No one can deny that one of the many pleasures of traveling usually includes the local cuisine. Whether savoring a rich foie gras on a toast point in France, a saffron-tinted paella in Spain, a creamy carbonara in Italy, a fragrant cilantro-laced larb in Laos, the crispy lacquered skin of a Peking duck in China, the spicy lamb of a Moroccan merguez sausage–there is no end to the fond sensory memories these delicious dishes evoke. So when you are told “you don’t go there for the food,” it takes a hit on your eager anticipation of the upcoming journey.
ATA has sent hundreds of travelers to Cuba since the fall of 2010, on both professional and people-to-people programs. And sadly, we do advise all of our guests to expect mediocre meals while on the island. State-run restaurants serve bland, repetitive meals, usually including Moors & Christians (black beans and rice), roast pig, fried plantains, beets and shredded cabbage, and possibly a flan or rice pudding for dessert. Paladares, privately-run restaurants that are proliferating with recent economic reforms encouraging entrepreneurship, serve a more varied and interesting cuisine. Some of my recent paladare meals (at Café Laurent and La Guarida in Havana and at Villa Lagarto in Cienfuegos) included shrimp brochette, pork chops, and swordfish. However, none of these meals came close to the fine Cuban cuisine available in the U.S. or elsewhere.
So this disappointing showing begs the question: why are chefs in Cuba not able to produce a higher quality of cuisine? I have heard various answers. The high cost and lack of availability of produce and foodstuffs, the until-now limited demand for high-end meals, the fairly weak chef training programs and culinary career opportunities, the surprisingly limited fishing that takes place around the island.
Eighty percent of what Cubans eat is imported, and 40% of that comes from the U.S. (rice, beans, corn). This dependence is a serious economic weakness and makes foodstuffs expensive for the average Cuban, not to mention for the restaurant owners, both state and private.
Forever resourceful, Cubans are finding ways to address the need for fresh vegetables, luxury food items, and hard-to-find spices. With a more open door for Cuban Americans to visit and send packages to their relatives, a steady stream of restaurant supplies is flowing into the country. Community vegetable gardens are sprouting up in urban areas. Between May 2011 and April 2012, I already noticed a huge improvement in the quality of the cuisine. Fruits and vegetables were more readily available, and the shrimp and fish were a little less over-done. The New York Times on May 18, 2012 reported on an interesting culinary project taking place at the time of this writing–Project Paladare (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/18/world/americas/in-cuba-cross-cultural-art-project-involves-food.html). Such culinary collaboration between Cuba and foreign chefs will only further the refinement of Cuban cuisine.
In the end, Cuba in all its glory—with its passionate culture, its vibrant people, its whimsical art and ubiquitous music—fills every sensory need a traveler has and more. So while we assume food is a key component of any successful travel experience, Cuba proves that there is more to life than the material, corporeal needs of human beings. Cuba feeds one’s soul in a way few travel experiences—or meals–can.
In a few years, with any luck and the continued loosening of the US travel policy on Cuba, resources will increase, culinary training will improve, and the excellent Cuban cuisine we enjoy in Miami and elsewhere will be emulated where it originated—the island nation itself. And then Cuba will be hard to beat as a destination that truly has it all!