Eating and drinking in Cuba
Before the revolution Cuba had a distinctive and delicious cuisine based on Spanish cooking, but with strong African influences from the plantations, French elements from planters fleeing from Haiti in the late eighteenth century, a little Italian flair from early twentieth century immigrants and even some Chinese traits from labourers brought in to build the railroads in the nineteenth century.
Traditional Cuban food is seasoned, but not spicy, mild rather than hot. Sweet, green chillies were used in preference to hot, red ones. Haute-cuisine and peasant fare were often blurred in old Cuba. Dishes were developed from native crops as well as produce introduced from Spain. To maize, tomatoes, yucca, calabaza - a Cuban pumpkin - and sweet potatoes, all indigenous to the Americas, the Cubans added mango, sugar-cane, rice, beans, coffee, coconut, plantain and citrus brought by the Spaniards.
Together with chicken, pork and fish these became the central ingredients in Cuban cuisine. Some dishes were also based on Arawak Indian cooking which used maize, first found by Columbus in Cuba - the Indian word is mahiz. The Arawak cooked stews of yucca and vegetables to which the Spaniards added pork and beef. The Arawak also mostly barbecued fish and their word, barbacoa, has entered our language. Cuban cuisine is also sometimes called Creole because much of it was developed in the countryside by people of Spanish descent but born in Cuba.
For Cuban Creole recipes, menus and cocktails click through to www.Cubana.co.uk
However, Cuban food since the revolution has gone into a decline. Despite rich farmland, food is in short supply due to the inefficiency of large state farms, the fact that small farmers pay high taxes on private sales and transport problems - added to which the Cuban government sells much of its best food abroad and to tourist hotels for dollars.
Drinking in Cuba
Drinking in Cuba is a happier affair. Cuban beer is excellent. Like many under-developed countries Cubans do not have the technology to make bad beer - no multinationals standardising on branded, homogenised yankeegass or europiss. Cristal, Polar, Mayabe, Buccanero, Tropicale and Lagarto are all very drinkable, though Canadian brewers have been muscling in and some 'modernised' Cuban breweries now use standard Western recipes - Tinima has already gone that way.
Cuban rum is also excellent and Cuba specialises in the light rum used in cocktails. This was developed by a Spanish wine merchant called Bacardi who came to Cuba in the nineteenth century. Cuba also, however, distils and ages excellent older anejo rums for drinking on their own.
The main Cuban brand is Havana Club - the Bacardi family fled Cuba after the revolution and their rum, now produced globally, has become the world's leading spirit brand. Cuba has many other good rums and the centre of the industry is in Santiago de Cuba where you can visit some of the distilleries and also see the moderately interesting rum museum.
Cuban cocktails were made famous by Americans fleeing Prohibition in the '20s. The Mojito is the best known, made from fresh lime juice, raw sugar, fresh mint, soda water and rum. The Daiquiri - fresh lime, ice, sugar and rum - is another Cuban speciality. Click on www.Cubana.co.uk for classic Cuban cocktail recipes using fresh tropical fruits and juices and a list of Cuban cocktails.
Cuba also makes a variety of other spirits, the main one probably being Guava wine, which tastes better than it smells. There is also an infant wine-making industry in Cuba - the results are mixed. Soroa Tinto - a red - is not too bad and usually sells at around $5 a bottle in restaurants, but we do not recommend spending a great deal on Cuban or imported wines. Stick with the rum and beer. Real Cuban coffee is also very good and worth a try.
Until fairly recently the only places to eat in Cuba were hotels and basic state-run canteens in which the food is, well, basic. These still exist, but in recent years the Cuban government has made efforts to open reasonable restaurants catering for tourists and Cubans with dollars. These places tend to be in city centres or tourist spots, they usually look quite new and always charge in dollars.
The food in these state-run dollar restaurants is consistently mediocre, with a limited choice of bashed about chicken and pork with beans and rice and basic salads. Some do good cocktails, however. Expect to pay $5-10 a head, $1 for a beer and $2 for cocktails - watch out for being overcharged for drinks - always ask prices in advance and anything more than $1 for a beer and $2 for a cocktail and chances are you are being scammed.
Some peso restaurants can look like dollar joints, especially as the peso sign is written as a dollar sign. Check before you eat and watch out for being charged in dollars at peso restaurants which makes for absurd prices - peso restaurants are grim.
The Cuban government has also attempted to open slightly better tourist restaurants in La Habana Vieja and one or two other tourist centres. There are a number of these in Vieja, mostly very attractively fitted out in courtyards or old palaces - one of the nicest is Restaurante El Patio on the Plaza de la Cetedral. However the food is again disappointing and overpriced for what it is - drink prices are also higher in these top-end dollar bar-restaurants.
Private restaurants - Cuba's "paladars"
Private eateries have been sanctioned in Cuba since 1994 to cater for the increasing numbers of tourists who have kept the economy ticking over since the Soviets pulled out in 1991. But these paladars literally 'palates', named after the small restaurant in a popular Brazilian soap - are restricted to 12 seats, cannot advertise their presence and in theory are limited to serving pork, chicken and sometimes fish. This prevents too much competition for the few state-run restaurants. Only state-run dollar restaurants or hotels are permitted to sell lobster or shrimps, though you will often be 'unofficially' offered these in paladars. Cubans tend to grill their lobster until it is dry and tasteless. The lobster is also endangered around Cuba so you might want to give it a miss - though the Cuban government catches and exports them in huge quantities.
You will find paladars through touts or recommendations and in some towns they also now have small signs. Some paladars are quite elaborate once inside, others are no more than front-rooms. Most offer the same type of food as the state-run restaurants but at slightly lower prices. Don't be afraid to walk out if you don't like a place, always ask what's on and negotiate the price in advance - around $6 a head is typical, though lobster usually costs $10-12 (prices are high in part because of government taxes on registered paladars). Check beer and cocktail prices too or they will put whatever they can get away with on the bill. Don't feel obliged to feed or tip the tout - he will be getting commission.
Probably the most famous paladar often sough out by tourists is Ciocolat y Fresa - Chocolate and Strawberry - in Havana Centro, named after a film. It is difficult to find and you have to meander through a once-grand apartment block, which adds to the charm, but once inside this Havana institution serves very mediocre food at higher than usual prices.
We have, however, more recently received reports that the food in here (it's also known as La Guardia) has improved - along with the prices which apparently have gone up to $30 a head, with just one drink.
All but the better Cuban hotels have pretty grim food, which is why it is generally not a good idea to opt for an all-inclusive package in anything below a four-star hotel. The best option is usually the fresh fruit which often comes with breakfast.
However the better hotels in Havana and the main resorts have reasonable food. Most four and five-star hotels have good restaurants - which also charge near-Western prices. They usually also give a decent buffet breakfast and many do buffet lunches and dinners as well. These can be good value.
Recommended in Havana Centro is the passable the Hotel Sevilla evening buffet at around $12. The Melia Cohiba in Vedado has a buffet restaurant - the price is high at $20, but the food is good (not as good as it used to be after a recent makeover which has given the place all the ambience of a motorway service station). After a week in Cuba, you may need a half-way decent food blow out and smart hotel buffets are the best way to get it.
Of special mention is the Hotel Jagua in Cienfuegos, now French managed, where they make a real effort with the food. Also look out in the Cuba's must-sees section for hotels with better than average food.
The main chain is the state-run El Rapido restaurants serving chicken, chips, sandwiches and other fast-food - there are a few similar establishments which only take dollars and are considered a treat by many Cubans. The food is, however, greasy and grim. Spare a thought for the salivating mutts which congregate around these establishments at night - they have usually skived off from their homes and their stomachs are well adapted to chicken bones and anything else you might care to throw their way. Don't expect to see cats in Cuba - most of them have been eaten, and not always by the dogs.
Cuban shops have very little to buy. You should try and bring with you the little luxuries you can't do without - chocolate, biscuits etc. To purchase a very limited range of Western foods and goodies you will need to visit the tourist-oriented Caracoal shops which are in the main resorts and some hotels. These charge highish dollar prices. A slightly better bet are the dollar supermarkets geared to Cubans with dollars. Most towns have at least one. The selection is rarely great but one of the biggest and best is the Supermercado de Isla a few doors down from the Hotel Isla de Cuba on Maximo Gomez, close to the Capitolio. Again, prices are on the high side. These dollar shops are the only places, apart from hotels and dollar bars and restaurants, selling bottled mineral water and cartons of fruit juice. Cuba has good mineral water and juices, but do not drink the tap water.
Most Cuban cities have small free-markets where campesinos can sell their produce subject to a high state tax. These are good places - and usually the only places - to buy fresh fruit. The fruit is usually produced without chemicals and so can look a bit moth-eaten, but tastes great. Havana's market is near the railway station on Avenida de Belgica between Corrales and Apodaca. It is worth a visit and in other towns ask for the Mercado Agropecuario.
Prices are always in pesos, though the stallholders will take dollars and give you peso change - watch out for short-changing and don't use anything larger than a $1 bill. Typical prices are 5-7 pesos (20-30 US cents) for a medium pineapple, 5-10 pesos (30-40 US cents) for a kilo of bananas; 5 pesos (20 US cents) for a very large avocado; 5 pesos (20 cents) for a very large papaya or mamey - a Cuban fruit; and 5 pesos (20 US cents) for three small mangoes. The farmers and stallholders are heavily taxed by the government, which is why prices may be higher than you would expect.
In country areas you will often see farmers selling fruit and even cheese and guava paste (a Cuban delicacy) by the road, especially during seasons (mamey early in the year, mangoes in late Spring, guavas late summer/autumn, avocado mainly autumn and early winter). Some campesinos even leap out at you from the central reservation of the Autpopista bearing goodies. Prices are the same as in the markets, maybe a little lower, but they will usually try and sting you for more.
Largely nonexistent in Cuba. You will find the occasional stall using ancient equipment to make string do-nuts, a Cuban speciality, but most municipalities do not allow street food. The exception is Bayamo (see Small-town Cuba in Cuba's must-sees) which has a vibrant street food area near to the station, selling passable hot food and batidas - a Cuban smoothie.
Salsa - the music of Cuba
Salsa is basically Cuban country and western music. But don't be put off. It is ten times better than anything belted out by John Denver. Much of what is called Salsa originated as Son, the nineteenth century ballads of the rural Spanish campesinos.
Son was accompanied by Spanish guitar, but the African influence grew with the conga, bongo and bata drums, the maraca rattle, the guiro - a long, ribbed gourd rasped with a stick, as well as the claves - sticks banged together. Drums, trumpets, horns, bass and flute were later added to create the big-bands that played rumba, mambo and chachacha in the '40s and '50s.
During the '50s the big-bands faded and Cuban Son mixed with other Latin rhythms was played all over South America, Miami and New York's Puerto Rican community. Celia Cruz, a young, black Cuban beauty helped to develop the style and became the queen of Salsa.
Gradually this fused with Latin jazz to create the syncopated Cuban salsa style, which was also embraced outside Cuba by Carmen Miranda. So Salsa is basically Latin rhythms to an African beat, influenced by jazz and a touch of C&W. The music has been made popular in the West by the hit film 'The Buena Vista Social Club' and the Salsa influenced music of Ricky Martin.
Salsa in Cuba
It's not difficult to find Salsa in Cuba. Salsa is everywhere - in bars, in hotels, on the beach, sometimes on the street. Many of the old bars on Obispo and Avenida de Belgica in Havana have live bands of varying quality.
There are also number of large Salsa based cabarets in Havana and the big cities. The ones which tend to get recommended in hotels are touristy and overpriced - the famous Tropicana in Havana is an experience, but much more a show than real Cuban Salsa.
Many of the best Salsa clubs are in Vedado, but the Palacio de la Salsa in the Hotel Riviera on Paseo and Malecon is better than some as it gets top Cuban acts, including Los Van Van. You should go early or try and get a reservation through your hotel.
The smaller clubs used by Cubans are usually a better bet. Try the Cafe Cantante at Paseo and 39 - admission is $10 for visitors, which is fairly steep by Cuban standards. Cubans dress up to go dancing in the evening and you will sometimes find that the Havana clubs have a no shorts policy.
Otherwise just ask around for the best place in your area. You run the risk of some-one getting a commission for taking you there, but it is not a bad way to get to a decent local club.
Most Cuban towns have Salsa clubs and you will often just come across impromptu clubs in small bars or even in the spaces where old buildings have fallen down. The larger towns also have Trovas, which play a variety of music, including Son - they do, however, tend to be the places where tourists are sent which can diminish the atmosphere.
In Santiago de Cuba try the Casa de la Trova close to the Casa Granda hotel, a few yards from the Parque Cespedes, which specialises in Son; or the more atmospheric Patio Los Dos Abuelos just by the Casa Grande where elderly Cubans dance to Son and bolero.
Some of the larger towns also now have hybrid Salsa clubs and discos which the Cubans love - a good example is Discoteca El Benny More in Cienfuegos. You get all of the pretentious guest-list stuff, doormen with ear mikes etc etc, but they can be fun.