Spaghetti with Mustard?
Though the quality, variety, and creativity of Cuban food has been improving over the last couple years to meet the demand of a growing number of global travelers, Cuba is known for having repetitive, bland, low-quality food. The meals I enjoyed (suffered through, in some cases) during six trips and 6+ months on the island have proved consistent with its reputation. More varied, higher quality food is found in fine hotels and restaurants catering to tourists but I tend toward more off-the-beaten-path experiences, which don't lend themselves to the most delicious food on the island. Aside from dining in a few all-inclusive resorts along the northern beaches, where I saw cauliflower for the first and only time on the island and heard rumors of Brussels sprouts in a neighboring hotel (I was even disappointed with some "5-star" meals!), I mostly ate with Cubans in their homes or at cheap restaurants catering to locals.
To my surprise, the most popular restaurant food, and often the only option available, is 7-Eleven-style pizza, overcooked spaghetti topped with sweet and soupy tomato sauce, and various sandwiches: bread with mayonnaise, bread with cheese, bread with hot dog, bread with ham, bread with chorizo, or bread with “pasta”, a pate made of pureed ham, spaghetti, and spices. None of these sandwiches are served with lettuce, tomato, onion, or a sauce, and none are particularly interesting or available for my plant-based lifestyle. Options have improved, but vegetarian and vegan travel in Cuba remains challenging.
To date, my worst meal was spaghetti topped with tasteless tomato sauce and yellow mustard that I was served on top of a mountain in Santiago de Cuba. I’m still not sure if this was a proper restaurant, as it lacked the signage and simple menu that most home restaurants offer. Locals directed us to the front door of a home that supposedly housed a restaurant, a woman came out and told us all she served was spaghetti, and we sat down on rocks outside the front door waiting for our 5 peso spaghetti (roughly 20 cents). One Cuban friend of mine stared curiously at the bowl and asked "is that mustard?" and another Cuban friend responded "When you are hungry, you don't ask questions, you just eat." Noted.
Food shortages in Cuba are real and the influx of American tourists means that food that would have gone to markets and restaurants serving Cubans is often going to hotels catering to tourists. During a 3-month tour of the island, I shopped and dined in solidarity with Cubans, which often meant that my options were extremely limited. Supermarkets often run out of staples like beans and butter and I was served sad, mismatched meals (rice and cucumbers or spaghetti with a side of black beans) when restaurants ran out of other items. The few restaurants that were lucky enough to have printed menus would often not even bother to pass them out, as the kitchen was out of most of the food anyway. “All we have left is fried pork and rice” was a common greeting that was anticipated but disappointing for a vegan to hear day after day. One restaurant in Bayamo informed me the pictures of food on the menu were purely decorative and didn’t reflect what they actually served. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised to find several bars out of beer. As I don’t drink, this wasn’t a problem for me, but I also struggled finding bottled water in many towns. For most Cubans, the vegetable category includes only three items: cucumbers, tomatoes, and cabbage, which are sometimes topped with soybean oil and salt. I ate this nearly every single day for 3 months. During a camping trip, the nearest “store” a mile away sold only hot dogs, condensed milk, crackers, and cucumbers. At a proper “Campismo” campsite, packs of cold hot dogs and soy yogurt were the only items available one day.
Casas particulares, private homestays are my top recommendation for finding tasty, authentic, homemade Cuban food. The price will vary ($5-15 for dinner), but the quality is much better than restaurants catering to Cubans, far cheaper than restaurants catering to tourists, and the variety is much greater, as hosts make daily runs to the markets to whip up whatever their guests want for dinner that night. It is an especially good option for travelers with dietary restrictions (vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free).