This is pargo. Pargo – snapper, for the non-Spanish speakers reading this – is a common dish for both tourists and locals in Cuba. I mention this distinction because during my travels through Cuba this past March, I learned that the diets for Cubanos and extranjeros are, with a few exceptions, worlds apart.
When you consider that the average combined income for a Cuban household (based on a 2016 study by the Boston Consulting Group) is between $300 and $400/year, it is hard to imagine any Cuban nationals, let alone their entire families, eating out – even once – in places like Trinidad, where a “typical” meal of chicken or beef or pasta, with sides and drinks, costs anywhere from $4 to $15. And in Havana, home to over two million people, those prices double.
But Cuba has different currencies (and different eating establishments) for tourists than for locals, and the price gap between the two in dollars is as wide as the difference in taste and nutritional value.
CUCs and CUPs
CUCs – Convertible Pesos – were introduced in the nineties and are pegged to the U.S. dollar. They are used almost exclusively by foreign tourists, and at upmarket restaurants and hotels that clearly cater to foreigners. CUPs – Moneda Nacional – are used by “everyday” Cubans at supermarkets, public buses, and “cafés.” I put that last word in quotes because Cuban cafés are not like they are in the U.S. (deli-type lunch restaurants) or in Europe (coffee and pastry shops). Rather, they are as bare-bones as you can get, giving change only in CUPs and serving juice and sandwiches – usually some variation of ham and cheese.
Café quality varies. One morning I stopped in a busy Havana cafe and had a jamón discoido (ham discoid) that was exactly what it sounded like, ham inside a round roll. Tasty! Another time, also in Havana, I found myself eating a stale ham and cheese sammy at 2 a.m. when it was the only place open in my neighborhood. I ended up giving half of it to a street cat. Poor kitty.
While I couldn’t believe how fast my money went, particularly in Havana, when eating as other tourists eat, I likewise couldn’t believe how much far a single tourist CUC went when I spent it at a CUP café. I always got change back, and it was enough to pay for a whole week’s worth of tips to bathroom attendants.
But about that pargo. Cuba is surrounded by water, so seafood is plentiful, and the one gourmet delicacy that locals can afford. The snapper in the top picture was prepared by the brother of my casa particular’s owner in Santiago, given a restaurant-quality presentation and accompanied – all for just $4 CUC – with rice, cucumber-and-tomato salad, bread, soup, and dessert. Portion size made it a meal that I could have easily shared with friends, and I can only presume that whatever I didn’t eat was consumed by the family the following day. And it was delicious…as was the tuna steak I ate in Havana, earlier in the trip.
If you ever go to Cuba and stay in a casa particular – and I highly recommend that you do both of those things – your host might offer to cook you dinner (for a fee, usually between $4 and $8 CUC). Definitely take him or her up on this, and skip lunch that day, for the meal, as I mentioned earlier, will sate even the biggest appetites. I dined two days in a row at my Camagüey casa particular, and my jaw dropped at the sight of the first evening’s spread, as pictured below.
You are looking at chicken, rice, that requisite cucumber-and-tomato salad, potage (thick soup), flan, and yellow and green fried bananas, called plátanos fritos in most parts of Latin America and tostones in the Caribbean. I unintentionally hurt the host mother’s feelings by only eating half of what was prepared – and I didn’t even touch the salad – but I reassured her that I loved every bite, and that I would finish whatever was left over the next day, at which time she cooked ropa vieja.
Ropa vieja is a Cuban specialty that literally translates as “old cloth,” and is even listed as such on English menus in several restaurants. Shredded beef or pork (possibly resembling tattered clothing, hence the name) with onions and peppers, marinated and served over rice. Alas, I failed to get any pictures of that particular meal, but it was a culinary highlight of the trip.
Rice and Beans
Here we are in the Latin American tropics. Rice and black beans grow in abundance here, and while they often comprise the entirety of a local’s meal, for tourists they are merely a side, albeit one that is usually served in massive proportions. Served separately, they are “arroz blanco” and “frijoles negros.” Served together, as a stew that may also feature onions, peppers, garlic and even bay leaves, they become “moros y cristianos” – Moors and Christians. Not PC, but healthy and delicious.
Breakfast in Cuba, while always filling, was something of a mixed bag in my opinion. There was coffee, juice (usually guava), bread – rather bland – the occasional omelet, cucumbers and tomatoes (again), and fruit. That is a lot of food for someone who just woke up. The eggs were a nice touch, and some casa particular hosts will prepare them al gusto; the breakfast highlight in Santiago was scrambled eggs mixed liberally with chopped onions, per my request. My Havana casa particular had room enough to house several backpackers, and the large dining room, which catered to travelers staying in neighboring casas as well, was abuzz with excitement as the cook brought out wafer-like pancakes!
So what’s the problem? Well, and this is a personal thing, but I’m not a big fruit eater. I like apples, oranges, and peaches – temperate climate produce all – as much as the next person, but the so-sweet-it-is-sour taste of most tropical fruit has never been to my liking. Based on my Cuba dining experience, it would seem that country does a cottage industry in harvesting papayas. A day didn’t go by without papaya being served, and there was always more papaya on my plate than bananas or pineapples, both of which are preferable. (Oh, and speaking of pineapples: I learned that Cuba imports pineapples from Hawaii, and exports its entire pineapple crop to nearby countries such as Haiti and Venezuela. Does that make any sense to you?)
So if papaya is your thing, Cuban breakfast is for you. Note that many homestays charge extra – I paid $5 CUC at most casas but as little as $3 at others.
Havana, with legendary nightlife dating back to the casinos-and-brothels era of Fulgencio Batista, is a great place for lovers of spirits. Especially rum. Havana Club rum has been brewed here for decades, and the factory tour includes a free tasting. Nearly every restaurant has countless rum drinks on offer, although few people dispute the common thought that a mojito is the best rum drink. Take rum, add soda water, sugar, mint leaves, lime juice, and lots of ice. Great on a hot day, of which Cuba has plenty. Coming from Tennessee, where it is illegal to purchase wine on Sundays, I was surprised to see people wandering freely through the streets of Havana, Trinidad, and elsewhere with open containers.
And the beer? Meh. Cuba has two cervezas nacionales, Cristal and Bucanero. Cristal is light, perfect for the beach but nothing special. I much preferred Bucanero, with its maltier taste and stronger alcohol content. An independent label, Cerveza Hatuey, is manufactured in Santiago, but I didn’t see it actually served in restaurants, and the factory did not seem to offer tours. Somewhat interestingly, Cerveza Presidente, which hails from the Dominican Republic, was almost as common in restaurants as Cristal and Bucanero.
Where does one go to imbibe con ambiente? Any restaurant will do; I’ll recommend one of the paladares (privately-owned restaurants) along Havana’s romantic malecón, or an upstairs terrace restaurant in that city’s atmospheric Plaza Vieja. To drink and dine with the ghost of Ernest Hemingway, you can hit up El Floridita or El Bodegón del Miedo, both of which have establishments in Havana and Trinidad; prepare to queue for a table and pay inflated prices. I much prefer Sloppy Joe’s Bar, a legendary saloon, with “Casablanca” playing on a loop and the whole place boasting an old school, speakeasy vibe. Try the “sloppy sandwich,” pictured below, and wash it down with a mojito…or two…or three.