by Achy Obejas | Jul. 22, 2011
Inevitably, when I say I'm going to Cuba, somebody says, "Mmm, yummy! I
love Cuban food." And after watching Anthony Bourdain's "No
Reservations" season premiere episode on Cuba, you might be tempted to
think something delicious awaits you on the island.
But here's the honest to God truth: Most food in Cuba is awful.
Oh, sure, you can get a decent meal in a hotel. And in a casa particular
– a private home that rents room – you might luck out with an especially
talented owner who can whip up a yummy breakfast.
And, yes, there are paladares – private, family-run restaurants – that
run the gamut from terrible to exquisite (and crazy expensive, and cash
only), but to quote Frommer's: You don't come to Cuba for fine dining.
Generally speaking the food is starch-heavy, greasy, and not
particularly flavorful. Service is all over the map, from the terribly
obsequious, to the obnoxious jerk who once served me and took his smoke
break before serving the friend across from me, so that our meals
arrived exactly 20 minutes apart – and hers was cold. No apologies.
Yes, part of the problem is that there are scarcities. Even the most
upscale Cuban supermarkets (no, not all markets are created equal in
Cuba), the variety is stunted. And at the markets that are accessible to
the average Cuban, there's rarely any variety at all and not much more
than the basics.
But there is, in fact, a bigger problem. For more than half a century,
Cubans have depended on the ration book, which provides a weekly
distribution of foods that guarantees a basic level of nutrition to
every Cuban. Unfortunately, the ration book is stuck in nutritional
ideas from the 60s, with nary a green vegetable anywhere on its pages.
Dairy products are also absent from the ration book, except for milk for
kids under 7. And perhaps more importantly in a discussion about flavor,
there are no spices on the ration book.
What this means is that most Cubans have been playing with the same
handful of ingredients in their extremely limited kitchens for about 50
years. Kitchens which usually include only a couple of burners. It's the
rare Cuban with a working oven. Anyone with a microwave is pretty
privileged. So the culinary imagination on the island is less epicurean
A typical day includes rice in at least one, if not two meals, plantains
and chicken or pork, all but the former fried. Maybe croquetas made from
chicken or ham (also fried). And, god knows, ham and cheese sandwiches
With the arrival of the Soviets, yogurt was introduced into the Cuban
diet and it remains popular, but as an independent supplement. I once
made a yogurt tomato sauce for a meal and my Cuban guests were horrified
before they'd even tasted it (the horror faded as soon as they put it in
their mouths). There's also a great aversion to soy products, whatever
their nutritional value, because they echo the worst economic times,
when soy was substituted for meat in the national diet.
Cuban pizza (Flickr/Hailee Rustad)
A particular post-revolution phenomenon is pizza, usually bought out on
the streets, with a thick and spongy crust, the barest brush of tomato
sauce and cheese. There are many apocryphal stories about these pizzas,
including one about Chinese condoms being melted and used in place of
cheese during the worst of times, but generally speaking, pizzas are
edible if not particularly tasty. The Habana Libre Hotel cafeteria has a
concoction called the "pizzaghetti," in which spaghetti is draped over
the crust and baked hard.
These days, it's also possible to supplement the ration book with
heavily subsidized farmer's markets where lettuce, tomatoes, carrots,
pumpkin, beets, taro as well as meats, are available. Basic spices like
oregano, paprika, bay leaves and pepper can be found there, too. Dairy
products remain out of reach to most Cubans, though farmer's cheese will
sometimes be sold at the markets, and on the roads in and out of the
city by clandestine vendors. Seafood, particularly shellfish, remains
restricted, usually reserved to serve to foreigners in tourist
establishments -- and to the likes of Anthony Bourdain.
Lately, President Raul Castro has been making noises about eliminating
the ration book. He has already cut most workers' cafeterias, leaving
Cubans to fend for themselves at lunchtime. This has meant a spike in
business to the local carry-out joints, which are proliferating all over
the city as more and more licenses are given out. Packing a lunch from
home – a new concept on the island -- presents its own challenges: some
workplaces have refrigerators, others don't.
My dream is that with greater variety, and less reliance on the state,
Cubans might actually enjoy cooking again, sparking their imaginations
and curiosity about food. On this trip, I was delighted when a friend
served a salad with actual lettuce. Baby steps, I told myself, baby steps.