What's for Dinner?
A big part of traveling is trying local foods. The term "authentic" has various connotations no matter where in the world you land but in Cuba there are nuances that you will not find elsewhere.
During the so called special period after the fall of the Soviet Union "authentic" cuisine in Cuba could have been boiled cabbage with a few beans on plain rice. Nourishing enough but not particularly interesting nor satisfying as a culinary discovery. Then there is the Miami Cuban experience where the traditional recipes have been "Publixed" so that mojos come from a bottle and abuela's tostones come from the freezer.
The "authentic" Cuban cuisine of today is somewhere in between. The traditional recipes have been modified to the new reality of shortages of spices and some key ingredients but increasing amounts of foreign investment have brought in European, Latin American, Chinese and North American influences to add yet another layer of complexity to "authentic" Cuban cuisine as those influences are incorporated. I swear in some venues the traditional congris is starting to taste like my mom's fried rice.
So if you are in Cuba for the first time where do you go to find an authentic Cuban meal? Some of us are fortunate enough to have friends or family that will cook for us, but most of us will have to settle with going out.
So what are our choices?
Dining establishments in Cuba fall in one of 5 categories.
1. Government run for foreigners
2. Government run for Locals
3. Paladars for foreigners
4. Paladars for locals
5. Street food
Contrary to popular belief, all of the categories are open to anybody who wishes to avail themselves of the menu. Generally speaking however it is rare to find locals dining in a government restaurant intended for foreigners not because of the quality of the cooking but because of the prices. Conversely it is rare to find foreigners dining in government restaurants intended for the locals not because of the cooking but because the venues are usually away from the main streets and sometimes difficult to find. Those who make the effort however are often rewarded with a meal equal to the foreigner establishment for less than half the price.
The same phenomenon exists in the growing private sector. As a general rule the private sector offerings tend to be better in terms of portion sizes and flavours but there is a similar disparity in prices between establishments aimed at foreigners and the locals.
Finally there is the cheap and cheerful street food vendors who are selling everything from personal pizza to full meals at prices that will rival any comers. You can't be too squeamish when you realize that the nearest running water for cleaning might be several blocks away but we have been eating street food for years and have not had any problems.
Thanks to Addison Chan of Cuba Land and Sea for these observations and others on his facebook page. https://www.facebook.com/groups/cubalandandsea
Photo Credit: Monica Suma