While you’ll often be able to eat your fill of simply prepared, good food in Cuba, meals here are certainly not a gastronomic delight. Spices are not really used in cooking, and most Cubans have a distaste for hot, spicy food altogether. There is also a marked lack of variety and after two weeks in Cuba you’ll be very familiar with the national cuisine. A few green shoots are poking through the culinary undergrowth, however, as a new wave of privately owned restaurants shakes things up.
Fluctuations in the food supply caused by Cuba’s economic situation mean that restaurants and hotels can sometimes run short on ingredients; equally, imports of some foodstuffs are restricted due to the US embargo. As a consequence, you’ll find the same platters cropping up time and again, and it’s rare to find a restaurant that can actually serve everything on the menu, but perhaps in compensation for this, portion sizes tend to be massive. However, Cuba’s culinary blandness is not all due to the embargo: there is a pervading conservative attitude to food here, with seemingly little desire to experiment with flavours and ingredients. That said, local produce is usually fresh and often organic. There is little factory farming in Cuba, and the food is not pumped full of hormones and artificial fertilizers – partly as a result of the tujikhe constraints of the Special Period, Cuba was a pioneer in the use of ecologically sound farming, all of which means that the ingredients do tend to be full of flavour.
As a general rule, always carry enough money to pay for your meal in cash. Although some of the top-end restaurants take credit cards, using this form of payment results in problems (real or created) so often that it’s best avoided entirely.
State restaurants and cafés
Covering both convertible-peso and national-peso establishments, state restaurants and cafés differ greatly in quality – ranging from tasty meals in congenial settings to the simply diabolical. As a visitor you are more likely to stick to the convertible-peso places, which tend to have better-quality food and a wider range of options, including some international cuisine like Chinese and Italian; they also tend to be cleaner and generally more pleasant. The other viable option for decent meals are the restaurants in the tourist hotels, although the food they serve is sometimes quite removed from Cuban cuisine – with pizza and pasta dishes figuring heavily. Service in any kind of state restaurant is often characterized by a somewhat strained formality, even in some of the cheaper places. Though this can jar a little with your sense of expectation it’s preferable to the almost non-existent service in fast-food restaurants such as the El Rápido chain, where cheap fried chicken, fries, hot dogs and burgers are served only when staff conversations have petered out.
National-peso restaurants, mostly located outside tourist areas, cater essentially to Cubans. While undeniably lower in quality than convertible-peso places, these are still worth checking out, as you can occasionally get a decent meal very cheaply. You should not have to pay more than locals do, so make sure your menu has prices listed in national pesos. They often run out of the popular choices quickly, so it’s better to get to them early rather than later, particularly at lunchtime.
One of the most idiosyncratically Cuban café chains are the popular Coppelia ice-cream joints found all around the island. They are usually large, semi-outdoor affairs and dole out decent ice cream for a handful of national pesos, though some, like the main branch in Havana, also charge in CUCs.
Legalized by the state in the 1990s in response to demand from Cubans keen to earn money through private enterprise, paladars (paladares in Spanish) offer visitors a chance to sample good Cuban home cooking in private residences, often the proprietor’s house. A whole new wave of paladars have opened in the last few years following new laws that lifted all kinds of restrictions on where and how Cubans could run them. This has certainly raised the bar in terms of quality, as chefs previously shackled by laws banning all kinds of foodstuffs are now free to flex their skills and ideas in public. Though most paladars still stick to Cuban cooking, there a few signs of diversification too, with Japanese, Mexican and Swedish places opening up in recent years. The most striking improvement has been in the dining environments and atmospheres that the new owners have created, from authentic and stylish 1950s themes in spacious apartments to moody little grottos in old colonial buildings.
Prices vary more than they used to, and a main meal can cost anywhere between $3CUC and $25CUC, with the average about $9CUC. Although the menu will have few (if any) vegetarian options, paladars are more accommodating than state restaurants to ordering off the menu.
Known as comida criolla, Cuban cuisine revolves around roast or fried pork and chicken accompanied by rice, beans and viandas, the Cuban word for root vegetables.
Popular national dishes include ropa vieja, shredded beef (or sometimes lamb) served as a kind of stew, prepared over a slow heat with green peppers, tomatoes, onions and garlic; ajiaco is another rich stew whose ingredients vary from region to region, but always includes at least one kind of meat, corn and usually some green vegetables; and tasajo, a form of fried dried beef. One particularly divine delicacy is lechón, or suckling pig, commonly marinated in garlic, onions and herbs before being spit- or oven-roasted. Meat and seafood is often cooked enchilado, meaning in a tomato and garlic sauce with mild chilli.
Invariably accompanying any Cuban meal are the ubiquitous rice and beans (black or kidney), which come in two main guises: congrís, where the rice and beans are served mixed (also known as moros y cristianos), and arroz con frijoles, where white rice is served with a separate bowl of beans, cooked into a delicious soupy stew, to pour over it. Other traditional accompaniments are yuca con mojo (cassava drenched in an oil and garlic sauce); fried plantain; mashed, boiled or fried green bananas, which have a buttery, almost nutty taste; boniato, a type of sweet potato; and a simple salad of tomatoes, cucumber, cabbage and avocado, the latter in season around August.
Lobster, shrimp and fish make it onto a lot of menus and are usually superbly fresh. As a rule of thumb, the simpler the dish the better it will be. Grilled or pan-fried fish is usually a safe bet, but a more complex dish like risotto will most often disappoint.
Fruit is generally eaten at breakfast and rarely appears on a lunch or dinner menu. The best places to buy some are the agromercados, where you can load up cheaply with whatever is in season. Particularly good are the various types of mangos, oranges and pineapples, while delicious lesser-known fruits include the prickly green soursop, with its unique sweet but tart taste, and the mamey – the thick, sweet red flesh of which is made into an excellent milkshake.
Street food is all the result of private enterprise. It’s usually sold from front gardens, porches, windows, driveways and street trolleys, and these places are invariably the cheapest places to eat and an excellent choice for snacks and impromptu lunches, usually freshly made and very tasty. Dishes to look out for include corn fritters, pan con pasta (bread with a garlic mayonnaise filling), and cheap pizza a good basic option though quality varies wildly. Tamales are prepared from cornmeal, peppers and onions, then wrapped in the outer leaves of the corn plant and steamed until soft. The somewhat bland taste is enlivened with a piquant red pepper sauce served on the side. It’s wise to avoid home-made soft drinks, or at least ask if they have been prepared with boiled water (agua hervida) before sampling.
Breakfast in Cuba tends to be light, consisting of toast or, more commonly, bread eaten with fried, boiled or scrambled eggs. The better hotels do buffet breakfasts that cover cooked eggs and meats, cold meat and cheeses, and cereals; even if you’re not a guest, these are a good option if you’re hungry in the morning. It goes without saying you can expect to find café con leche – made with warm milk – on every breakfast table too.
Cubans tend to eat their main meal in the evening, usually a hearty dose of meat, rice, beans and viandas, but restaurant and paladar menus are pretty much the same at any time of the day.
Sweets and snacks
As you might expect from a sugar-producing country, there are several delicious sweets and desserts that you are more likely to find on a street stall than in a restaurant. Huge slabs of sponge cake coated in meringues are so popular at parties that the state actually supplies them free for children’s birthdays up to the age of 15, to make sure no one goes without. Also good are torticas, small round shortcake biscuits; cocos or coquitos, immensely sweet confections of shredded coconut and brown sugar; and thick, jelly-like guayaba pasta, often eaten with cheese.
Convertible-peso stores and supermarkets stock snack foods of varying quality; in the better ones you can get decent Western potato chips, unimaginative cookies, olives, canned fish for sandwich fillers and some fruit, in addition to UHT long-life milk, breakfast cereals, sweets and chocolate. Most of these items are fairly expensive – you can run up a grocery bill of $10–15CUC for just a handful of simple ingredients, but after a few days of Cuban fare you may consider it a small price to pay.
If you like rum you’ll be well off in Cuba: the national drink is available everywhere and is generally the most inexpensive tipple available – you can pick up a bottle for as little as $3CUC in supermarkets and hotels, while cocktails in bars only cost $2–4CUC. Havana Club reigns supreme as the best brand, but also look out for Santiago de Cuba, Caribbean Club and Siboney. White rum is the cheapest form, generally used in cocktails, while the darker, older rums are best appreciated neat. As well as the authorized stuff sold bottled in hotels and convertible-peso shops, there is also a particularly lethal bootleg white rum, usually just called street rum (ron de la calle), which is guaranteed to leave you with a fearful hangover and probably partial memory loss. Thick and lined with oily swirls, it is usually sold in most neighbourhoods in the bigger cities; jineteros will certainly know where to go, but don’t let yourself be charged more than a couple of convertible pesos a litre if you’re brave enough to try the stuff.
Apart from cigars and rum itself, Cuba’s most famous export is probably its cocktails, including the ubiquitous Cuba Libre. Spirits other than rum are also available and are generally reasonably priced in all bars and restaurants, other than those in the prime tourist areas. The bottles on sale in many convertible-peso shops usually work out cheaper than in Europe.
Lager-type beer (cerveza) is plentiful in Cuba. The best known brands are Cristal, a smooth light lager, and Bucanero, a darker more potent variety. These are usually sold in cans and, less commonly, in bottles, for $2–2.50CUC. Beer on draught is less common in Cuba, although you can find it in some bars, all-inclusive resorts and national-peso establishments.
When drinking water in Cuba, it’s a good idea to stick to the bottled kind, which is readily available from all convertible-peso shops and hotels – or follow the lead of prudent locals and boil any tap water you plan to drink.
Canned soft drinks, called refrescos, are readily available from all convertible-peso shops, and in addition to Coke and Pepsi you can sample Cuba’s own brands of lemonade (Cachito), cola (Tropicola, refreshingly less sugary than other cola drinks) and orangeade (the alarmingly Day-Glo Najita). Malta, a fizzy malt drink, is more of an acquired taste. Popularly sold on the street, granizado is a slush drink served in a paper twist and often sold from a push-cart; guarapo is a super-sweet frothy drink made from pressed sugar cane and mostly found at agromercados; while Prú is a refreshing speciality in eastern Cuba, fermented from sweet spices and a little like spiced ginger beer. If you are in a bar, fresh lemonade (limonada natural) is rarely advertised but almost always available for $1–2CUC.
Coffee, served most often as pre-sweetened espresso, is the beverage of choice for many Cubans and is served in all restaurants and bars and at numerous national peso coffee stands dotted around town centres. Cubans tend to add sugar into the pot when making it, so there is little chance of getting it unsweetened other than in hotels and tourist restaurants. Aromatic packets of Cuban ground coffee and beans are sold throughout the country, and it’s well worth buying a few to take home.
Tea is less common but still available in the more expensive hotels and better restaurants – usually as an unsuccessful marriage of lukewarm water and a limp tea bag, or a very stewed brew.