Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Getting Fed in Cuba

Normally, when we travel, we try to do quite a bit of the cooking in our rented apartment. It may sound odd, but eating out 3 meals a day gets old in a hurry. A simple breakfast with coffee, toast and yogurt and some sandwiches for lunch gets us through the day and then we are ready to go out for a nice dinner. I think that this is what we had imagined when we left for Cuba. As you have probably figured out already, this is not how it played out. Here are the barriers:

1) Your apartment may not have any cooking equipment at all. One of them had a nice private kitchen but no stove and no cooking equipment or plates or silverware, one had only a shared dining room with a sink and a refrigerator. One had a kitchen with a few pots and pans and a little electric hot plate. We could at least make our own coffee in the morning. Cubans simply don't have that many things and to put pots and pans in the rental part of the house means that they are not available in the main kitchen of the house. Thankfully, they all have refrigerators or access to one, so no worries with cold beer.

2) Good luck buying food. If you find something that looks like a grocery store, it will have liquor in the front half, and a random assortment of frozen mystery meat, oddly matched canned goods and overly large containers of condiments. Remember those pictures of Soviet grocery stores? It is like that. 

If you want fresh produce, you buy that on the streets from small vendors with horse carts, or little corner stalls. Above is a picture of one of the larger corner vegetable stalls in Havana. Eggs seem to mysteriously appear - just look for the doorway with a line coming out of it. Milk? Forget it. We didn't see it the whole time. You can get a big bag of powdered milk, or 1-liter boxes of condensed milk.  Fresh meat is also sold from small stalls or from doorways. Look for the pig parts dangling from the doorway. I think that it takes most people a few hours per day to do their grocery shopping, and only because they have a strong knowledge of the local community. 

3) Your apartment will have no food in it when you arrive. I mean, no salt, no pepper, no cooking oil, no rice, nothing. Most Airbnb places will have some of the basics left over from other tenants. Not here. You would have to buy every little thing.

OK, so no cooking. We paid for our hosts to make us breakfast and then ate at restaurants for lunch and dinner. With few exceptions, the meals had a certain sameness. The only type of rice is white, the only bread is white. Almost every meal comes with black beans and rice, fried plantains or banana chips. a salad with tomatoes, cucumber and cabbage, and your choice of chicken, pork, shrimp or beef. You may get lucky and find lobster or fish. You can choose from three different types of generic beer (Presidente, Buccanero, or Crystal) and any of the standard rum drinks. Rum is dirt cheap here.  We actually found one "hip" bar that went out of its way to make good cocktails, but that was an exception. Mostly, it is Mojitos, Cuba Libres, Daiquiris and PiƱa Coladas.

We did find some really nice ceviche, more than one good ropa vieja, and Sherry got lobster whenever the occasion presented itself. One of our hosts, Luis, did amazing things with the limited basic ingredients available to him and he also is a beekeeper so we had his honey every morning. Another one of our hosts made us breakfasts and pretty good dinners because the town was so small that the restaurants didn't look too appealing. But, after three weeks, it became harder and harder to get excited about going out to dinner, knowing that the menu would be essentially the same no matter where we went.

The big upside is that there really isn't much junk food in Cuba. There is soda, but we don't drink that stuff anymore. We rarely ordered dessert because, after eating a big breakfast and a restaurant lunch and dinner, we really weren't hungry anymore. I'm not sure if we lost weight, but I don't think we gained any either. Midnight snacks? Sorry - nowhere to buy anything that you would want to eat.

We didn't ask any of the all-inclusive hotel people that we met what their experience with food was. Maybe they serve something entirely different in the big tourist hotels. Lots of Canadians down here - maybe they have a Cuban spin on Poutine.

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