Rice and beans? Or;
Beans and rice? … Your choice!
And thus has been Cuba’s culinary reputation since Cuba began opening as a major tourist destination over the last 20 years. Food on the socialist island has improved radically since the first all-inclusive beach resorts reemerged in the 1990’s, but the story of Cuban nourishment is much older and offers a rather unique social experiment.
There are two distinct traditions of Cuban food – in Cuba itself and in Miami. The million-plus Cuban-Americans living in Miami have done well. Their tastes have adapted to their Floridian home, but their traditional community maintains a distinctly Cuban flavour, particularly with regard to coffee and pastries.
Calle Ocho (8th Street) runs through the middle of Little Havana in a poorer area of Miami. Upwards of 80% of residents of the area are no longer Cuban (Venezuelans are the newest wave of migrants to the area, sharing space with Central Americans and Colombians), but the murals, coffee shops and restaurants echo the values and politics of exiled Cubans.
La Carreta is a classic Cuban-American restaurant chain. Its menu highlights (yes) rice, beans, plantain chips, pork, fish and mojitos.
The evolution of sustenance within modern Cuba is far more interesting. It has morphed from traditional-Caribbean, to Soviet industrial and onto organic-local, farm-to-table.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in the late 1980’s and the US tightened its embargo, Cuba lost 80% of its export market and financial support. Cuba’s economy collapsed. During it’s Socialist transformation during the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s, Cuba became dependent upon imported oil and heavily fertilised, industrial farming.
Interestingly, Cuba really only experimented with a form of Socialism after Soviet subsidies dried up. Cuba was faced with the genuine threat of hunger. This was due to no oil, few trading partners and no more fertiliser.
The 1990’s was declared a ‘Special Time.’ Rather than capitulating to global trends, Castro’s regime dug in its heels and insisted upon surviving. Cuban food was rationed, bicycles replaced combustion engines and farming became organic.
The average Cuban lost 20 pounds (9 kilos). Many fled the isolated nation. Oxen replaced derelict Soviet tractors and fish consumption increased. Even refrigeration became a major challenge, so fruit and vegetable consumption increased.
In a desperate attempt to develop export markets, Cuba reached out to tourists, developing resorts on coastal areas (where Cubans were restricted from travelling).
Americans could not visit, but Canadians, Europeans and South Americans discovered the beautiful and clean coastal waters of the post-industrial island. Cuba’s reputation for terrible and boring food began with these all-inclusive resorts.
As compared to other resort areas of the region, the quality and variety of food at Cuban hotels was indeed limited. While all-inclusive resort dining is rarely a highlight, it is time to move past the stereotype of terrible food in Cuba.
Rationing some staple foods does remain in Cuba. Although the modern culinary experience is interesting, healthy and sometimes delicious. ‘Paladars’ are what they call private restaurants in Cuba. Once limited to 13 seats, they now function as private restaurants with unlimited seating. In Havana, service is excellent. A 3-course meal with two drinks will cost over 30 CUC’s (convertible Pesos: $34 USD) – distinctly more than regional averages.
In smaller cities prices are lower, but still inflated due to the peculiar dual currency system (something that must be abandoned).
Whether in a Paladar or an all-inclusive, Cubans cook their meat and fish much more than I am accustomed to. It seems I am not alone in this opinion. Beef, pork and lamb are cooked to beyond ‘well-done’, this may just be local taste or may have developed due to refrigeration issues.
Cubans harvest some delicious food from the sea. Lobster is a very common dish. As exciting as that sounds, warm-water lobster meat is much tougher than the northern cousin. Whitefish is excellent and Atlantic salmon is also available.
I continue to love strong Cuban coffee and always opt for the fish option when ordering a main course. Creamy soups are also excellent, despite the tropical environment. Cuban bread is delicious too!
There are no chain restaurants. No Starbucks and certainly no McDonalds. Let’s see how the economy develops, but for now, eating in Cuba is very healthy.
Drinking can be a bit rougher. The two brands of beer; Crystal and Bucanero are fine – the latter slightly stronger. Havana Club Rum is everywhere and cheap. This has contributed to a few notable morning headaches.
As the Caribbean’s largest island, Cuba’s colonial history is brutal. It was one of Spain’s last colonies in the Americas and its entire slavery-driven economy had been developed around exporting popular pleasure products such as sugar, rum, coffee and tobacco.
Independent Cuba was a tale of two islands.
Havana was a drinking and gambling playground. It had strong connections to the American mafia, whereas the rest of the country remained agrarian and desperately poor. All of this lead to the successful 1959 revolution and the Cold War hijacked any reasonable ideology in deference to Soviet-style central planning. Here is more about Cuba.
If all goes well (not a given), modern Cuba has great potential. It’s population is healthy, educated and reasonably equal. The island country may yet become a culinary destination!