Cuban Cuisine: Expectations

La Bodeguita del Medio, one of Hemmingways favorite bars. (Credit: Bob Leonard)

La Bodeguita del Medio, one of Hemmingway’s favorite bars. (Credit: Bob Leonard)

In Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations special on Cuba he states that there are, “three things [the revolution] does worst: breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”  The viewpoint that the food in Cuba is light-years short of spectacular and damn near disappointing is resonated throughout many articles about the cuisine in Cuba.  This opinion is true for most articles floating around the internet as well as multiple travel books I have encountered. However, the reason the food is not very good is justified in many of these articles by the fact that Cubans are still using ration cards to get their food.  These ration books did not and still may not contain any spices.  Because of this, the food many Cubans eat is often under-seasoned and bland.  There is also a large lack of vegetables and fruits in these ration booklets.  Cuban cuisine is largely influenced by African and Spanish cuisine as well as by what is available on the island, but because of the scarcity of ingredients, the typical Cuban meal might consist of some rice, plantains, and possibly a small amount of chicken or pork.  Pork and chicken are the meat staples in Cuba.  Seafood is often reserved for tourists, but fish is also eaten by Cubans. Ham and cheese sandwiches, known as bocaditos, also run rampant in the Cuban food-scape.  One thing that most articles and critics agree on is that the Cubans make great rum and mojitos.  On our expedition, we will probably not get to try these beverages because we have agreed to abide by the student code of conduct but many things I have read praise Cuban rum.

Cuba does have a stigma for bad food, but this does not mean that good cuisine cannot be found.  The general consensus for finding cuisine safe haven in Havana seems to be in paladars, which privately owned restaurants, and government run establishments.  These appear to be the gems in the rough of Cuban cuisine. Some examples of these places are: El Aljibe, Los Amigos, El Templete, Los Mercaderes, Puerto de Sagua, Coppelia, and many more.  They are often expensive tourist locations but serve good food or, in the case of Coppelia, ice cream.  Some, like Paladar Los Amigos, make authentic Cuban meals and can give you a true feel for true Cuban cuisine. Many of the paladars are also pricey because a large portion of their profits ends up in government hands.  This, coupled with the fact that tourists are essentially subsidizing Cubans meals, makes the experience a little more expensive than usual.  Essentially, tourists pay a little extra at paladars so Cubans can pay a little bit less.  This seems like a fair deal because it keeps some of these paladars more authentic and Cuban. Hopefully on our journey we will be able to have a meal in a few of these authentic restaurants.

I did have a pre-conceptualized idea of our trip to Cuba as well as of the cuisine.  My idea was that we were going to a third-world country and that it would not be the most luxurious trip.  After doing some research, this idea seemed to be pretty true except that tourists are often set up in nice hotels and that, although the country is poor based on U.S. standards, it is vibrant in culture and the people are extremely inviting.  This all seemed great with me because the reason I wanted to go to Cuba was to experience something completely different from living in the United States.  I did, however, have a fantasized view of their cuisine.  I thought it would be like other things I had read about trips to other areas of Latin America where the food was always fantastic and worth the trip.  My research showed that this was not entirely the case with Cuba.  I was surprised, but not disheartened.  Cuba seems to be a fantastic country with a fantastic culture and great food can be found, one just has to look for it.  Repetition is also something that I think we will have to deal with in Cuba.  We may be having a similar meal every day.  In my view, I do not think this is so bad, it is just another piece of the experience.

On our trip to Cuba, I hope we will be able to go to some of the authentic restaurants in Havana or even get invited to share a meal in someone’s home.  It is my goal to seek out a few of these places and to try to eat more like a Cuban even if that means fewer flavors.  I also read some about the great pizza in Cuba and hope to be able to try some of it.  There was also a snippet I read about guarapo, or fresh squeezed sugarcane juice, and I hope we will be able to find a stand to try this.  Overall, it is simply my hope and goal to eat more like a Cuban than a tourist on this trip.  There will be times when we will eat at nice places and it will be good, but I feel if I have to sacrifice flavor for authenticity; there is no better sacrifice.


3 responses to “Cuban Cuisine: Expectations

  1. One of my favorite parts of Nicaragua was Gallo Pinto and that’s only rice and beans so don’t be too disheartened! I liked it so much that I even ordered that when the group went to restaurants so everyone else could avoid it and got made fun of for still wanting to eat what everyone was trying to get away from. I’m sure the Cubans, like most others, still know how to cook (at least a little) with what they’ve got!

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