Eating and drinking

Food


Food is not Cuba's strong point, although the supply of fresh food has improved. In Havana the peso food situation is improving but there are still shortages. It is not unusual to be told '
no hay
' (there isn't any) at restaurants where you would expect the full menu to be available. The Ministry of Agriculture has set up many
organopónicos
in the city to provide the capital with fresh vegetables, grown under organic conditions and to avoid transport costs.

Outside Havana shortages are not so bad, having recovered from the hurricane damage of 2008, but the island is not self-sufficient. Farmers' markets are good places to buy fruit and vegetables. Shops sell mostly imported supplies in CUC$ such as tins of food from Spain, packets of biscuits, cookies and crackers. Tourists do not have access to local stores, or bodegas, as these are based on the national ration card system. Bread, rice, beans, sugar and coffee are rationed to Cuban families but they are not given enough to live on and have to purchase the balance at market prices. Milk is rationed only for children up to the age of seven. You can buy almost anything in CUC$.

The national dish congrís (rice mixed with black beans), roast pork and yuca (cassava) or fried plantain. Rice with kidney (red) beans is known as moros y cristianos. Pork is traditionally eaten for the New Year celebrations, so before then all the pigs that have been fattened up on people's balconies or smallholdings are on the move in the backs of trucks, cars and bicycles, to be sold privately or at the markets. Pork and chicken are the most common meats available and the cheapest. Despite government investment in fisheries, seafood such as lobster and shrimp is reserved for the export and tourist markets. There is a story that the government tried to improve the diet of the Cuban people by reducing the price of fish, but all that happened was that the cats got fat. Not even price manipulation could wean Cubans off their habitual diet of pork, rice and beans. Most food is fried and can often be greasy and bland. Spices and herbs are not commonly used and Cubans limit their flavourings to onions and garlic. Salads in restaurants are mixed vegetables which are slightly pickled and not to everyone's taste. Shredded pickled cabbage and sliced cucumber are a common garnish to the main dish. Take advantage of whatever is in season as Cuba's range of tropical fruit and vegetables is magnificent. At the right time of year there will be a glut of avocados, mangoes, guavas, zapote or papaya.

Some casa particular owners freeze things in times of plenty so that you can have mango or papaya juice at any time of the year. They spend a lot of time scouring the various food supply outlets every day to make sure they have a wide range of provisions for their guests. Breakfast is usually coffee, fruit and/or fruit juice, bread, honey and eggs or a cheese and ham sandwich. Many Cubans have no more than a cup of coffee for breakfast and eat their main meal at lunch time, but they expect foreigners to eat at night. Cubans are particularly hooked on ice cream, although it usually only comes in vanilla, strawberry or chocolate flavours. The ice cream parlour, Coppelia, can be found in every town of any size and is quite an experience, with long queues because of its popularity. There are other ice cream parlours for a change. State restaurants/hotels


State restaurants/hotels

State-owned 'dollar' restaurants
are recognizable by the credit card stickers on the door, where meals are paid only in CUC$. Some can be quite good and there are variations in menus, so you can find Italian, Spanish or French restaurants. Be warned that the Cuban idea of Chinese food is unlike anything you might find in your home country and very sweet. You get what you pay for, and at the cheap end of the market you can expect poor quality, limited availability of ingredients and disinterested staff. Generally, although restaurants have improved in the last few years, the food in Cuba is not very exciting. Restaurants are more innovative in Havana than elsewhere and some of the
paladares
are eccentric in their tastes. Always check restaurant prices in advance and then your bill. Discrepancies occur in both the state and private sector.

Resort
hotels
tend to serve buffet meals, which can get tedious after a while, but breakfast here, and in large, urban hotels where buffets are served, is usually good and plentiful and you can stock up for the day. Breakfast in other hotels can be particularly slow. If not eating at a buffet, service, no matter what standard of restaurant or hotel, can be very slow (even if you are the only customers).


Paladares/casas particulares


Paladares
are privately owned restaurants, licensed and taxed and limited to 12 chairs, as well as having employment restrictions. Some very good family-run businesses have been set up, offering a three-course meal in Havana for less than that outside the capital. Things like olives and coffee are usually charged as extras, be sure to check what the meal includes. They are not allowed to have lobster or shrimp on the menu as these are reserved for hotels and the export market. However, if you ask, there are often items available which are not on the menu. Remember that if someone guides you to a
paladar
he will expect a commission, so you end up paying more for your food. There are also illegal
paladares
, which will serve meals with meat. We do not list them. The cheapest, legal, way of getting a decent meal is by eating in a
casa particular
. This is generally of excellent quality in plentiful, even vast, proportions, with the advantage that they will cook whatever you want. Vegetarians can be catered for.You can negotiate a package of dinner, bed and breakfast which can give
good value. While quality and style of cooking naturally varies, as a general rule you will get fresher food in a
casa particular
than you will in a restaurant or
paladar
, both of which now have the reputation of recycling meals and reheating leftovers.


Fast food/peso stalls

For a cheap meal you are better off trying the Cuban version of fast-food restaurants, such as
El Rápido
, or
Burgui
, or try a
cafetería
, of which there are many all round the island. As well as chicken and chips or burgers, they offer a 'wide' range of sandwiches: cheese, ham, or cheese and ham, but they do come in different sizes. Breakfast and one other meal may be sufficient if you fill in with street or 'dollar shop' snacks. All towns and cities have peso street stalls for sandwiches, pizza and snacks. In out-of-the-way places, you will be able to pay for food in pesos, but generally you will be charged in CUC$.


Vegetarians


For vegetarians the choice is very limited, normally only cheese sandwiches, spaghetti, pizzas, salads, bananas and omelettes. Even beans (and
congris
) are often cooked with meat or in meat fat. If you are staying at a
casa particular
or eating in a
paladar
, they will usually prepare meatless meals for you with advance warning. Always ask for beans to be cooked in vegetable oil. Some vegetarians even recommend taking your own oil and lending it to the cook so that you can be absolutely sure that lard has not been used. Hotels usually have quite extravagant all-you-can-eat buffet spreads you can choose from.

Drink

Rum
is the national drink and all cocktails are rum based. There are several brand names and each has a variety of ages, so you have plenty of choice . Do not buy cheap firewater, or cane spirit, as it is unlikely to agree with you and you may be ill for a while. The good stuff is cheap enough. Beer is good and there are regional varieties, which come in bottles or cans. The locally grown coffee is good, although hotels often manage to make it undrinkable in the mornings. Some of the best coffee comes from back gardens, home grown and home roasted.
The most widely available
beer
throughout the island is
Cristal
, made by
Cervecería Mayabe
, in Holguín. From the same brewery is
Mayabe
, with Ordinary at 3.5% and Extra at 5%, both costing the same as Cristal and also popular with more flavour. Sometimes you can find
Mayabe
beer in pesos cubanos, at 18 pesos.
Hatuey
, made in Havana, is reckoned by some to be the best of Cuba's many beers, named after an Amerindian chief ruling when the Spanish arrived, but it is very hard to find.
Bucanero
, from Holguín, is easily bought in the east of the island, 5.4% in bottles or cans.
Tínimo
(from Camagüey, good with more flavour than Cristal) is also difficult to find. Cuba now also produces
wines
under the
Soroa
label, grown and produced in Pinar del Río. It is not to be recommended except to marinate tough meat, but it is improving. There is also a more expensive range, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Tempranillo and other grapes, produced with the help of a Spanish company in a joint venture. If you want wine you are better off buying something imported.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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