Enjoying food in Cuba
Comida criolla v. street food (a win-win choice)
When in Cuba, nothing can beat a good comida criolla. Or almost.
Travellers have several choices for food in Cuba: state owned restaurants, paladares (which are the equivalent of “our” restaurants), eating at the casas particulares or street food. With the exception of state owned restaurants, where the choice is poor, the food tasteless and hardly fresh, and the bill expensive, you won’t have troubles with any other choice.
When eating at paladares or at casas particulares, you will most likely end up having a comida criolla. That consists of a season salad – cabbage, tomatoes, cucumber and sometimes lettute and carrots, or even green beans. And yes, you can have it even if the vegetables are raw: Cubans wash the vegetables with purified/boiled water, which is the same they use for cooking and for making the ice-cubes for their delicious cocktails; a soup – generally yucca and other vegetables; rice with frijoles, also known as congrì, which is rice with super-tasty black beans; tostadas (platano croquettes) or fried bananas, and a choice of chicken, pork, lobster, seafood, shrimps or even a mixture. Top this off with ice-cream and fresh fruit for dessert, and since the quantities are VERY large, you will leave the table unable to walk or move, yet very happy. If you are in Baracoa, definitely go for the shrimps, lobster or octopus in coconut sauce. So rich, spicy and delicious! The average price for such a dinner is between 5 and 12 CUC, depending on the city. Trinidad is overall more expensive than the rest. Cienfuegos is cheaper.
If you are travelling on a super-tight budget, go for street food. From juice (oh, is there anything more refreshing than a coco frio?) to fresh fruit, to bocadillos (small sandwiches), to pizza and churros, to fried potatoes and what not, you will want to try it. Bocadillos can sometimes consist of poor quality ham and lettuce. If you want something more tasty, go for the freshly cooked pork and lettuce, they cost 1 CUC a piece and they are big! We even tried the pizza. Sure, they are nothing like the ones in Italy. But they are freshly baked in a wood or charcoal oven, hot and soft yet crispy. Depending on the topping, they can cost 10 up to 25 MN (moneda nacional – less than a dollar) a piece, and they will satisfy your palate and appetite, I promise.
Do you like peanuts? Then eat the cacauetes – they sell them in small paper cones for something like 5 MN. I bought them as I really was curious to see what it was, and ended up eating them when I was hungry. Want to try something sweet? Go for the churros. 1 CUC for a large portion, and you can even have chocolate sauce added to that. Or, should you be walking around at night in Vinales, you can get a fresh pina colada in the main street: close to the square, there is a sign that says “pina colada, aqui todo natural”. You call for the lady inside, and she will prepare a pina colada for you by blending together ice powdered milk, sugar, fresh coconut, fresh pineapple, and fresh coconut milk and topping it off with some cinammon. The result is a thick and delicious smoothie, much much better than any other dessert, and if by then you have become an alcoholic (nobody can escape the rum in Cuba!) you can go next door and ask to add a drop of rum.
If you ever feel hot, go for icecream. Not the Coppelia one, but the fresh one made in casas. You will see Cubans walking around with inviting cones: just follow them and go get yourself a home made ice-cream. Do try Coppelia if you want a real Cuban experience, but I must warn you, it is as cheap as what you pay! At 4 cents a ball (pay in MN), what do you expect? You have to get in line, and balls of watery ice-cream will be taken out of buckets and portioned into plastic bowls. You will mostly feel like your dog when you eat it, but why not?
Do you feel a bit low and need a good sugar kick? Get a guarapo – sugarcane juice. If it is too sweet for you, have it with lemon juice.
And what about coffee? It is so ridicoulously tasty! You will smell it in the street – slightly chestnuty, which will leave you wondering how Cuba can possibly have chestnut trees, until you will eventually understand that they are roasting coffee. Go for it. You won’t regret it. And if you can, buy some rough Cuban chocolate in Baracoa.
All in all, you can bet that food in Cuba is usually delicious. You may never have beef (hard to get), but seafood is so delicious that you won’t care. And unless you are super-delicate, do try street food. It is a real experience!
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