Cuban Cuisine and Health

Cuba is currently in a state of transformation, almost a quiet revolution of sorts.  Raul has taken charge in Fidel’s absence and much has changed for the better.  Cuban cuisine is also caught up in this ongoing evolution, and I suspect in a few years, it may be different.  The current Cuban cuisine I experienced was very good and that completely surprised me.

El Templete in Old Havana.

El Templete in Old Havana.

Cuban restaurant-style cuisine, it seems, is something that is reserved for foreigners and often excludes actual Cubans.  Paladars are continually popping up but they are often too expensive for the average resident of Havana.  Even most of the state-run restaurants of Havana are too expensive for their native inhabitants.  Raul’s new policies on the legalization of private business and being able to buy and sell property have allowed for a larger class of business owners.  This in turn, has expanded the class of restaurateurs.  Many of these paladars are very nice and delicious places to eat.  However, many of these paladars are no longer paladars.  Many of them are no longer in actual homes but are in their own separate buildings.

A virgin mojito from El Templete.

A virgin mojito from El Templete.

This is a big change from the typical home-restaurants that were and still are to some extent, the norm in Havana.  Some of the paladars we visited included: Atelier, Doña Juena, and Porto Habana.  I was not let down by a single one, other than by how long it took to get a check.  It took an average of about 45 minutes to get a check after our meal had concluded, but I do not think this was a lack of good service.  It was more of a cultural, social aspect of their meals.  Meals are more of a social affair in Havana than

La Bodeguita del Medio where the mojito originated.

La Bodeguita del Medio where the mojito originated.

here in America, and they expect that you want to sit and talk.  Overall, the meals at these places were fantastic and could have competed with

All of us eating at Paladar Atelier. (Credit: Sean Hughes)

All of us eating at Paladar Atelier. (Credit: Sean Hughes)

any restaurant here in the United States.  The state-run establishments we ate at were very good as well.  Restaurants like El Templete and El Aljibe did nothing but impress.  They had great food including seafood, roasted chicken, and of course the Cuban staple, black beans, and rice.  Service was also very good, but the check timing occurred in these places as well.  Overall, I very much enjoyed the food in Havana, but you could tell these establishments were aimed at foreigners.  They had similar prices to that of restaurants in any big city in the United States, and they often served food that many Cubans would not eat.  Things like lobster, fish, and vegetables that are not fried are not particularly commonplace in the average Cuban’s diet.  This lack of dietary diversity is being offset somewhat by a new food education movement and by urban organic farms.

Organoponico Vivero Alamar, an urban organic farm outside of Havana, is trying to change this stigma.  Right now, there are many organic farms all over Cuba.  They resulted from the loss of the Soviet Union’s aid after they collapsed in the early 1990’s.  This caused a food shortage in Cuba and organic farms have been

Organoponico Vivero Alamar

Organoponico Vivero Alamar

increasing in numbers ever since.  Organoponico Vivero Alamar is the largest organic farm in Havana and plants all kinds of fruits and vegetables with their largest crop being lettuce.  Even with this, most of this produce gets sold to paladars and state-run establishments that cater to tourists.  When we visited the organic farm, they gave us a lunch of fresh vegetables and fruit that was fantastic.  As Americans, we all enjoyed this, but most Cubans do not include many vegetables in their diet.  Because of this, most Cubans do not know how to use vegetables in dishes except to simply make a plate of grilled vegetables.  The organic farms and the government are trying to change this.  They have started programs to educate Cubans on how to better use and eat produce in their diet.  This is a movement to make Cuba a healthier and greater country.  The women who gave us a tour of the farm had recently been on television to show how to

Lunch at Organoponico Vivero Alamar. (Credit: Sean Hughes)

Lunch at Organoponico Vivero Alamar. (Credit: Sean Hughes)

utilize vegetables in recipes by cooking simple dishes.  I think these television programs will greatly increase the use of produce in Cuba in the future.  It will also allow the restaurants of Havana to create more diverse dishes or cater more greatly to possible vegetarian tourists.  Organic farms will continue to grow in numbers as the population gets more educated on this topic.  This increase will only lead to better cuisine and a healthier general population.  Organoponico Vivero Alamar was extremely impressive, and I could see that they were very productive.  Large organic farms such as this one will likely lead the way in this movement.

Roasted chicken, black beans, and rice at El Aljibe.

Roasted chicken, black beans, and rice at El Aljibe.

So what is next for Cuba in cuisine?  More restaurants, more produce, and more diverse cuisine are where Cuba seems to be heading.  There are two recent government policy game changers for this question.  Cubans can now buy and sell property and they can also run private businesses with greater freedom.  These two things will allow the people of Havana to create more restaurants that are completely independent.  They will not be attached to houses, they will not be under government control, and they will be in their own buildings.  We saw this already occurring on our visit to Havana.  It seemed that some of the paladars we went to were not home restaurants at all but actual independent entities.  These establishments will continue to increase as long as the Cuban government does not change its policy within the next couple of years.  That is the difficult part, as policy

Men squeezing sugar cane to make sugar cane juice, or guarapo. (Credit: Sean Hughes)

Men squeezing sugar cane to make sugar cane juice, or guarapo. (Credit: Sean Hughes)

is always changing in Cuba.  Our guide, Heldris, told me that the simplest things in Cuba are often the hardest things.  As long as these changes stay, traditional paladars in Havana will continue to decrease.  Cubans will also probably start using more produce in their cuisine and in their daily lives.  Large urban organic farms will continue to grow or start, and they will provide the basis for this produce increase.  Education

A cup of fantastic coffee from Cafe el Escorial.

A cup of fantastic coffee from Cafe el Escorial.

programs about how to use vegetables will facilitate this as well.  This in turn, will create more diversity in the cuisine of Cuba, both in tourist aimed restaurants and in Cuban homes.  Better food may attract more tourists, and all of these changes will only be good for Cuba.  In time, Havana may become a very different place with regards to food, and the people of Cuba will benefit from it.

Cubans health and diet

Overweight, obesity and the co-morbidities that follow has become a worldwide concern. Cuba isn’t much different in that regard and with the co-morbidities of diabetes mellitus, hypertension and heart disease it comprises the current growing public health concerns Cuba is facing (Díaz et al. , 2009). What distinguishes Cuba from a lot of other countries where this is a problem? You will still not find McDonald’s and Burger King around the street corner. We usually attribute the prevalence of obesity and overweight to the popularity, convenience and readily available fast foods in today’s society. You might also see some in Havana, Cuba, their own chains or more local fast food joints, but not to the same extent.

What Cubans eat, don’t eat and why

Pork, chicken, beans and rice, plantains, other root vegetables and sugar is largely what composes the traditional Cuban diet and it is taking it share of the blame for the growing problem. Cubans are known to have a “sweet tooth”. In fact they are one of the biggest consumers of sugar in the world and as much as 20 % their daily energy intake comes from sugar  (Giralda, 2006). Food selection on the basis of preference and budget (Porrata, 2008).

According to the 2nd National Survey on Risk Factors and Chronic

Photo by George Hakim

Fried food sold in the streets
Photo by George Hakim

Diseases (2001) 90 % would eat fried foods at almost every meal if possible. When prioritizing what groceries to buy, food of animal sources and fat would top the list, then rice and root vegetables. Fruits and vegetables would be on the bottom of the list (Porrata, 2008).

Our guide at the organic farm said that for Cubans vegetables only have a decorative purpose on the plate. Their preferred preparation for vegetables would probably be frying, if they were to eat it at all. The organic farm grew mushrooms and this was also offered to us on our omelet at the hotel. But our guide told us that mushrooms was one of the things that was not part of the Cuban diet. Because Cubans haven’t had a culture for eating vegetables, they don’t know how to prepare it either, and how and where to use it.

Cubans don’t eat fish. This might be due to taste preference (Porrata, 2008), although we were also told that a lot of Cubans say that they don’t like fish, but without ever trying it (Tourguide: Geldrys).

They have a low consumption of fiber (14g).  Inadequate consumption of the recommended daily fruits and vegetables is one reason, another is that Cubans’ diet of whole-grain cereal are almost non-existent. It is not preferred and unfamiliar to them (Porrata, 2008). White rice is their staple food.

Lunch at the organic farm

A selection of fruits and vegetables for lunch
Photo by George Hakim

What is next for Cuba

As we were told and mentioned earlier, there is already a growing effort through media and schools to educate Cubans about how to prepare vegetables and incorporate it into dishes and meals. The organic farm invited school children to the farm to teach them about fruits and vegetables grown there, the benefits and nutritive values and how to prepare it. The Institute of Nutrition and food Hygiene collaborates with the media in creating programs that touch base on nutrition, especially through radio and tv-shows (Giraldo, 2006).  Our guide at the organic farm was going to appear at a popular tv-show where she prepared a dish with vegetables, mushrooms being one, in an effort to educate the public of healthy eating.

Surveys of adults’ knowledge relating to food and nutrition illustrates where there are room for education; 50 % did not relate diet to health, they were not aware of the bad effects of re-using oil, 25 % were unaware of cholesterol’s effect, only 20 % indentified fruits and vegetables as a source of fiber, over 60 % identified meat as a source of fiber, 90 % considered red meat as the healthiest meat, only 28% recognized fish a a healthy alternative and 30 % were not aware of the bad effects of sugar (Porrata, 2008). Carmen Porrata, MD, PhD wrote in her viewpoint article titled “Cubans’ Deadly Diet:  A Wakeup Call” published in 2008 that “By learning to eat simply and eat most natural foods possible, we take more responsibility for our health and our lives”. The key word is learning. Cubans need the knowledge that will “empower” them, so that they can make the right choices (Porrata, 2008). Today a lot of us “google” what we don’t know, we get answers of “how to…” through step-by-step instructional videos on youtube, but for Cubans other ways, such as educational posters probably plays a bigger role, but the distribution and access is limited.

Bruno Enriquez said that “The problem is:  we must change how we

fruit and vegetable market

Fruits and vegetables market in Havana
Photo by George Hakim

think”, although this did not refer to diet changes, it did refer to Cuban people’s willingness to  adhere to solutions that are presented to them (The Power of Community (…)). Food habits are formed from childhood (Holli et al. , 2009). If this generation is educated about food and nutrition and its impact on their health, food choices might change, even small changes will carry on to the next generation and the next. 80% of Cuba’s agricultural production is organic and they have food markets with a greater variety of fruits and vegetables than what we might find at our local Kroger store, but the variety could be even greater if only the produce was sought for (The Power of Community(…)). The organic farm had produce that only supplied the tourism industry, or would stop production of others, because although they had the resources to produce a greater variety of vegetables, they chose not to, because the demands of it and profit wasn’t there.

There seem to be a growing understanding that lifestyle changes and cuba95_0034.jpgsocial support with strategies that involve several sectors is the only way to tackle obesity. Strategies involve creating public awareness, not only about diet and nutrition, but also awareness to the cultural preference for “chubbiness”  and educating health personnel in diet and nutrition (Giraldo, 2006, Porrata, 2008). It will take some time, but if anything Cubans seem to be remarkably adaptable to situations and taking advantage of opportunities to learn, to better their lives and make the effort to get by. It was a nation of no bicycle culture, but became one. It is a nation with available fish and vegetables, but someone must teach the man something else to fry and Cubans do not seem to shy away from change, but rather embrace it.

Link to Anthony Bourdain’s Guide to Cuba: <http://tinyurl.com/bq5dab3&gt;

Works Cited

Díaz, M.E., Jiménez, S., Garcia, R. G., Bonet, M. and Wong, I. (2009). Overweight, Obesity, Central Adiposity and Associated Chronic Diseases in Cuban Adults. MEDICC Review, 11(4): 23-8.

Giralda, G. (2006). Obesity: A Growing Problem in Cuba. MEDICC ReviewWeb 10 April 2013. <http://www.medicc.org/cubahealthreports/chr-article.php?&a=1025>

Holli, B.B, Calabrese, R. J. , Maillet, J.O. & Beto, J. A. (2009). Communication and Education Skills for Dietetics Professionals. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins

Porrata, C. (2008). Cubans’ Deadly Diet: A Wakeup Call. MEDICC Review, 10 (2): 52

The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil. Dir. Faith Morgan. The Institute for Community Solutions. 2006. Film.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s