Where a Cuban Sandwich is Just a Sandwich

We are having a great visit to Havana, Cuba, where Souzz had a work trip and I tagged along. While Cuba has been off limits to Americans for a long time, U.S. tourism on the island has been ramping up since late 2014 when the U.S. and Cuba announced that they were moving towards “normalized” relations. That’s a relative term, of course, as there doesn’t seem to be much that is normal yet between these two countries. Visitors from the U.S. currently must meet certain criteria; Souzz’s trip was a part of an educational exchange, where American and Cuban professionals share information about their respective disciplines (certainly a good thing for all involved).

As is true with any adventure, Souzz and I weren’t quite sure what to expect here. After all, it has been a 50-year stretch of two countries giving each other the cold (war) shoulder—including an embargo on U.S. imports since 1962. But once again, it turns out that people are just people, no matter where you go.

From a tourist’s perspective, Havana has quickly turned itself into an inviting destination (or perhaps it was all along, but we just didn’t know). The Cuban government is starting to open things up, and there is now a burgeoning restaurant scene. Tourism-related services are also starting to emerge in Havana.

Havana is a city of 2 million, and it is the oldest and largest city in the Caribbean—dating back to the 1500s. It has amazing architecture, 500 year old forts, and a lively arts and music scene. Walking the streets here, it is easy to imagine what it must have been like in its heyday back in the 1940s.

As for the food, that was just one element of this trip, and I’m still digesting a lot of other lessons and observations. There’s enough going on here to fill up several blog entries, and I’ll share some more thoughts in the coming days. But I’ll start with what’s on the table.

Coming in, we expected a somewhat simple cuisine–especially considering that there’s

Jorge Royan photo
photo by Jorge Royan

been a rationing system in Cuba since the 1990s (imagine being permitted to buy just five eggs per month, as well as limited quantities of stipends like sugar, rice, and oil). Stories of shortages of certain foods, as well as basic medicines and vitamins, are real and ongoing. That said, people here seem to take it in stride, at least as far as we could tell. The restaurant scene largely insulates tourists from these shortages, which is both good and bad.

As for our experience, the dishes we’ve sampled on the island are carefully prepared and delicious. Whether lunch or dinner, the meal generally includes a meat/seafood dish with rice and beans, as well as locally  grown vegetables like yucca, squash, sweet potato, avocado, or eggplant.

As one might expect, portions are smaller than the U.S. (read: normal and not super-sized), service is generally slower, and meals tend to feel like more of a communal experience than a drive-through. Add in the fact that you are often sitting in a 300-year old building full of amazing art and listening to live Cuban music, and you have a recipe for a very memorable dining experience.

It’s worth noting that bottled water is also common for visitors, as the city’s water system is still a work in progress (water is often supplied by trucks in the areas of the city that are dense with restaurants).

A water truck in Old Havana

In addition to the food, most every meal at a restaurant seems to start with a Mojito or perhaps a Cuba Libre (rum and coke…well, rum and Ciego Montero tuKola, as Coca-Cola is off limits due to the embargo). As for wine, most of the wine consumed here is sold by the glass and comes from Chile. Cuba does produce its own wine, but one local told us (only half-jokingly) that it is only suitable for salad dressing.

Seafood is on most menus, but it is not as common as we expected. Later we learned that the relative dearth of seafood may be due to the tight restrictions on fishing licenses…restrictions that could be borne out of concerns by the government that boats in the harbor could head north to the U.S. Ummm, wow.

Throughout our visit, we encountered Cubans that were friendly and curious, albeit somewhat cautious–as nobody knows what happens next, and there are more questions than answers. Will normalized relations lead to a lift of the embargo? Can the country make economic progress and still preserve its culture? Or will there be a shiny casino and a t-shirt shop where a 300-year old building used to be?

Aaah, yes, many questions. But whatever happens next, the country showed itself as a beautiful place with a charming culture—despite our two nations’ complicated history.

This is a work trip for Souzz, of course, but it is mostly tourism for me. During the course of our visit, we’ve made every effort to be respectful–even as a tourist experience here is the essence of contradiction. Each day we are mindful of what is on our table, as opposed to what is likely on the tables of the wait staff and the chef and the taxi driver. What I suspect we all share is hope for a better day.

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