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Eat Your Way to the Heart of Cuban Food Culture

By David Vega

Mar 18, 2015

From the May 2015 issue

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Photo by João Canziani

Photo by João Canziani

Si cocinas como caminas, me como hasta la raspita. If you cook like you walk, I’ll eat even the burned part.

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With everyone hungry to visit Cuba now, photographer João Canziani and writer David Vega spent a week in the island’s markets, cafés, paladares, and home kitchens. Along the way, they met people who are hopeful about the change in the air but who learned long ago to make the best of what they’ve got.

La mesa está lista (The table’s ready)

Dining options outside the traditional state-run restaurants in Cuba took a major turn in the 1990s with the rise of paladares, privately owned eateries often in family homes. In an effort to relieve the economic crisis after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the government began allowing citizens to open restaurants.

La Guarida occupies the third floor of an aging multifamily tenement in Havana. Used as a set for the Oscar-nominated 1993 Cuban film Fresa y Chocolate, the building was the childhood home of La Guarida proprietor Enrique Núñez. “Before the restaurant, I worked as a telecommunications engineer for $1.50 a month,” says Núñez. “I said to my wife, ‘Let’s do something with all of this, let’s change our lives.’” How their lives might change if more visitors come to Havana is an open question. “With the easing of U.S. travel restrictions, everyone expects a big increase in business,” Núñez says, “but it will still be difficult to get good ingredients. I bring back a suitcase of spices every time I travel.”

Pase mañana a ver si hay (Come back tomorrow to see if we have any.)

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Food rationing was instituted in Cuba in 1962, and some goods, such as beef, remain restricted and perennially scarce. During the severest shortages of the 1990s, says Havana resident Teresa “Tere” Orizondo, “it was very hard to get meat. And fish was never fish—it was pescado con plumas [fish with feathers].” Shoppers today might use their ration books to pick up subsidized staples (sugar, rice, beans, cooking oil, eggs) and then see what’s on offer at a privately owned business such as the meat kiosk in the Mercado Agropecuario de 42 y 19 in Havana’s Playa district. “Milk, even now,” says Orizondo, “is only available for young children and the elderly.”

The ingredients for a Cuban family feast might include rations from the government, recorded in a logbook for each citizen called la libreta (left), and fruits and vegetables grown in gardens at home, on rooftops, or in empty lots.

Visiting Cuba: The new rules

  • U.S. citizens can now visit Cuba without a license from the Treasury Department, so long as the travel falls into one of 12 categories, including educational activity, professional research, and humanitarian work. Trips that are purely tourism are still prohibited. Visit treasury.gov for details.
  • Travel agents and airlines can book direct flights to Cuba for U.S. citizens without a special license.
  • Don’t expect to bring back a case of Cuban cigars: U.S. citizens are allowed to import only up to $100 in alcohol and tobacco products.

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