It wasn’t looking good for vegetarians in Cuba. Pork is popular for year-end celebrations, street food often consisted of jamón and/or cheese on white bread and meat is the predominant food group. There seemed to be a dearth of vegetables amongst the slabs of meat, fried food and white/refined carbohydrates that were ubiquitous in dining establishments throughout the country. Whether you dined in a big city like Havana or small town like Baracoa, in a government-run restaurant or privately run paladar^, the popular choices of food were often a disproportionately large piece of chicken, pork and/or seafood on a plate with some white rice. Most food was coated with a mild oil slick which would suggest that frying was the cooking method du jour. A wimpy salad of tomato, cucumber, green beans and cabbage often came naked so you had to concoct a DIY dressing of aceite y vinaiger (oil and vinegar) which were usually placed at every table when the food was served. Pumpkin, sweet potato and fried plantain were occasionally on offer and while you could sometimes have a good meal at a decent price, finding a gourmet meal in Cuba was like coming across a culinary mirage.
^Originally a small family run restaurant operated in a private home and serving Cuban food. Paladars became legal after the economic crisis in Cuba in the 1990s. Some of these places now staff non-family members and serve Italian cuisine.
This got me thinking: is this really a healthy way to eat? Many research studies would suggest no. Vegetables should comprise a larger portion of your plate than protein and fried and refined products should be kept to a minimum, if eaten at all. The appropriate portion size for meat was not adhered to in eating establishments. A plate containing half a chicken seemed common but excessive. A single serving of pollo (chicken) should be the size of your palm. (I’m curious what the rate of diabetes is in Cuba…?)
Nutrition and travel in Cuba is generally not a 5-star experience, particularly for the vegetarian or those with other special dietary considerations. The basics, however, (bread, water, some fruit, vegetable and protein) could usually be found quite easily and it doesn’t hurt to have a stash of multivitamin tablets with you. Just make sure you keep them in the original bottle and pack in your checked luggage. Substances resembling ‘drugs’ arouse great suspicion at airport security. So when in Cuba savour the good food moments you do have, grit your teeth through the not so savoury ones and know that you will eventually return home to (hopefully) nutritious and varied food options.
Some items you may likely come across on menus in Cuba: tortilla (an omelette); a Cuban sandwich (basically ham and cheese on toasted white bread); soft white doughy Cuban bread; a paste of guava eaten with cheese or served sliced on bread (pan con guayaba). Coconut, cacao and pineapple also grow freely here. Below are some items with nutritious merit that are unique to Cuba:
A dessert made with coconut, honey, nuts and fresh seasonal fruit. It comes wrapped in a cone-shaped piece of palm bark.
*Coconut has made fat sexy and is touted with having nutritional and medicinal uses. See what the Coconut Research Center has to say on the subject. Fruit and nuts can also be healthy due to their antioxidant content.
A breakfast drink of coconut milk, pure chocolate, sugar and flour (corn or cassava) and vanilla. (Reminds me a little of the Jamaican morning drink of chocolate tea.)
*Pure chocolate on its own is cited as having numerous health benefits.
Moros y Cristianos
Basically this is beans and rice mixed together in one dish. Incidentally if you order arroz con frijoles (rice with beans) you will get a separate plate each of rice and beans. Moros y Cristianos brings them together as one. (If only people could be brought together as easily as ingredients…)
*Beans and rice are a low-fat and high fibre source of a complete vegetarian protein.
A sweet made with ground peanuts and sugar.
*Peanuts are a good source of monounsaturated fat and vegetarian protein.