One of the most common questions people asked when I told them I was moving to Cuba was this: ‘What’s the food going to be like?’. Years of the embargo, overpriced imports, scores of tourists frequenting the all-inclusive resorts where the food is not always fabulous, ubiquitous pizza shops where your choice is ham, or cheese, or ham and cheese mean that the reputation of Cuban food isn’t always the best. However, the variety and quality of Cuban food is actually pretty exciting and varied if you know where to find it and if you are able to afford it (and sadly, many are not). Luckily, Danny is an awesome cook and he has taught me loads about how to eat well here. Here are just some of our favourite foods and where we find them.
Fresh fruits and vegetables
Firstly, fresh produce is not available in supermarkets here – you can’t stroll in and grab a packet of clean, trimmed lettuce along with a pint of milk and a newspaper. Instead, for fresh produce, you have to go to a farmer’s market or one of the little carts that trundle around the street. ‘Agromercados’ are packed with seasonal, farm-fresh produce. They are dotted around every town and city, and there’s one in every neighbourhood in Havana. In the summer, until early September, there are plentiful mangoes – they are huge and sweet and can be made into amazing daiquiris, smoothies or (if you are super-organised) chutneys and preserves. Even when mangoes are no-where to be found, you will always find papaya and pineapples as well as some more unusual tastes such as custard apple. The bright red-orange flesh of the manay makes amazing fruity ice cream if you freeze it for a couple of hours, and a coconut makes a perfect mid-morning snack that’s packed with electrolytes to help you beat the heat. Never in my life have I seen avocadoes like the ones here: they are the size of rugby balls with perfect green, silky flesh inside. At the agro, all transactions take place via ancient rusty scales from vendors who are far too busy to give you any tourist patter, but who will not think twice about inflating prices when they see a hapless English girl struggling to work out the exchange rate between currencies, whilst wondering exactly how many tomatoes make a up pound. I will write more about the naughty market men another time. Back to the food!
The food in Viñales
Just over two hours from Havana is the lovely Viñales: a little village situated in the national park, surrounded with emerald greenery and strange, lumpy mogotes. Viñales can be visited in a day from Havana and as a result, its main street is now dotted with restaurants catering for tourists, many of which fall into the ‘meh’ category of food. Instead, we like to go to the organic farm up the hill, where you can take a guided tour of the terraced vegetable plots before tucking into a traditional dinner made with some of the food from the farm. Dinner starts with tarro chips, accompanied by homemade veggie soup with curry flavouring. Next, a fillet of grilled fish, some lamb, maybe some chicken or even rabbit. Sides include the traditional Cuban rice and beans, and yuca, which is a starchy root vegetable usually served in a buttery, garlicky sauce called a mojo.
What to eat in Havana
When we are eating out and need a break from traditional food, we feel very lucky as Havana has some fantastic restaurants which offer some European-style dishes. At our favourite Italian place – Cinco Esquinas – they make all the pasta and pizza dough themselves, and dinner is served on bistro style tables on the quiet street outside. This being Cuba, occasionally a menu item might not be available, but lobster instead of shrimp on your pizza is the kind of swap I can deal with. Brunch seems to have taken off here as much as everywhere else, and El Café serves up a smashed avo toast as well as any trendy places in London or Madrid, and for half the price.
Now for some seafood. In Playa Larga, one of the most striking sights is watching the red crabs picks their way across hazardous roads and into the ocean. At other times of year, you can see them creeping through the woods which line the pristine shores. No surprise then, that a giant crab adorns the sign which welcomes you into the town. However, it’s the WHITE crab that gets frequently prepared and eaten here, and is one of the best treats this seaside area has to offer. A summer ago, we visited our friend Yeye’s mother’s casa and she cooked us up some crab in a casserole with tomatoes and spices – it was incredible. Danny likes to put it in a ceviche, ideally using the lime juice from the tree which grows at his family house! Staple foods often disappear from the shops at random here, but you can always find some kind of cracker, which makes the perfect vehicle (or mini crab shovel, depending on your manners) for crab whichever way you like it.
It would be wrong to finish without something sweet – and sugar plays a huge role in everything here! Our neighbourhood in Miramar, like many, has a bakery every few blocks. Open late into the night, they are perfect for an attack of the munchies, or just for a little treat during an evening stroll to the wifi park. Our favourites are the torticas – shortbread-style cookies with just the right amount of melty-mouthed, salty-sweet, crunchy-but-soft-ness (there just aren’t the adjectives for these things). Fresh out of the oven and at 30 for $1, they are addictive. We also get our soft, pillowy breakfast bread, wholemeal loaves and cookies with a sticky blob of guava jam in the centre.
But the most ubiquitous treat of all is FLAN, which is served as a dessert in most homes and restaurants. Danny’s granny taught me how to make it and it is amazingly simple to do, but tastes so delicious and looks so nice when it’s turned out. I find it hard to explain how much I love it, even though it’s basically a smooth custard, slowly cooked in a bain-marie or pressure cooker in steel tins lined with smoky liquid caramel.
This is just a taste of the sorts of food available here as we get on with our day to day lives. Soon I will write more about the places we’ve found as we get out of the city and explore – including some of the scariest looking seafood I’ve ever seen. Check out my Instagram www.instagram.com/at_home_in_cuba and see if you can find the photo…
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