The booming tourism sector played its role – Cuba is a country of contrasts. If someone is looking for a really western-taste friendly experience, they can easily find spaghetti carbonara, tiramisu or latte in fancy cafes and restaurants with live Cuban music. However, they will probably die out of boredom dining only with other foreigners. That’s why this story is not about that kind of Cuban gourmet experience. Sorry. But, the truth is that, you cannot say anything about the country, if you haven’t tried what locals really do and eat. So I set out on a quest to expose what actual Cuban realities regarding food are. And from what I found out, the real Cuba is far from the fancy restaurants. Here is the naked truth what Cubans really eat.
Visiting the supermarket
In all parts of the world, doesn’t really matter how high the GDP of a country is, people tend to complain that life is bad. People have opportunity to visit enormous supermarkets full of any products that you can imagine OR find them on the internet, if lacking ideas. Anyhow, they still find reasons to complain – that carrots are not organic, yogurt not diet enough, exotic fruits are not fresh or too expensive (with respect that they come from the other side of the world). Sounds too moralizing? WeIl, sometimes it is very healthy to imagine what it means not to have any food choice at all.
I am in Cuba, and I feel profoundly sad. I started my investigation on food in Cuba, by visiting a local supermarket (not sure if it could be called as super, but anyways). Probably compared to Cubans, I am a millionaire. Still, I am standing in the empty food shop, where I have money in my hands, but without a possibility to buy much. Simply because there is nothing to buy.
I am too young to remember realities of the Soviet Union, where food shortage and queues to buy food were common, but the haunting stories still reach me from elderly family members. Well, in Cuba it is still the reality.
The shops in Cuba are really rustic, without an attempt to show any variety of goods. One type of rice, one type of sardine can, one type of milk, almost no cheese at all. Only a couple of units of each product makes the shelves look really lonely.
The government covers some of the basic goods – such as milk, some types of meat, rice, oil, flour. However, the amount paid by the government usually is not enough, and citizens need to buy the rest on their own. Unfortunately, the prices are not friendly, because Cuba, in fact,imports about 70–80% of all its food.
Aproximate prices of food in Cuba:
Have in mind that Cubans have double currency – Cuban Pesos and Convertable Pesos. In the shops almost always the prices are in CUC, which has the same rate as USD
~1 CUC= 1 USD
Cheese ~ 1,80 CUC
Bottle of water ~ 0,70 CUC
Pasta ~ 0,85 CUC
Milk ~2 CUC
Cola ~0,75 CUC
Can of beer ~1,25 CUC
Bottle of Rom ~3,85 CUC
Bag of biscuits ~1 CUC
Bread ~0,80 CUC
When in the most prestigious job, Cubans earn around 30 USD a month, these prices are ridiculous. No surprise, often you will see pregnant women begging for milk on the doorstep of shops. Other fundamental goods are also hardly attainable – people are begging for such things as soap, shampoo, shoes or clothes that you don’t need anymore.
After shopping we make a feast… Which reminds a lot some of old Soviet movies – bread, sardines and vodka (in this case Cuban rum).
Cuban veggies market
My next stop is in a local fruit and vegetable market. After changing some tourist money into the locals currency, the tricky streets of Havana led me to a small market cramped between high residential buildings. Me and my friend are the only foreigners.
Cuba is mainly rural and green landscapes full of vegetation. 30 % of all Cubans work in agriculture. In Cuba you can find such exotic fruits as mango, pineapples, papaya (also more commonly known as fruta bomba in Cuba, because papaya has more, so to say, intimate meanings related to female genitals), coconut, bananas, plantains, grapefruit and oranges.
Even though the variety of vegetables and fruits is not so big in this small market I visited, they are extremely cheap. We buy some pineapples.
Prices of fruits and vegetables in Cuba:
In markets all the prices are in Cuban Pesos
~25 CUP = 1 USD
1 Pineapple ~ 10 CUP (0.43 USD)
1 Avocado ~10 CUP (0.43 USD)
1 Mango ~6 CUP (0.26 USD)
8 Bananas ~8 CUP (0.35 USD)
5 Apples ~10 CUP (0.43 USD)
1 Platano ~2,5 CUP (0.11 USD)
1 Pepper ~2 CUP (0.09 USD)
Bottle of tomato sauce ~10 CUP (0.43 USD)
1 Onion ~ 4 CUP (0.17 USD)
Bag of chickpeas ~15 CUP (0.65 USD)
4 carrots ~10 CUP (0.43 USD)
Time to buy potatoes! Unfortunately, it is a bit complicated. I am standing in a line with many other Cubans by some yard, where an illegal load of potatoes has just arrived. Everyone is eager to get their share and the line is too long. Maybe it’s time to leave. I will survive without potatoes.
Cuban eating habits
Until 1991 the Soviet Union was giving subsidies to Cuba, but after the collapse it stopped, leaving the island in a miserable situation. It led to malnutrition and many health problems.
Coming from the food shortage, up to this date the Cuban diet is very simple and not healthy at all. Rice is a base for all meals. Arroz Moro or Congri is the most popular dish, made from rice and beans. If you will buy food in your B&B (a.k.a casas particulares) for 5 USD you most likely get this typical Cuban lunch:
Maybe it has to do with the lack of internet, or bigger issues that the country faces, all that could be called organic madness hasn’t arrived to the island yet. No one cares about colorants in food, and the bakeries blink with intensely yellow breads or blue pies, all thanks to the artistic chefs. So, people, don’t complain about unhealthy food in Europe! It is a paradise on Earth for all kinds of diet related requests.
Apart from rice and beans, Cubans eat a lot of eggs, sometimes meat and a lot of bread! Sadly, vegetables are not on the menu. What is called ‘salads’ in Cuba is most likely to be a couple slices of tomato and cucumber, just to make the plate look greener. The consequence is that many people are not as fit as they could be. I always thought that Cuban women’s colossally round lower part of the body is do with dancing a lot of salsa. But it might be bread after all… Anyways, Cubanas are gorgeous. Watch out, guys!
Visiting restaurants for Cubans
Small local restaurants and street food stands are scattered all around the main areas. However, as they are not for tourists, they are far from rare luxury. The interior and menu are super laconic – a couple of tables, chairs, a grumpy old lady with a white apron and two or three dishes on the list.
The prices vary from 7 CUP (0.30 USD) to 25 CUP (1USD) for a meal. The dishes are super easy – mainly bread, rice and sometimes something that looks like meat. The coastal towns has a fish and crab restaurants, where you can find meals at cost around 10 CUP ( 0.43 USD)
Street food – sandwiches or something similar to pizzas – you can find from 3 CUP (0.13 USD) to 10 CUP (0.43 USD).
Best Cuban gourmet – cheap ice-cream
Time for dessert. Probably the best from Cuba is ice-cream! They come in different forms, different tastes and from different hands. You can find them on the street or in a restaurant from 3 CUP (0.13 USD) to 6 CUP (0.26 USD).
Popular ice-cream restaurants chain is called Coppelia. I actually find it by accident. There is a huge line by the entrance and I need to feed my curiosity.
After standing for half an hour with other sweet tooths discussing what good the revolution brought to Cuba, I finally get in. At the door, a bitter senora is selling coupons, with which you finally can claim your ice-cream from the kitchen.
And of course, on the way out, it is important not to forget to pay respect to the glorious Revolution! The poster on the exit shouts:
“The workers of Coppelia are celebrating the 57th anniversary of the Triumph of Revolution.”
Tasting Cuban beer
Where do Cubans have a drink? I leave the central area and head in an unknown direction just to try my luck. In one of the alleys I finally saw what I was looking for. A small door was leading upstairs, to a small crummy room with a couple of tables. The guests were gathered around the bar, and were discussing something passionately with a bartender. After seeing the new-comers, everyone went silent and only the buzzing sound of circling fans filled the space. I try ordering a beer and the thoughtful bartender instantly raises the price to 6 CUP, which is like 0.25 US for a glass. The actual price is 1 CUP (~0.04 US). How is it even possible?
I sit down with my beer and take my snack – some pieces of poultry served on the plastic bag. Mmm, yummy! Just kidding… 🙂
One more peculiarity. When I am just about to drink the beer, out of nowhere shows up the bartender and pours a bunch of salt into my glass without any warning. He walks away, leaving me speechless. Apparently, Cubans drink beer with salt – it helps the digestion by neutralising bubbly effects of beer. Weird, but it actually works.
P.S Don’t get scared and definetely go to Cuba. It is amazing!