A Bad Taste of Cuba

by Shervin Saedinia

The day the staff arrived in Cuba, we decided to eat at our hotel’s villa restaurant. Since my only association with Cuban food was Versailles, a wonderful Cuban restaurant in Los Angeles, I was expecting mind-blowing food. Since I wasn’t very hungry, I decided to share a pulled pork dish and some rice and beans with Tony Chavira, Gilda Haas and Gary Phillips. As a starter, the waitress brought us chicharrón (fried pork skin) and plantain chips. Though I didn’t fancy the chicharrón (since all I could taste was oil), the plantain chips were very good, much like the packaged ones I buy from Trader Joe’s. The main dish of pulled pork finally came out and I was very disappointed: it was overcooked and there wasn’t very much flavor. Even the beans didn’t taste like anything and completely lacked seasoning. Could it be that the chef had just prepared our dish too quickly and forgot to add a couple spices? As I looked around the restaurant, the rest of my colleagues seemed relatively content, yet I didn’t hear anyone boast about their meal.

The more meals I ate at various restaurants, the more it began to dawn on me: food in Cuba is not very good (and I’m being nice). Not a place I recommend, folks, especially if you are a lover of yummy food. Whatever we tried, whether it was something as ordinary as bread, or any kind of prepared meat dish, something was always missing from (or wrong with) each meal. The food was overcooked, too salty, underseasoned, dry, oily, or the wrong combination of ingredients.

I knew when we arrived that Cuban exports mostly consist of sugar, tobacco, seafood, and rum, and that most of Cuban imports are canned vegetables, ice cream, rice, beans, and powdered milk. I found it sad that Cubans rely on rice and beans as the staple foods of their culture and still have to import them. You never would have thought, right? You also wouldn’t think that these products would play such a major role in their diet after all these years, if they had to import such a large quantity of them, but they may be so ingrained in the culture (and so easy to ship compared to more perishable foods) that the people don’t even think twice about changing their eating patterns. At least beans and rice were consistent everywhere (although they were consistently bland). This was also the first time I had ever tried powdered milk and, let me tell you, it triggered my gag reflex.

El Conejito
they screwed up rabbit too

What’s worse is that even if you tried to eat something Cuba exported (such as the seafood), it would somehow taste worse in Cuba than the place it was being exported to. I tried eating shrimp at a jazz club one night. Tony and I ordered the same plate: three different variations of shrimp ... fried shrimp, a shrimp scampi, and shrimp marinated in a mayonnaise-mustard concoction. The fried shrimp tasted like old oil you knew was probably used 10 times more than it should have been, but when food is rationed you may use oil until it turns dark brown. The shrimp scampi tasted like a stick of butter, and you can’t really go wrong when something tastes exactly like butter. The problem is that I could have been eating a dog and I wouldn’t have known the difference. The taste of butter was so overwhelming that it made me want to chug a couple liters of water right after (which I did). Last but not least, we came to that lovely dish of creamy shrimp. Tony was smart and steered clear of this fare. I felt bad and didn’t want to offend the waiter (who highly recommended the dish), so I slowly ate it. Every bite seemed to make me heat up, and instead of looking forward to the next bite, I began to dread it. Why I kept eating it, don’t ask ... honestly, I don’t even remember. Needless to say, I was sick the next two days. Folks, this is one of Cuba’s top three exports. I’m just saying.

As for their imports, there is a reason that Nestle Ice Cream has a stranglehold on their snacking market. My first Cuban run-in with ice cream was at that infamous jazz club, when Tony kept trying to push the pineapple ice cream on me. I had one bite and looked at him with eyes that asked, “Do you have any taste? Are you so drunk that you lost all your senses?” Clearly he was. It was awful. Now, if you know me, you would also know that I am a lover of all ice creams, expensive or cheap: gelatos, yogurts, sorbets, sherbets, soy products, popsicles ... you name it, I love it. If it’s cold and sweet, it’s just my thing. I’d never met an ice cream I didn’t like.

consumer protection sign
the authorities care about your dining experience

Until the day finally came: Tony and I were walking down Calle Obispo and saw a soft serve stand which seemed very popular with the locals. We decided to give it a shot because it looked pretty darn good. One lick and I knew I was done with it. Looking for an opportunity to throw it away, I turned to see Tony eating it somehow. That man has a stomach of steel, I tell you! I was so disappointed that I felt devastated. How can you screw one of the most delicious things on the face of the earth? Well, clearly they found a way.

As we kept walking, Tony suggested that I eat a Nestle ice cream bar, but I was so disappointed that I actually thought twice about it (something that would never happen anywhere else in the world). I didn’t have high expectations as I opened the wrapper, but I have to tell you ... that ice cream bar was the best thing I ate on the whole trip. Meanwhile, Tony had somehow managed to finish his “ice cream.” I offered him a bite of my Nestle bar. The minute his mouth touched that delicious frozen slice of heaven, his eyes shot open as though he suddenly remembered what real ice cream tasted like. Lucky for me, I had never forgotten.

There was an ongoing theme as we ate at each restaurant: we could not expect the thing we wanted on the menu to be available, even if it seemed like a popular dish. There were several instances where we became excited about eating something possibly delicious, only for the waiter to inform us that it didn’t exist anymore. There was one night in particular (the night I finally recovered from being food poisoned) where Tony and I both wanted to eat chicken. Of course, the restaurant only had one of these dishes. I asked the waitress if it would be possible to split the chicken dish, but she regretted to inform us that it was just too small. Well, that was anything but the truth. I was shocked when my meal came out and I had a ten pound beast of a bird, stuffed with rice, in front of me. Only after I had taken a picture of it for comedy’s sake (I wanted to tell the tale of the ginormous Cuban chicken) did I realize how it was prepared. Apparently, it had been boiled at a ridiculous temperature, then buttered and torched to make it seem like it had color and flavor. It definitely had color (in uneven amounts; the camera exposed the different pigmentations), but no flavor whatsoever.

ginormous chicken
the ginormous chicken

At this point, you might be thinking, “This chick, what is she doing eating this thing after having been food poisoned?” and I would answer “What choice did I have? I was starving, cut me some slack! So what if the bread that looked like it was toasted was actually stale? And so what if our asparagus salad was only made of canned asparagus cut into the shape of elongated embryos? I was hungry!”

In the end, I came to a simple conclusion: just don’t eat the food in Cuba. Instead, you should drink mojitos and smoke Cohibas until you are sick of both these things. Then move on to daiquiris and Monte Cristos. When you get sick of that, move on to Cuba Libres and Partagas. And then after that, leave the country, go to Versailles and get yourself some real Cuban food, the way Cuban food should really taste.

Born and raised in Los Angeles, Shervin Saedinia works in the green IT sector, and writes about sustainability for FourStory just as an excuse to find out what's new and cool in the world of green technology.
shervin@fourstory.org

Comments

Shervin turning down ice cream? Really? Wow, it must have been bad. It’s okay Sherv, let’s go grab some “good” ice cream, on me…any kind you like!

2010-04-20 by Shahla

The ice cream story makes me think of you and Tony in a gray-toned world until Tony bites into the Nestle bar, causing the world to suddenly turn to color.

2010-04-20 by Wayne

LOL. I’ve never seen such a nasty looking piece of chicken in my life! I would’ve stuck w/ the nestle bars the whole time

2010-04-20 by Maryam

Saedinia’s report reminded me of the worst Chinese food I ever had. It was in an ordinary-looking restaurant in Worcester, Massachusetts. I should have been suspicious when I saw that I was the only customer and the food server was Caucasian. She brought me a plate of gray guck that obviously came from a can.
This story would have been more interesting if Saedinia had exercised more than her taste buds. Why not come up with a theory of how a place with traditionally delicious cuisine (as devoured at the Versailles restaurant in Culver City) has degenerated to the one she experienced? Government mismanagement? A CIA plot? All the qualified cooks choosing to flee the country? Come on, think of something.

2010-04-20 by Bruce Bebb

Typical American tourist,complaining about everything,no wonder “Y’all” are so loved around the world.

2010-04-21 by Juanito

Actually, it sucks to say but the food WAS pretty bad.  A lot of it has to do with the fact that Cuba exports so much of its produce for cash elsewhere and imports its dry produce from elsewhere, but it also has to do with the fact that there’s too much of a time delay between when food is brought from the farm to your plate in the cities, and that simply has to do with the structure of their government-run food distribution.

But thanks for the generalization, Juanito.

2010-04-21 by Tony Chavira

I would have to agree with the author.  Having been there a few times my self, I found it was better to be hungry and not eat something suspect.  I had a constant uneasy stomach for most of the trip.  There were a few “restaurants” that are run out of houses that had some locally caught fish (I presume) that hadn’t gone bad yet.  I didn’t taste bad, but it was still lacking.

2010-04-21 by Randy

Cuban restaurant fare seems to have gone downhill since my 8-day People To People tour in December 2000, when I found the hotel and restaurant food to be good. Especially I was surprised at the quality of cheese. I kept turning over the bricks to see whether they really came from France. Later learned of Cuba’s long history of excellent dairy products.  Most delicious of all was the guava at breakfast. That said, I do realize that the state and collective farm approach to agriculture is the usual abject communist failure in terms of production, resulting in 70% of the island’s being imported during 2009.

2010-04-22 by Steve Marquardt

You should have eaten in folks homes or at the Paladares (are they still around)?  The only place we had good food was in the CASA PARTICULARES we stayed in….

2010-04-22 by Judy

I have been to Cuba numerous times in the last 15 years. I always stay a “casas particulares”, renting rooms in peoples homes for $20 a day. The families you stay with also will provide meals and in most cases the meals are excellent, much better than most restaurants. I have found the best places to eat are along the coast away from Havana, where you can get excellent seafood. I found the article very elitist and hinting at “ugly Americanism”.

2010-04-25 by Robert Annable

we just returned from Cuba last week (August 2010) and i have to agree with Shervin in all regards. It is an emotional experience to go to Cuba on many levels. I was moved by the music there, whether it was great jazz or just the small groups in cafes and bars. I was moved by the poverty of housing while some government offices were renovated and beautifully kept.People were outgoing, warm and generous, except for our particular hostess, who was an exception.
We paid $30.00 per night for two to stay within a family house and $5.00 each for breakfast. Omelet and fruit every morning was fine.

As newbies to Cuba we started out eating out at the Hotel Nacional which was expensive for food that was very basic (chicken beans and rice) and ordinary. Over $45.00 with drinks and tips. i couldnt eat it all. It began to turn my stomach.
We stated to realise that 5 days was going to cost much more cash than we had so we began to explore al types of food providers. Many of the government restaurants would look inviting from afar but on closer inspection, upholstery would be filthy dirty.  We found one fairy decent paldares in 19th st which we only discovered while walking into town.
We had many talks with Cubans and Cuban expats who all said the same thing: there’s no accountability. People are very concerned that Cuba has plateaued in terms of technology, that people are not benefitting, that so many do rely on tips from tourists to supplement their basic income. So many restrictions.
For a country that has a perfect climate to grow and to provide an array of fresh healthy vegetables and fruit all year round we were generally amazed to find a lack of knowledge of a healthy food diet, no homegrown vegetables in back yards and limited supply in restaurants. The reliance is not meat, rice and beans. And the icecream which is almost like a national treasure is really a mark of the “good life” which Cubans are expected to tolerate.

2010-08-25 by valda rubio

I find the fact the author is recommending people not visit Cuba because of her own limited experience of the food - honestly, because of the food alone? - offensive.  I lived in Cuba for most of a year and yes, a lot of the time I was disappointed with the food but eating in people’s homes, I had some of the most unexpectedly wholesome and delicious meals.  If you go to Cuba, expand your horizons, try to exist in that space, eat as the Cubans eat and not pass every meal in restaurants which the average Cuban wouldn’t frequent, comparing everything to an essentially American restaurant where you ate “real Cuban food, the way Cuban food should really taste”.  The tone of this article was indeed curiously ugly…

2011-07-26 by Lannie

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