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.
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.
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.
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.