundings amid the crumbling colonial splendour of Havana or increasingly further afield. Amor itself, on Calle 23 - a short hop from the bleakly impressive mile-square austerity of the Plaza de la Revolucion, scene of many a seven-hour Castro rally - is tucked away on the second storey of a typically opulent mansion. Not that we can actually get to see inside, let alone sample the establishment's famed peanut-coated fried turkey breasts: the electricity's off, you see.

"This is Cuba, always problems," shrugs our host. "If it's not electricity, it's water or gas. Come back tomorrow and I'll make you a free cocktail."

With stomachs rumbling, we ask if there are any more paladares nearby. No problem: we're given a personal escort to Los Tres Mosqueteros by one of Amor's habitués. Unlike the jinteros (hustlers) of the old town who'll talk endlessly to tourists under the premise of "practising our English" before steering conversation around to the cost of baby milk, our guide is keen to talk music, telling us that Amor hosts a regular Sunday gathering of salsa and son musicians. And he has only kind words for Amor's rivals round the corner, recommending the seafood sharing platter with just one proviso: "They'll look after you, but If they try to charge you more than $30 [£17], they're ripping you off."

In a country where the average monthly wage is US$20 (£11), such concern is faintly embarrassing. While tourism equals hard cash for most Habaneros, as the locals are known, the industry's gradual return has altered their way of life almost as much as Castro's 45-year-old planned economy. It's commonplace to hear of people quitting careers in teaching and medicine in favour of any job where they come into contact with tourists. A hotel porter can pick up more in a day in tips than a doctor earns in a month.

If Cuban cuisine hasn't enjoyed a sparkling reputation since the island's heyday as a handy playground for booze-starved barflys escaping prohibition-era America, it's hardly surprising. After the 1959 revolution, the US trade embargo made even simple ingredients hard to come by. Meanwhile, the state took control of all restaurants, even those as venerated as Hemingway's favoured Art Deco daiquiri joint, El Floridita.

The first change came in 1991 after the break-up of the Soviet Union, when Castro could no longer rely on $6bn (£3.4bn) a year in subsidies and as much as 85 per cent of Cuba's trade collapsed. Then, in 1993, after two years of shortages, his pragmatic periodo especial (literally "special period") widened to allow the temporary re-legalisation of the US dollar. Capitalism crept back into Cuban life, including limited free enterprise in the form of the paladares.

Nonetheless, life for a paladare owner is hard. In order to maintain the illusion of grandeur * in the state-run restaurants on the tourist trail - where service is at best lamentable, and dishes rarely vary - the paladares cannot sell lobster or shrimp. They are only licensed for 12 diners and taxed heavily, regardless of whether anyone turns up to eat or not. While this leads to some owners recruiting jinteros to nab tourists off the street, normally you have a pleasant surprise when you get inside. In Tres Mosqueteros, you clamber up two flights of stairs, pass flaming pans being crashed about in the cramped kitchen (the kids may be helping out or watching television across the landing) then venture into a precarious conservatory, which would overlook the courtyard were the glass not thick with condensation.

Vegetarians aren't especially well catered for in Cuba - where most households keep a pig as a reliable reserve of animal fat - and there's an added shock for animal lovers here in the shape of a variety of stuffed birds. But the Cristal lager is ice cold and the seafood platter arrives with hunks of flash-fried fish, plump prawns, congris (a staple side-dish of rice and beans), freshly chopped banana and what looks suspiciously like half a lobster. We'll call it a langoustine; you never know who might be watching.

It's a hot night to be working in a kitchen but the owners are unreasonably chirpy. After a few beers and a simple dessert of fresh fruit, the whole spread comes in, as promised, at around $30. Considering that tourists are charged $7 (£4) for a daiquiri a mile away in El Floridita (where all the cash goes straight to Castro, estimated personal wealth over £300m says Forbes magazine), no wonder everyone seems happy.

The average Cuban household still gets by on rations of six eggs, 3kg of rice, half a kilo of beans and half a litre of cooking oil a month, so paladare proprietors really do perform miracles. And nowhere more so than at Don Lorenzo in the old town (Acosta 260), where the menu has over 50 dishes, including veggie set meals. Here the vibe is less colonial and a whole lot stranger. A pelican perches on the out-house roof and Don will happily show you his pen full of small crocodiles - he cooks them too, stuffed or in a stew. It's fun to watch straight-laced American visitors try to work out if this really is the place their friends recommended, but a stiff mojito is usually enough to calm their nerves.

Considerably easier to spot from the street is Gringo Viejo, back in Vedado. Literally meaning "old cowboy", this basement joint gets its name from its proprietor's proud resemblance to Kenny Rogers (really, we're not making this up). Breaking the idyll of its sleepy locale (Calle 21), you'll know where it is either because of the sound of The Eagles and Glen Campbell playing incongruously out into the street or when you bump into the old cowboy himself, fixing his pick-up truck outside.

He's clearly a cult figure round these parts. Pictures of visitors stroking his beard jostle for space on the walls with film memorabilia (a disproportionate amount of which covers Rogers' less-than-illustrious career in TV movies). And, unusually for Cuba - where the blockade means you're still unlikely to get anything more lively than white pepper to augment your meals at a state-run restaurant - the old gringo's international fan club has ensured he has a wide selection of (admittedly vintage) condiments.

There are equally eccentric establishments at just about every turn in Havana. And, while the rest of the island has been slow to get geared up to tourist tastes - the grilled grouper on the sun terrace of one of the few paladares in Pinar Del Rio smells fresh; the outdoor toilet next to the barbecue less so - it seems that Castro's unlikely dabble with the dollar-rich is having the desired effect: namely, preserving Cuba's defiant independence, coaxing the tourists from the comfort zones of their air-conditioned hotels and putting food on everyone's table.