“You don’t go to Cuba for the food”.

This is the one line you will hear again and again during your stay if you visit Cuba. Before arriving you will undoubtedly be told warning tales of the state of the food there. The internet is awash with stories of Cuba’s dire, bland and limited food options with ominous threats of an unending hunger pang throughout your stay. This is not an indictment of Cuban cooking however, but rather comes down to the 50 year long embargo Cuba has been subjected to. This is a commercial, economic and financial embargo which includes almost all imports and exports into and out of Cuba. Located a mere 90 miles from Miami the embargo was intended to cripple the regime of the Socialist Island.

Whilst the desired foreign policy outcome has not been achieved, the culinary scene has undoubtedly taken a hit. As a self confessed food obsessed traveler this prospect did fill me with trepidation. The success of any holiday lies almost wholly on the merits of the food does it not? Here I was signing myself up to a two week perpetual state of hangerness (state of anger induced by hunger). Or so I believed based on the accounts I heard and read both first hand and on the internet.

As it turns out they were wrong. Maybe the food fear mongering is a tactic of enemy states seeking to dissuade impressionable would be tourists, who knows, but as I discovered over two weeks cycling through cities, country side, farms and plantations the food was positively enjoyable in the most part.

To understand this realization some further context is needed. Not only does the stringent embargo prevent Cuba from importing items from nearby America, the economy is also weakened significantly by being unable to sell their once major exports like sugar, coffee, cigars, rice, fruits etc. to America and it’s allies who fear jeopardizing their US business interests by fraternizing with Cuba. In Socialist Cuba this has direct repercussions on every single citizen. Nearly everything in Cuba is Government owned. The hotels, the tourist agencies, the cafes, the transport, and yes, the restaurants too. The restaurants therefore do not have a wealth of options and food is often basic. The worldly flavors, exotic spices and fusion-esque influences we are so accustomed to in free trade Capitalist societies are not available here. Instead, the foods of the land reign supreme – meals consist primarily of rice, beans, plantains and fish/meat.

Further to that, up until 1990 privately owned small restaurants were illegal in Cuba. However the fall of the Soviet Union – Cuba’s financial backer, forced the Government to rethink and initiated a wave of economic reforms – including the legalization of privately owned small restaurants, called Paladar’s. This pumped a welcomed new lease of life into Cuban society, the economy and the food scene.

Paladar’s come with their specific Government requirements however and are usually set up in family homes offering home cooking with the staff formed from members of the family. The patrons of some of the paladar’s have family members abroad or are able to travel themselves to other parts of Central/South America bringing back with them coveted spices and ingredients to cook with that are unavailable in Cuba. It is not unusual to see a table set up in a paladar in a bed room, amidst the bed and personal artifacts of its owners.  Others are set in homes that have now been vacated so the premises can be purely used as a restaurant, though the personal homely feel can still usually be felt. The menus are more varied than the government owned restaurants and the cooking has a discernible individualistic flair.

Over the course of two weeks I sampled government restaurants, paladar’s, home cooking and ‘el rapido’ fast food establishments. The experience provided an interesting snapshot look into Cuban society through the lens of the food culture.

The Government Restaurants

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The overwhelming majority of food establishments are government owned. From pizza chains to sit down restaurants, from the cities to the mountains overlooking tobacco farms – they are primarily owned by the Cuban Government. The basic tenet of socialist republic is that wealth is distributed amongst its citizens thus providing access to free healthcare, education, subsidized housing and provisions/rations for food staples to all. Cuba not only upholds these socialist attributes but excel at them – it’s healthcare system is one of the best in the world and regarded by the World Health Organization as a model to be emulated. Its education system is rigorous, accessible and free to all including university level. Education is a government priority which spends 10% of its annual budget on education, compared to 4% in the UK and 2% in the USA. Attendance rates are high as parents are heavily penalized for absences. Cuba’s literacy rate was taken from 60% at the start of the revolution to 90% in the space of a year by a very ambitious and scrupulous literacy campaign spearheaded by Fidel Castro. Cuba’s literacy rate is now higher than that of the US and UK. Due to the exacting adherence to these principles there is no space for frivolity; the government restaurants are functional but basic, and primarily visited by Cubans themselves, as the tourist industry in Cuba is not exactly booming. Prices are cheap compared to western standards, which when you realize that a Doctors average monthly salary is 40CUC – or around £30 British pounds you understand why.

I was pleasantly surprised with the food at many of the Government restaurants – good fish options well executed and plentiful sides of rice and selected vegetables. Dessert always consisted of either fresh fruit or ice cream and the simplicity is a welcome change from the excessive and often wasteful options we are more accustomed to.

The traditional Cuban restaurants located more inland often did not have fish options. The staff were always very apologetic (and slightly baffled as to why chicken would be classified as meat, pork they understood) and always tried to accommodate – piling on all the non-meat options available and rustling up a Tortilla Espanola (Cuban type of egg omelette) too.

The ‘Fast Food’ Establishments

Devoid of the yellow overarching M of McDonalds that evokes a sense of consistency and globalization from London to Beijing, in Cuba the ‘El Rapido’ and ‘Dino’s’ signs become the familiar symbols of a consistent and unified eating experience across the country. These are the ‘chain’ fast food options and are of course Government owned. In a socialist economy where everything is Government owned the need of advertising is dispensed with. The El Rapido’s and Dino’s simply exist with no need for advertisements alluding to their existence or location. After a week of eating rice sometimes the food soul craves something slightly different – pizza perhaps, or maybe even potatoes, amazing, fried, glistening potatoes. El Rapido’s is a no nonsense chain which even by Cuban standards is devoid of unnecessary frills. Frequented by families, young groups of friends and solitary old men, the walls are adorned with inviting pictures of pizzas, burgers and fries. What is actually available however is a different story. Fries – not available. Pizza – not available. In fact the only thing available is usually a Ham sandwich. We put this down to a stock issue on our first El Rapido visit. However by the 4th visit, and supported by our experience at the snack bar of our hotel, it became clear that this was not a case of that branch running out – but that the country had run out. Limited food supplies distributed across the country often falls short and the result is Cuba’s largest ‘fast food’ chain offering a menu consisting of a Ham sandwich.

Dino’s is another Cuban ‘chain’ (I use the term loosely) which specializes primarily in Pizza. Luckily they don’t seem to run out of Pizza – handy considering this is their niche. Sitting outside in the warm balmy night, the only non Cubans around, ordering via a mix of pointing and broken Spanish asserting desperately ‘no carne’ (no meat), ‘soy vegetariano’ (I’m a vegetarian) and ‘un naranja gaseoso por favor’ (fizzy orange please) we received our margherita pizza and Ciego Montero (government owned) drinks, which was a welcome change after 10 days of rice and cassava.
Two pizzas and two drinks cost roughly £3 here.

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Government owned soft drink brand – who needs Coca Cola when you have Ciego Montero?

Paladar’s

In recent years paladar’s have become increasingly more popular and sophisticated. In cities like Havana and Trinidad there is an overwhelming number of beautiful paladar’s to choose from and each dining experience I had at a paladar was a great one. I have chosen to focus on one specific paladar however located in Trinidad which is an experience in of itself as much as it is about food. The Restaurant Museo founded in 1514 apparently. Set in a beautiful rustic house on the cobbled stone narrow roads of the centre of Trinidad which is itself a World Heritage site, the restaurant is a museum of sorts paying homage to vintage tableware. The dining area is set both inside and in the outdoor courtyard and each table is set with different, unique china dating back to the 19th century and supposedly left behind by pirates. The walls around the courtyard look like ancient ruins and the whole place feels like a beautiful embodiment of shabby chic elegance and charm. Candles, roses and elegant glasses glimmer as a live band plays and the waiters are dressed in immaculate vintage suits harking back to the elegance of the 20’s, whilst being watched by the female owner of the restaurant who looks on attentively in between giving her 5 yr old granddaughters dancing tips as they take centre stage and dance along to the classics the live band are performing. The whole set up is so beautiful, rustic and timeless that if it were not for the clicking of cameras you could feel wholly transported to the past.

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Prices are of course more expensive here and a meal can nearly fetch as much as a doctor’s monthly salary. Paladar owners are required to pay higher taxes to the Government for the privilege to operate their own business and this is incorporated into the prices.

The food was excellent – butterfly lobster grilled to perfection and flavored with delicate perfection. My dish was meant to be served with prawns which had run out – even paladar’s can’t escape the constricting realities of life under embargo. The fish it was substituted with was so great however that I didn’t mind at all.

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This was a particularly pricey paladar (mains around £16 which by Cuban standards is very high) however food of a similar quality in Havana’s paladars can be ordered for a quarter of the price – though not in such rustic and impressive surroundings.

Home Cooking

Cuba is the home to vast coffee, tobacco and sugar plantations which were once lucrative exports for the country. Travelling through rural farm lands we had the opportunity to experience home cooking by dining at the home of the owner of a coffee plantation. This may sound like a lucrative vocation, however the realities of capitalism means the £3 coffee cup so many people in the West require daily to function hardly impacts the bottom line of those who work directly with coffee. This is a reality not limited to Cuba but extends to South America, Africa and Asia. In Cuba the coffee farmers are heavily subsidized by the Government but living amenities are still basic. The one storey home we visited housed 6 members of the family in two small rooms and opportunities to cook for tourists wishing to sample home cooking provides them with significant additions to their income. After an exhausting uphill 30 mile cycle traversing through mountainous terrain the smell and promise of home cooked fare was extremely welcome. The matriarch of the house was finishing up in the darkened kitchen putting the finishing touches on the rice, plantains, salad and cassava.

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Located on a farm chickens, dogs, cats, turkeys and baby pigs walked freely in the outside area where we were seated to have our lunch. The roaming pigs should have served as a warning sign for the large full roast hog that emerged and subsequently carved up. I seated myself in the kitchen alongside a Swiss vegetarian lady who seemed traumatized and enjoyed the traditional Cuban food fare of rice and beans, cassava, freshly fried plantain crisps, salad, Tortilla Espanol (omlette) and a nice freshly made fruit juice concoction to wash it down with. Though these were the same foods I had eaten repeatedly throughout my stay this was by far the best, it appears that whether in Capitalist UK or Socialist Cuba home cooking reigns supreme.

My dining experiences dispelled in the most part every warning and threat I had heard about the food and rendered my carefully selected ration bag of brunch bars and Nutella superfluous. From paladars offering lavish lobster in romantic settings to traditional simple Cuban meals at government owned restaurants I experienced a small insight into Cuban culture and resilience through the prism of food. “You don’t come to Cuba for the food” may be true- not because the food is lacking, but because the culture, history, sights, and charm of the Cuban people are such compelling reasons to visit that culinary exploration pales in comparison.

Through food the Cuban will to not only survive but thrive in the face of economic sanctions designed to starve a nation can be witnessed in the most satiating allegory.

About Gem Hunter Zaynab

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Zaynab is a born and bred Londoner who has a love for all things food and travel. By day a Risk Consultant in the Finance sector, outside of work Zaynab maintains a blog charting her travel and foodie adventures around the world.

Click here to find out more.