What Anthony Bourdain didn't tell you about Cuban food

July 22, 2011

Inevitably, when I say I’m going to Cuba, somebody says, “Mmm, yummy! I love Cuban food.” And after watching Anthony Bourdain's "No Reservations" season premiere episode on Cuba, you might be tempted to think something delicious awaits you on the island.

But here’s the honest to God truth: Most food in Cuba is awful.

Oh, sure, you can get a decent meal in a hotel. And in a casa particular – a private home that rents room – you might luck out with an especially talented owner who can whip up a yummy breakfast.

And, yes, there are paladares – private, family-run restaurants – that run the gamut from terrible to exquisite (and crazy expensive, and cash only), but to quote Frommer’s: You don’t come to Cuba for fine dining.

Generally speaking  the food is starch-heavy, greasy, and not particularly flavorful. Service is all over the map, from the terribly obsequious, to the obnoxious jerk who once served me and took his smoke break before serving the friend across from me, so that our meals arrived exactly 20 minutes apart – and hers was cold. No apologies.

Yes, part of the problem is that there are scarcities. Even the most upscale Cuban supermarkets (no, not all markets are created equal in Cuba), the variety is stunted. And at the markets that are accessible to the average Cuban, there’s rarely any variety at all and not much more than the basics.

But there is, in fact, a bigger problem. For more than half a century, Cubans have depended on the ration book, which provides a weekly distribution of foods that guarantees a basic level of nutrition to every Cuban. Unfortunately, the ration book is stuck in nutritional ideas from the 60s, with nary a green vegetable anywhere on its pages. Dairy products are also absent from the ration book, except for milk for kids under 7. And perhaps more importantly in a discussion about flavor, there are no spices on the ration book.

What this means is that most Cubans have been playing with the same handful of ingredients in their extremely limited kitchens for about 50 years. Kitchens which usually include only a couple of burners. It’s the rare Cuban with a working oven. Anyone with a microwave is pretty privileged. So the culinary imagination on the island is less epicurean than survivalist.

A typical day includes rice in at least one, if not two meals, plantains and chicken or pork, all but the former fried. Maybe croquetas made from chicken or ham (also fried). And, god knows, ham and cheese sandwiches are ubiquitous.

With the arrival of the Soviets, yogurt was introduced into the Cuban diet and it remains popular, but as an independent supplement. I once made a yogurt tomato sauce for a meal and my Cuban guests were horrified before they'd even tasted it (the horror faded as soon as they put it in their mouths). There’s also a great aversion to soy products, whatever their nutritional value, because they echo the worst economic times, when soy was substituted for meat in the national diet.

A particular post-revolution phenomenon is pizza, usually bought out on the streets, with a thick and spongy crust, the barest brush of tomato sauce and cheese. There are many apocryphal stories about these pizzas, including one about Chinese condoms being melted and used in place of cheese during the worst of times, but generally speaking, pizzas are edible if not particularly tasty. The Habana Libre Hotel cafeteria has a concoction called the “pizzaghetti,” in which spaghetti is draped over the crust and baked hard.

These days, it’s also possible to supplement the ration book with heavily subsidized farmer’s markets where lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, pumpkin, beets, taro as well as meats, are available. Basic spices like oregano, paprika, bay leaves and pepper can be found there, too. Dairy products remain out of reach to most Cubans, though farmer’s cheese will sometimes be sold at the markets, and on the roads in and out of the city by clandestine vendors. Seafood, particularly shellfish, remains restricted, usually reserved to serve to foreigners in tourist establishments -- and to the likes of Anthony Bourdain.

Lately, President Raul Castro has been making noises about eliminating the ration book. He has already cut most workers’ cafeterias, leaving Cubans to fend for themselves at lunchtime. This has meant a spike in business to the local carry-out joints, which are proliferating all over the city as more and more licenses are given out. Packing a lunch from home – a new concept on the island -- presents its own challenges: some workplaces have refrigerators, others don’t.

My dream is that with greater variety, and less reliance on the state, Cubans might actually enjoy cooking again, sparking their imaginations and curiosity about food. On this trip, I was delighted when a friend served a salad with actual lettuce. Baby steps, I told myself, baby steps.