Pinar del Rio Finca

It’s Hard to Eat Like a Cuban

If the Cubano sandwich is a Cuban import, its long been forgotten in Cuba.  You can find a Cubano sandwich across the US, but I think you’d be hard pressed to find one in Cuba.  The Cuban sandwich came to the US thanks to Cuban exiles. Cubanos are made up of roast pork, glazed ham, Swiss cheese, and thinly sliced dill pickles. I love them, especially with extra mustard.  Tampa, FL claims it as the city’s signature sandwich…making me call this one American, not Cuban.

Cuban cuisine is unfortunately set based on government rations. Each household is given a ration book that can be used at the bodega, butcher and for dairy products, and for rum and cigarettes and cigars too.  It usually is not enough to cover all that a family needs.  So, the rations must be supplemented using expensive CUCs to buy household and health/beauty items. As I described in an earlier post, the Cuban Peso has an exchange value of 24/1 with the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) which is tied to the US Dollar.  That means basics like cooking oil or toothpaste are outrageously expensive for the Cuban people.

You’d think, being an island nation they’d eat fish.  But there is not a fishing industry in Cuba.  Surprisingly most of the fish eaten by tourist in Cuba is imported.  As far as the eye can see, there are no fishing boats off the Havana bay.  For one, maintaining a fishing vessel is expensive.  And secondly, if you have a capable fishing boat you may not come back from your fishing expedition.

As our Cuban-born guide explained, “people don’t tend to come back when we put them in a boat and let them sail away.”

Lobster lunch
Lobster lunch in Habana at San Cristobal Paladar.  The lobster is imported…

As a tourist, you’ll be hard pressed to eat like a Cuban.  For reasons I’m still struggling to rationalize, tourist eat better (and at a much higher price) than Cubans.  We were charged a crazy amount for these meals – $20-40 per plate. And, the two don’t seem to mingle much when it comes to dining.  We spent our dining hours in beautiful, well-appointed Paladars eating fresh fish, lamb, beef, and organic vegetables.  The fish, lamb and beef were all imported. Our lunch at the well renowned San Cristobal paladar was locally grown tomatoes paired with fresh, imported lobster. Cuba has fertile, lush farm land, yet they must import the food they need to feed their people.  What happens as tourism grows?  More imports? Or, will they embrace more modern farming practices (sans the herbicides and pesticides)?

We’d much preferred to have a mix of authentic Cuba and tourist Cuba, but the two currencies and tight American government regulations make that part of the culture a bit harder to see.  Note I said American government. We were free to come and go as we pleased in Cuba.  It’s the American State Department that has a heavy hand in what you can experience in Cuba.  We were not there as tourist; we were there on a cultural exchange. There is a big difference in our experience compared to our Canadian, South American or European counterparts. In an upcoming post, I’ll share pictures and details on where and what we ate.  The food was a delicious surprise, but also a disappointment because it was a sanitized version of Cuba.

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American tourist and the famed flag poles that blocked Cuban's view of the US Embassy for decades.
American tourist and the famed flag poles that blocked Cuban’s view of the US Embassy for decades.

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