We get a lot of questions about food in Cuba (is it true that it’s awful? what did you even eat? does everyone get food poisoning?) so we decided to put together a post that will hopefully hold the key to understanding Cuban cuisine.
Unfortunately, we can confirm that the rumours are largely true. Cuba’s culinary scene leaves a lot to be desired. However – seeing as Cuba’s literacy rate is one of the highest in the world, the entire population has access to free food AND it’s had to work around one of the most extensive trade embargoes in history, we can cut them some slack. Or, just go on ahead and blame the whole thing on the US. Whichever works for you.
The fundamentals of Cuban cuisine are pretty sound – it’s basically Creole food: rice, beans, seafood, poultry, pork and a selection of fruit and vegetables. The problems really come down to two things:
1. Lack of imagination: you literally get the same menu everywhere
2. Lack of variation: Cuba hardly imports any food, so the scope for creativity is limited.
The final, and perhaps most fundamental, problem for travellers in Cuba is that self-catering is not an option. Not only is it difficult to buy food, but it’s extremely rare that a casa particular (private homestay – get the lowdown here) will let you use their kitchen. You either have to eat out in a restaurant – risky business: despite all having the same menu some places are much, much worse than others – or you have to pay for dinner in your casa. The difference in quality between casas, state run restaurants and private restaurants is colossal, and you can’t always be certain of which one you’re choosing.
A typical day of eating in Cuba (assuming you’re on a tight budget) goes something like this:
- Breakfast: Casa particular. Fruit, juice, eggs, bread, coffee, ham, cheese, tomato
- Lunch: Cafe. Cheese and ham sandwich
- Dinner: Restaurant. Rice and beans, chicken or pork (roasted, grilled or fried), side salad, fried plantain.
Ostensibly, an alright day of eating. Let me elaborate:
- B: Fruit, always guayaba, sometimes pineapple or papaya. Eggs – plain omelette, scrambled or fried. Bread – rolls given as state rations in some casas or better, shop bought bread in others
- L: Cheese and ham sandwich – literally what it says on the tin. Cheese, ok. Ham, a slab of extremely processed luncheon meat. Bread, state ration rolls or better in fancier places. No trimmings (i.e. mayo, butter, salad). They’re also usually quite small.
- D: Chicken/pork – a huge portion, usually very well done (as in cooked a lot). Seafood will be frozen and either cooked with garlic or in a very simple tomato sauce. Rice and beans, difficult to ruin. The side salad is the really fun part. Welcome to Cuba’s 4 vegetables: cabbage (almost always raw), tomatoes, cucumbers, green beans (always overcooked).
That’s all folks. 4. Vegetables. Just think about how many different vegetables you can get in an average European or North American supermarket. Now imagine that an entire country bases a huge part of it’s cuisine on just 4 – one of which is technically a fruit.
Now let’s add in the prices:
- B: 5 CUC pp on top of the 30 CUC you pay for the room – breakfast is never included
- L: 4 CUC sandwich, 2 CUC small bottle of water
- D: 8 CUC chicken/pork – 12 CUC seafood, 3 CUC local beer.
So your average daily food cost is 22 – 24 CUC per person (22 – 24 USD) which is a lot if you’re on a tight budget, and it’s very, very difficult to spend less than this. (Believe me, we tried).
The principle issue with the food in Cuba is that people just get so bored of it. The actual quality can be alright – just make sure that you ask for restaurant recommendations from your casa hosts or, failing anything alright-looking in the local vicinity, eating in casa particulares themselves is usually a safe bet.
The sample menu we’ve given here isn’t just a typical day. It’s every day. Barring a couple of occasions when we were able to order hamburgers or something racey for dinner, we ate this everyday for a month. It didn’t kill us (although a bout of food poisoning in week 1 gave it its best shot) but after 4 weeks of culinary discovery in Mexico; Cuba came as a shock to the system.
It was a good lesson for us in terms of realising just how lucky we are to have access to such a diverse range of food in Europe, and it’s made us appreciate the reality of not being able to get whatever you want whenever you feel like it.
For those of you who are heading to Cuba and are now in despair having read this review of the food, here’s a list of decent restaurants that we came across while we were there – most of them were recommendations from our casa hosts, and we can guarantee that you’ll get a good meal in them!
Havana: El Biky – Havana Centro – a huge menu including hamburgers, Cuban classics and even pasta. Service is good(ish), bathrooms are clean, there’s air con, and even a great bakery next door. Be prepared to queue for a table – especially Friday nights and weekends.
Trinidad: Los Conspiratores – does good pasta and has a great location right on the steps of the central square with live music. On the pricier side but worth the spend.
Santiago de Cuba: Rumba Cafe – Italian run with great sandwiches, aperitivo and smoothies – this place was a lifeline for us in Santiago! Don’t bother with the desserts or the cocktails.
Santa Clara: Hostal Florida Center – The best meal we had in our whole month. Don’t bother ordering lobster in Cuba unless you’re doing it here. Go for the lobster and prawns in tomato sauce. Meals also come with great trimmings (bread and salad) and the service is super friendly.
So. We can’t promise that the food will be the highlight of your time in Cuba. But for us it became a challenge that we enjoyed – finding a way to work with what we had, and becoming excellent at selecting the edibile from the terrible. And anyway, we didn’t come for the food! Eat to survive and spend your energy enjoying everything else that Cuba has to offer – you won’t be thinking about your stomach for long!