Eating and drinking in Cuba
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While you’ll often be able to eat simply prepared, good food in Cuba, Cuban cuisine is generally 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. This is particularly so in Havana, 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.
Perhaps in compensation for this, portion sizes tend to be massive, so visitors on a tight budget would do well to order one main between two. 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, typical Cuban food is made of local produce that 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 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.
Popular Cuban food or dishes to try:
Traditional Cuban foods accompanying meals:
Rice and beans (black or kidney) – these are ubiquitous and come in two main guises:
congrís – the rice and beans are served mixed (also known as moros y cristianos).
arroz con frijoles – white rice is served with a separate bowl of beans, cooked into a delicious soupy stew, to pour over it.
Yuca con mojo – cassava drenched in an oil and garlic sauce.
Plantain – fried.
Green bananas – mashed, boiled or fried, which have a buttery, almost nutty taste.
Boniato – a type of sweet potato.
Simple salad – tomatoes, cucumber, cabbage and avocado, the latter in season around August.
Seafood is always a good bet when you’re eating out in Cuba on or near the coast. Lobster, shrimp, octopus 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. Delicious lesser-known fruits include the prickly green soursop, with its unique sweet but tart taste, and the mamey. The thick, sweet red flesh is made into an excellent milkshake.
Cuba’s 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. The are also an excellent choice for snacks and impromptu lunches, usually freshly made and very tasty. Typical Cuban dishes to look out for include corn fritters and pan con pasta (bread with a garlic mayonnaise filling). 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, and ice cream, or at least ask if either has been prepared with boiled water (agua hervida) before sampling.
Breakfast in Cuba tends to consist of toast or, more commonly, bread eaten with fried, boiled or scrambled eggs. Fresh fruit is often served alongside. The better hotels do buffet breakfasts that cover cooked eggs and meats, cold meat and cheeses, fruits and cereals. The majority of casas particulares also serve an ample breakfast. It goes without saying you can expect to find café con leche – made with warm milk – on every breakfast table too. Most restaurants generally don’t differentiate between lunch and dinner menus. However, lunchtime meal deals which will include a main, dessert and drink are becoming more common in the capital.
Cubans tend to eat their main meal in the evening, usually a hearty dose of meat, rice, beans and viandas. Restaurant and paladar menus are pretty much the same at any time of the day.
Vegetarianism does not come naturally to a country where cuisine is largely about the more meat the better. As a vegetarian your staple diet will be rice and beans, eggs, fried plantain, salads, omelettes and pizzas. Cubans often class jamonada (Spam) as not really meat and will often mix pieces into vegetarian dishes. So always remember to specify that you want something without meat (sin carne) and ham (sin jamón). There are however a handful of inventive vegetarian restaurants cropping up around the country. You’ll find dishes including pumpkin tart, falafel and bean crêpes, and vegetarian paella putting in an appearance. If you are vegan you will be extremely limited in what you can eat in Cuba. You’ll generally be better off in paladars, where ordering off-menu is easier. Also most of them serve rice, black beans (though check to make sure they don’t contain meat) and root vegetables such as potato and malanga.
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. Many are great traditional Cuban foods. 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. Then there are cocos or coquitos, immensely sweet confections of shredded coconut and brown sugar. Thick, jellylike guayaba pasta, like a Cuban quince, is 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. Additionally you can pick up UHT long-life milk, breakfast cereals, sweets and chocolate. Most of these items are fairly expensive – you can run up quite a grocery bill for just a handful of simple ingredients.
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 when eating out in Cuba. They 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. However, 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 nonexistent service in fast-food restaurants such as the El Rápido chain. There you’ll only be served the cheap fried chicken, fries, hot dogs and burgers when staff conversations have petered out.
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, this results in problems so often, that it’s best avoided entirely.
National-peso restaurants, mostly located outside tourist areas, essentially cater to Cubans. While undeniably lower in quality than convertible-peso places, these are still worth checking out, as you can occasionally get decent Cuban food 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, which is a great example of a traditional Cuban food experience. They are usually large, semi-outdoor affairs and dole out decent ice cream for a handful of national pesos. 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) originally offered visitors a chance to sample good, traditional Cuban cuisine in private residences, often the proprietor’s house. A whole new wave of paladars have opened in the last few years following 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 are signs of diversification too, with Japanese, Mexican and Swedish places becoming more popular. The most striking improvement has been in the dining atmospheres and environments. These include authentic and stylish 1950s themes in spacious apartments and moody little grottos in old colonial buildings. Equally notable is the vast improvement in service and professionalism.
Prices vary more than they used to, and a main 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.
Eating out in Havana has been transformed in the last five to six years. Though you will still see the same clutch of traditional Cuban dishes time and time again, what really elevates the capital’s food scene above that of the rest of the country is the increasing number of establishments abandoning the old formulas. Creative spins on Cuban classics and cuisine previously untried in Cuba, from Indian to Swedish and even vegan, have raised the bar. And the choice of food is wider than ever before, with imported ingredients and international flavours slowly proliferating. The new breed of paladars have also elevated their look and feel. Instead of yesteryear’s norm of a few tables laid out in the spare room of someone’s home, today there are entirely remodelled houses, eye-catching interiors and a trained and professional staff. Vedado and Miramar remain the homes of the city’s finest dining but you can eat great food all over the city. The capital’s cafés are often indistinguishable from restaurants, serving meals as much as drinks. And there are also a few places more akin to coffeeshops, worth searching out if you are looking for a relaxing, hassle-free snack or drink.
Overcharging, particularly in state restaurants, is widespread in Cuba. Common-sense precautions include insisting that your bill is itemized and asking for the menu with your bill so you can tally the charges yourself. Also, always ask to see a menu that has prices listed alongside the dishes.
Paladars are less likely to get their maths wrong than state-run places. However, they are prone to adjusting their prices according to the type of customer. Bear in mind this isn’t an unheard-of practice in state restaurants either. There’s often not a lot you can do about this, but it’s most likely to occur if you’ve been guided to a restaurant by touts who collar a commission from the owners. Also, to avoid being seen pulling up in a state taxi, try to get dropped off a short distance away.
It’s common for waiters to talk you through the menu, as opposed to showing you a printed menu. Though this might simply mean that the food on offer changes daily, it can also be a sign that you’re being charged more than other diners. At the very least clarify prices when ordering.
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. Havana Club reigns supreme as the most widely available brand, but also look out for Caribbean Club, Siboney and Santiago de Cuba. Vintage editions of the latter are considered by many connoisseurs to have the edge over Havana Club. White rum is the cheapest form, generally used in cocktails, while the darker, older rums are best appreciated neat.
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. 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. Otherwise follow the lead of prudent locals and boil any tap water you plan to drink.
The origins of many cocktails are hotly disputed, from where they were first created to their proper original ingredients. There are, nevertheless, undoubtedly plenty of bona fide Cuban cocktails. The five Cuban classics listed here appear time and again on drinks menus throughout the country.
Typical Cuban drinks include canned soft drinks, called refrescos, readily available from all convertible-peso shops. 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, and guarapo is a super-sweet frothy drink made from pressed sugar cane and mostly found at agromercados. 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), another popular Cuban drink, is rarely advertised but almost always available.
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, though you are usually able to order it unsweetened in hotels and peso-convertible 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. It is usually an unsuccessful marriage of lukewarm water and a limp tea bag, or a very stewed brew.
Top image: food market on Neptuno Street, Havana © Magrig / Shutterstock