Cuba: Cuisine only tourists can afford

Alfredo Sosa/Staff/File
<i>Paladares</i>, like this one in El Vedado, Havana, are one the the few private businesses in Cuba. Residents open their dining rooms to the public, offering simple, home-cooked food.

A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

HAVANA – “You don’t go to Cuba to eat,” just about everybody had warned me. As a food writer and restaurant critic based in Mexico, my recent trip to Havana was an eye-opening experience.

I was able to find and enjoy delicious Cuban cuisine – a fusion of Spanish, African, and Caribbean flavors, with a dash of Chinese influence. However, the dishes I enjoyed are a luxury for the average worker in Cuba, who earns the equivalent of about US$15 per month in Cuban pesos.

With these, they are given libretas (ration books), allowing them small amounts of basic food stuffs such as rice, oil, sugar, and flour. Other relatively inexpensive foods can be bought with remaining pesos: beans, fruits, vegetables, and low-quality meat.

“Luxury” items include chicken, fish, seafood, beef, alcohol, olive oil, and cheese. These must be paid for with the CUCs (convertible pesos), which replaced the dollar as the currency used by all tourists in 2004. Even a bottle of spring water at the bus station was priced $1.20 (CUC) and was not for sale in Cuban pesos. The majority of Cubans will never experience eating a whole chicken or a plate of shrimp or lobster.

In 1995, the government allowed paladares, small, privately owned restaurants, to operate. People opened their dining rooms to the public, offering simple home-cooked food. Some have blossomed into full-fledged professional operations, others retain their home-kitchen ambience.

A meal at one of these restaurants is usually about US$15, a bargain for tourists and a windfall for locals. Despite the challenges, a spirit of ingenious creativity prevails in Cuba.

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