Would you like ham with your cheese sandwich?

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.

Fresh fruit, yum!

Fresh fruit, yum!

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!

Banana chips, a staple of most meals

Banana chips, a staple of most meals

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.

The meals in the home stays are normally very tasty and huge

The meals in the home stays are normally very tasty and huge

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.

Street food pop up restaurants Cuban style

Street food pop up restaurants Cuban style

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…

– Natalie

Eating Our Way Around China

Trying the various foods of the countries you visit is one of the real highlights of travel. Certain dishes are synonymous with some countries, such as steak in Argentina, curries in India, (which I can’t wait for), and pasta in Italy. So it was with great excitement, and a little trepidation that we arrived into Beijing.

One thing that Asia has that Russia And Mongolia were lacking was street food. Having both backpacked around South East Asia before we were hoping that China would be the same. For the budget minded traveller or those on a prolonged adventure like us, street food is your best friend.

As we do, once we arrived in Beijing we hit the ground running. On our first night we headed up to the Drum and Bell towers to hunt down a small little bar nestled between the two, have a drink to celebrate arriving at our most Easterly point overland and stare upon the beautifully illuminated towers to toast our success. Well that was the plan.

Sadly for whatever reason the towers were not lit up, but undeterred we stumbled upon a small hole in the wall bar to have a drink. It was about the size of a broom cupboard but at about a pound per beer how could we say no. Luckily the night wasn’t a total loss because not far away was our main aim for the night, a street called “Ghost Street”.

Ghost Street was originally home to a small evening fresh food market, and the silhouettes of the vendors against the lantern lights made them appear like ghosts. Now a days the street is a strip of flashing neon, red lanterns and dozens of restaurants specializing in hot pot cooking. We walked the entire length and the choice was endless! You could tell which restaurants were the good ones as there were huge crowds waiting outside, huddling under gas burners snacking on sunflower seeds while they waited for their table to be called.

We finally settled in for our first local food experience. One thing we had heard about China was how spicy everything was, and that they eat EVERY part of an animal and tonight proved to be the case. The menu contained what Natalie described as ‘every type of offal’, from turtle heads, chicken gizzards and feet, sharks fin and Ox intestines, it was there. You can imagine Natalie’s face with some of the options!! We ordered a tame beef dish and a “dry pot” potato dish. Both came out sizzling hot and smothered in loads and loads of chilies. Now I love spicy food but even for me this was hot! By the end of the night neither of us could feel our mouths and we made mental notes to avoid any dish with the word “spicy” in it in the future.

Following day as we explored the Forbidden City and numerous city parks we our first street vendor experiences. As you leave the Forbidden City you are instantly accosted by hawkers selling everything from tuk-tuk rides, scarves, Chairman Mao figures to all different types of food. It was these hawkers that drew our attention. On the back of a bicycle was a foam pyramid full of skewers of various fruits covered in a type of toffee. I can’t lie, I really wanted to take a photo of this guy’s bike so Natalie bought one as I snapped away a few photos. Wow! These little things became one of our favorites. Kiwi fruit, mandarin, small miniature apple like fruits and cherry tomatoes all dipped in a hard toffee. They would become our staple afternoon snack when sugar levels were low and energy levels flagging in the afternoons.

That evening it was time to splurge. Early on in the journey we had promised ourselves to blow the budget so to speak and go out and celebrate making it from London to Beijing overland, and if you are going to splurge in Beijing it means one thing…. Duck!

Peking duck is the signature dish in Beijing, and there is one restaurant that towers above the rest, the Qianmen Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant, established in 1864 and the most famous restaurant of it’s type in the city. Everyone from Fidel Castro, Pele, Sir Edward Heath and George Bush Senior to this night, The Smart Way Round have dined here. The restaurant was not only enormous but also beautiful, and looked like something straight out of the movies. We ordered our half duck with pancakes and eagerly awaited our dinner.
To make the experience all the more special, the restaurant sends a chef out to your table and freshly slices the duck up for you while you watch. The waitress then showed us how to construct your pancake using chopsticks and you are good to go. We persevered but decided that the ‘rolling with your fingers’ technique that we adopt at home is more efficient! While Peking Duck in Beijing is probably very different to what you may have experienced back home we both agreed it was well worth it!

Over the next few days we continued to try various street meals. Every morning for breakfast I would grab a plastic bag of steamed pork dumplings from a vendor near our hostel. Ten dumplings for a pound, what an awesome breakfast! By the end of our time in Beijing he would see us coming and greet us with a smile and my dumplings ready to go. Natalie tried various different things over the days including a deep fried bread stick and a pancake mixed with a fried egg, something that looked almost like french toast and some leaf vegetables. Street food was definitely the way to go.

We also fell upon a fantastic little local hole in the wall restaurant we ate at regularly for dinner. Not only was the food amazingly tasty but also incredibly cheap. A large beer (630ml) was only three Yuan or 30 pence! In fact our dinners were regularly coming in at around three to four pounds a night for two people. We were also quite the attraction, with locals asking for us to pose with them for photos and on our last night the whole family thanking us and saying good bye!

Our next stop on our China adventure was the stunning little town of Pingyao. From the moment we jumped off the train we knew we were in a small town, and it really felt we were off the beaten track. As we walked around the UNESCO Heritage listed streets the restaurant signs advertised ‘Assorted Cats Ears’, ‘Dog Meat Casserole’, ‘Sliced Donkey Meat’ and the ‘Clear Cooked Bulls Penis’. With so much choice we were never going to go hungry. We did try some fantastic corn cobs from a street vendor, bought some tasty apple chips and I tried a pretty forgettable steamed bean curd wrapped in a cabbage leaf. Needless to say, many of these options are slowly turning Natalie more and more vegetarian!

An overnight train has now bought us to the town of Xian, right in the heart of Shanxi Provence. Their specialty here is a 3.8m long noodle served in a soup or broth of your choice. That’s the great thing about Asia, if you are willing to go and look for it and prepared to go local you can enjoy some of the best food you will eat and eat for a fraction of the cost. Too many travellers (and we saw a lot of it in Beijing) only eat in their hostel or hotel because they serve “Western” food, but to get a real flavor of a city or country you have to hit the streets. China has been incredible so far, and one of our next blogs will be about what we have been up to, but for now we are of in search of 3.8m noodles!

Don’t forget to check our Instagram account for photos of our adventures in China. Thanks for the feedback to let us know Instagram is posting to Twitter and Facebook. See you all on The Smart Way Round….

– Dean