Cuban food: it may leave you speechless

Last updated 12:00 26/10/2011

People had, actually, warned me before I went to Cuba on holiday last year that the food there was nothing to write home about. Some even suggested taking a jar of peanut butter. "Ha ha!" I said. I really don't think it's going to be that bad. I'll be able to find good stuff to eat, even if most people can't. I will. It is what I do.

And anyway, I told myself, two weeks in Mexico, where the food is fabulous, would atone up for two weeks of potentially lousy food in Cuba. As it turned out, I was both completely right, and completely wrong. 

Flying into Havana, we got a taxi to our hotel, the state-owned Hotel Colina. It was a bit like something from cold war Russia. One of the problems you encounter in a place where there is little or no financial incentive for working hard and giving good, attentive service is that no one really sees why they should do... anything. The staff at the Colina were a shining example of this couldn't-give-a-s**t attitude - surly, hostile, slow. Get used to it, bucko...

The dirty, cramped room with the broken safe was just an entrée to the pleasures of the Colina. In a postscript to last week's post about terrible buffet experiences (I honestly can't believe I didn't mention it!), the "complimentary" breakfast buffet at the Colina was actually almost indescribable. 

It involved the following: chunks of orange that seemed to be more pith and pip than flesh; some little pancakes, pre-made and sitting in the dreaded bain marie so long that they were like drinks coasters; slices of (I kid you not) cold, raw potato; those uniquely prepared eggs with hard yolks and raw whites; and some appalling fried luncheon sausage; all washed down with coffee that did, actually, taste like warm, dirty water. Astounding. An inauspicious start. It did not bode well. 

Meeting up with our tour group, a thoroughly pleasant bunch of mostly Australians (don't sound so surprised), and local tour leader Jorge, a really great guy, things started looking up when he took us to a paladar, a privately owned, family-run restaurant which buys a licence from the government to be able to serve food to tourists, and which, consequently, served a much better standard of food - still nothing amazing, but at least actually edible. 

As the tour progressed, we continued to clock up food experiences both good and bad - here, a breakfast of stale bread, crawling with ants, there a deliciously simple street pizza with tomato and cheese; some magnificently fresh fish and seafood, and some roadside eateries where the only things any sane person would be game to eat were potato chips and ice cream.

Ice cream - Cubans are obsessed with ice cream. In Havana there is the Coppelia chain, which sells government-subsidised ice cream priced in the local Cuban pesos, rather than the Cuban convertibles that we tourists get used to. It was the setting for the Fresa y Chocolata film. It looks a bit like a spaceship.

One of the most fascinating days out was a trip to a local food market in Camaguey. With a limited array of produce on sale - lots of chilis, and some sorry-looking carrots and onions, plus some butchered meat dangling in the heat - it really made clear why their food was often a bit average, and why the chicken and pork was often cooked to an almost inedible degree: to render it less likely to kill you. 

Most of the accommodation was in private homes, or casa particulares, and this was the setting for some of the better meals on the trip - the best was probably in Baracoa on the eastern side of the island, where we enjoyed a real feast of what they called langoustine, which we would probably call crayfish, rice and beans, bread and salads, washed down with fresh guava juice. Another favourite meal was in a fried chicken place that took all the "fast" out of "fast food" - from ordering to eating, over two hours for a simple plate of chicken leg and thigh (the breast meat is saved for those high up in government and the better hotels) over polenta. State run, just in case you were wondering.

So, for anyone who is planning a trip to Cuba - don't go especially for the food. The architecture, music, history and beaches all make it totally worthwhile, anyway, but in terms of food, if you go with very low expectations, you may be pleasantly surprised by some of the food, whereas other meals may leave you speechless. And not in a good way. 

What do you know of Cuban food? Have you been to Cuba? If so, when? And what were the best and worst meals you had there?

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CP   #1   12:09 pm Oct 26 2011

Having visited East Germany in the early 80's, I decided that I would never travel to any Socialist or even Communist Country ever again. No beach or architecture could be wonderful enough to get me there.

Alice   #2   01:02 pm Oct 26 2011

@ CP #1 Having lived as as child in East Germany, I completely agree... although the Russian home food is spectacularly tasty. I haven't done Cuba myself, but my husband did and he drank EVERYTHING with rum to kill whatever massive collection of bacteria he had just eaten. Ok in theory; didn't work in practice, although he did remember having a spectacular seafood meal.

Regino   #3   01:02 pm Oct 26 2011

I go to Cuba twice a year , in all type of hotels.... If you pay for a decent hotel, your food will be decent.

The hotel Colina is a 2 stars old hote, I avoid it. One of the cheapest in LaHavana .Next time , go to a 4* star Hotel like the Melia Cohiba and the food will be quite fine... The hotel Télégrafo is also quite good. Hotels with good food, cost a lot in Lahavana,

MT   #4   01:08 pm Oct 26 2011

Ah Cuba... such a wonderful place and such dreadful food! The majority of our meals were repetitive and bland, not at all what we'd been lead to believe by western 'Cuban' restaurants.

Particular lowlights were a 'salad' of tinned green beans and fried patties of some mysterious grey meat. Such a shame that such a fertile and lush country didn't seem to grow any vegetables for domestic consumption - although I understand that this is starting to change in allotments in Havana now.

Highlight was a gorgeous meal of a kind of lobster paella that we had on an island near Trinidad - we'd gone out for a day snorkelling (amazing reef and sea life) with a couple of Cuban guys and a Russian. For lunch, we ended up on this shack on an island which housed a little kitchen and the most disgusting toilet ever, as well as hundreds of hermit crabs and some iguanas. The food was gorgeous - fresh and delicious, washed down with local Cristal beer. Also, if you like mango (which I don't) Cuba is heaven!

Nathan Graham   #5   02:23 pm Oct 26 2011

You are an idiot if food was your priority. Cuba suffers from material poverty,not human poverty. Maybe you should also check your priorities before visitng again. If anything-blame the embargo. PS-You visitng was also illegal my friend-according to the Yanks.

Lauren   #6   02:42 pm Oct 26 2011

Don't you go to Florida for Cuban food?

Nibbler   #7   02:51 pm Oct 26 2011

This reminds me of Bulgaria in the late 70's. Every meal was bizarre or bland plus incredibly slow. The bottled Schweppes drinks always had dirt INSIDE the bottles.

CJ   #8   02:53 pm Oct 26 2011

We went to Cuba earlier this year but had been pre-warned about the food so I took my trusty Marmite and made sure we had some museli bars to stop the hunger shakes that my husband gets if he hasn't eaten for awhile.

So we didn't have very high expectations to begin with so in some cases were pleasantly surprised - like the paladar our tour leader took us to in Havana where I had pork kiev-style, the paella in Vinales, and most of the meals at our casa particulars.

But we had a couple of shockers as well - our first breakfast in Havana, the hotel had already packed it all away before we got there and there was still supposed to be 15 mins left of breakfast time. The spaghetti bologenese that was really just crushed tomatoes over plain spaghetti. The state run restaurant that gave us a table then no menu for 15 mins, then took aagggess to serve us anything and when the meal finally came out the fries were stone cold, the meat lukewarm and only the weird bean soup was hot enough to be pleasant.

We did get a bit bored with baked chicken legs and chopped iceberg lettuce with two slices of tomato as the side salad, and the times we did branch out and try the pork or fish they tended to be dry and bland. So we were quite pleased to get back to Mexico and have some very tasty (and spicy!) food and as much as I loved the mojitos in Cuba, to have a nice glass of wine with dinner felt like luxury!

I'd still recommend going to Cuba though, I think there's enough interesting architecture, culture, music and dance to make it a facinating place to visit - just for no longer than 2 weeks or so!

NJ   #9   04:29 pm Oct 26 2011

I stayed in the Hotel Tryp Habana Libre for US$90 a night. The free breakfast smorgasboard was amazingly good in quantity and choice. I saved parts of the breakfast for lunch & Dinner. Mr Chips (Pringles) served as dinner as there wasn't much too chose from in the supermarket.

Flub   #10   05:06 pm Oct 26 2011

My mother cooks amazing Cuban food... in Canada. She is married to a Cuban and they spend 4 months of the year there over the Canadian winter. The food thing is really a struggle while they are there and she has to make bread and all baked goods from scratch - they bring most of the ingredients from Canada. She spends most of the day in the kitchen. Luckily Cuban rum is el cheapo!

The US trade embargo is part of the reason why life is hard for everyday Cuban people, but hey, if you like vintage cars, they have many from the pre-embargo days that they've had to keep going.

For Christmas dinner, my step dad has to go to great lengths (and probably bribes) to buy a live turkey or pig, which then has to be slaughtered at their house on the day by willing friends. It's not like she can just pop to the supermarket! But most days my step father swims in the sea and brings home fish (that he has hand-speared), so they don't come home too skinny.

I haven't been to Cuba (yet), so I have only tried fantastic Cuban food cooked by my mother using Canadian ingredients. I did go skiing in Romania in the 1980s and the food was as abysmal as you describe for Cuba.

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