When you think of Cuba you think of old cars, cigars, beaches, rum…. I could go on. The one thing it isn’t famous for is its culinary experiences. Since 1962 Cubans have been entitled to a Libreta de Abastecimiento (“Supplies booklet”). This acts as a modern day ration book and the Government sets out what people pay for produce and how much they are allowed. Prior to 1991, even children’s toys were rationed in this way. Thankfully for the children of Cuba this is no longer the case.
As a traveller in Cuba, you don’t have to stick to such allocations; however those looking for a McDonald’s destination should go elsewhere. As much as I love McDonalds (everyone has a guilty secret) I would be dead against them setting up in Cuba. The only amendment to that is there is one branch (just one) in Cuba. It is situated within the US Naval base at Guantanamo Bay and serves as an outlet for the US forces based there. For those not in the military, the whole area is firmly out of bounds – more about that another time.
So food. What can you expect? Breakfast tends to include the mandatory bread (white fluffy only) and eggs. Sometimes juice is available and if you are really lucky, fruit. Pineapple, guava or papaya were the fruits of the day whilst we were there, but on rare occasions we also found banana and pineapple. Lunches, its fair to say, are a simple affair. One day you can have ham and cheese sandwiches, maybe the next just cheese sandwiches. If you are lucky you might find some espagetti napolitana (spaghetti in tomato sauce) or even a ham and cheese pizza. Then you go back to ham and cheese sandwiches. Quite often a restaurant may have a large menu but in reality all they really have are these four combinations. Get the picture? You have to hope you like ham, or cheese or both!
In the evening one of the best places to eat is at your Casa Particular – home stays. They are easy to arrange and the casa ladies are only too happy to cook you a home cooked meal (in exchange for about US$7). Normally you will be treated to a feast of soup, fried plantain (my personal favourite) bean rice, and then a wide array of fish, or some basic grilled (often a little tough) meat. If you were really lucky you could be offered ‘flan’ (a kind of crème caramel) for pudding. Restaurants often offered a good choice of fish and shell fish. If it swims (or crawls) in the sea then as a diver I’m on my soapbox and not an eater, but Dean, by all accounts, had some lovely lobster along the way. Food doesn’t vary that much across the country, although in Baracoa (one of the eastern most cities) things are mixed up a bit and you get a wonderful coconut sauce with meat and fish.
On one of our favourite evenings Dean and I wondered out and ate al fresco with the locals. It was a Saturday night in Holguin and the street fiesta was in full swing (a weekly affair). There were more pigs on spit roasts than I could count on my hands and feet together, and everyone was in a joyous mood. We queued up, picked out fancy-laced restaurant and set about ordering. Pig, chicken, banana chips and bean rice – all with change from a couple of dollars. Granted the chicken looked a little (there was blood!) undercooked for me, so I dutifully donated it to my husband who is (thankfully) still alive to tell the tale! The meal was beautiful though and a wonderful experience.
Above all eating in Cuba is never going to make you fat! The food is wholesome, healthy and fills a gap. You will struggle to find the array of snacks we are used to in the western world (remember we are not talking about in the resorts here – I don’t know what they have but I suspect it’s an artificial home away from home) but there is something really lovely about that. Who needs Walkers crisps or branded Coca Cola? When in Rome do as the Romans. Choices are limited, but embrace them and remember not to overdose on the ham and cheese sarnies…