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Thursday, December 17, 2009

Food in Cuba

Food in Cuba - Peso Restaurants and Private Paladars Compared
By []Liz Saarelainen

We were waiting for our food with flies buzzing around us. The windows were covered with thick curtains; the table clothes were dirty after the weekend. When we had waited for a long time, a young waitress brought our plates and put them in front of us, Spaghetti Bolognese and lasagna: pasta with ketchup, a little cheese and a grey, horribly smelling shaking cube.

Out of words we looked at each other; is it for this treatment and food that people queue night after night? We had seen long queues in front of the peso-restaurants and had decided to try a local popular pizzeria. On Monday at lunch time there was no queue in the street, but we had had to wait in a small lobby before we were called to enter the almost empty restaurant.

Today we do not serve pizza, announced the head waiter, a middle-aged woman, dressed in a white blouse and a tight blue skirt like the state servants always are in Cuba.

The lasagna was taken away almost untouched. The waitress looked questioningly at me and I told her cautiously that the food was not in my taste. We paid the bill, the food cost 12 national pesos but the big bottle of water had to be paid in convertible pesos (CUC). It cost us 1.5 CUC and we left the pizzeria with our heads lowered.

You have to eat every day and one of the biggest delights of a trip is the food. But in Cuba it is no use to await good experiences regarding taste. The food is tasteless and fat: broiled chicken or pig, rice, black beans, potatoes, canned vegetables and cabbage. A traveler sometimes gets desperate, especially a vegetarian - the vegetable dishes are simply created by taking away the pieces of meat.

A traveler has to consider every day what to eat and where. You cannot digest heavy dishes many times a day. There are not many options, especially for the budget traveler, because the food price is the same as in Europe if you do not use exclusively the peso-restaurants.

You find the best service and food in private paladars - private people are not allowed to use the name "restaurant", which is the privilege of the state owned eating places. The state wants to ensure "equality among the citizens" and has ordered that in a paladar there may be no more than 12 seats for customers, and in additions it is forbidden to prepare beef and other special dishes like fresh seafood.

The casas particulares (family accommodation) often serve meals in addition to breakfast. The hosts always remember to ask the customers about dinner wishes. You can also order one portion for two, one portion of meat is enough for both - it is also a bit cheaper. According to the chef's inventive powers and skill, the portions may turn out to be surprisingly tasteful.

The favorite of many budget travelers is the fast food chain El Rapido. You find their ice cold, air conditioned, eating places in a surprising number of towns. The Bocadillo, ham and cheese rolls, are tasty and they fill your stomach easily for a dollar or so. Also the Palmere restaurants are tidy and reasonably priced eating places. They offer mainly pizzas, hamburgers and other kinds of fast food. At the street kiosks you can buy juicy slices of pizza, they are popular fast food places for the locals.

The menu of the restaurants and bars are often only in Spanish and the price and variety of meals differs depending on the availability of supplies and how big the customer's wallet is seen and whether the keeper has to pay provision to the jinitero, a kind of a hustler.

In this two-currency country there are two kinds of shops: the peso-shops for the locals and exchangeable peso currency-shops. The peso-shops are traditional general stores or service windows where the sellers are behind a desk selling whatever happens to be available for sale. You can buy fresh food at the agropecuario stores (agriculture shops / markets) and bread at the bakeries, which seem to be open around the clock. In the peso shops the atmosphere is often very quiet and depressed.

In the weekends and during rush hours people have to queue for the hard currency stores; those people that happen to have hard currency. The currency stores are modern and the bigger ones have guards who let the customers in and out after the cash receipt and the purchase has been checked. The special items, like seasoning cubes, are sold one by one at the desk. In currency stores fresh food are scarcely seen, sometimes maybe cheese and yoghurt, but the freezers are full of chicken legs - thanks to the lightening of the trade blockade by the US. The export prohibition of agricultural products was removed in 2001.

All food is canned, vegetables, meat, fish. It is hard to understand why in this country of eternal summer, surrounded by the sea, you cannot get fresh fish or vegetables and fruit. The town residents are lucky if they see a farmer selling his produce on a wheelbarrow, calling out "tomatoes, pineapple" and you must hurry if you are going to get something - with pesos in your pocket and a bag for the purchase.

Our friend Yuri wanted to hear our opinion on his country and when he asked if we liked Cuban food, we went speechless. I looked for a polite and true answer. "I see it on your face" Yuri laughed looking embarrassed, but his eyes brightened when I told him that we had never got so many new friends and good company as in Cuba. And the food is crowned by velvet soft strong coffee, mojitos, rum and the smell of cigar and the rhythms that carry you away.

Liz Saarelainen is an independent and adventurous traveler from Finland. She spends all available time traveling to exotic places, often with a very limited budget.

Her and her husband Andy's website with lots more travel stories and picture series is at [] Site for Adventure and Independent Travelers

Welcome to explore her site!

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