Comida criolla v. street food (a win-win choice)
When in Cuba, nothing can beat a good comida criolla. Or almost.
Travellers have several choices for food in Cuba: state owned restaurants, paladares (which are the equivalent of “our” restaurants), eating at the casas particulares or street food. With the exception of state owned restaurants, where the choice is poor, the food tasteless and hardly fresh, and the bill expensive, you won’t have troubles with any other choice.
When eating at paladares or at casas particulares, you will most likely end up having a comida criolla. That consists of a season salad – cabbage, tomatoes, cucumber and sometimes lettute and carrots, or even green beans. And yes, you can have it even if the vegetables are raw: Cubans wash the vegetables with purified/boiled water, which is the same they use for cooking and for making the ice-cubes for their delicious cocktails; a soup – generally yucca and other vegetables; rice with frijoles, also known as congrì, which is rice with super-tasty black beans; tostadas (platano croquettes) or fried bananas, and a choice of chicken, pork, lobster, seafood, shrimps or even a mixture. Top this off with ice-cream and fresh fruit for dessert, and since the quantities are VERY large, you will leave the table unable to walk or move, yet very happy. If you are in Baracoa, definitely go for the shrimps, lobster or octopus in coconut sauce. So rich, spicy and delicious! The average price for such a dinner is between 5 and 12 CUC, depending on the city. Trinidad is overall more expensive than the rest. Cienfuegos is cheaper.
Churros, a staple street food
If you are travelling on a super-tight budget, go for street food. From juice (oh, is there anything more refreshing than a coco frio?) to fresh fruit, to bocadillos (small sandwiches), to pizza and churros, to fried potatoes and what not, you will want to try it. Bocadillos can sometimes consist of poor quality ham and lettuce. If you want something more tasty, go for the freshly cooked pork and lettuce, they cost 1 CUC a piece and they are big! We even tried the pizza. Sure, they are nothing like the ones in Italy. But they are freshly baked in a wood or charcoal oven, hot and soft yet crispy. Depending on the topping, they can cost 10 up to 25 MN (moneda nacional – less than a dollar) a piece, and they will satisfy your palate and appetite, I promise.
Do you like peanuts? Then eat the cacauetes – they sell them in small paper cones for something like 5 MN. I bought them as I really was curious to see what it was, and ended up eating them when I was hungry. Want to try something sweet? Go for the churros. 1 CUC for a large portion, and you can even have chocolate sauce added to that. Or, should you be walking around at night in Vinales, you can get a fresh pina colada in the main street: close to the square, there is a sign that says “pina colada, aqui todo natural”. You call for the lady inside, and she will prepare a pina colada for you by blending together ice powdered milk, sugar, fresh coconut, fresh pineapple, and fresh coconut milk and topping it off with some cinammon. The result is a thick and delicious smoothie, much much better than any other dessert, and if by then you have become an alcoholic (nobody can escape the rum in Cuba!) you can go next door and ask to add a drop of rum.
If you ever feel hot, go for icecream. Not the Coppelia one, but the fresh one made in casas. You will see Cubans walking around with inviting cones: just follow them and go get yourself a home made ice-cream. Do try Coppelia if you want a real Cuban experience, but I must warn you, it is as cheap as what you pay! At 4 cents a ball (pay in MN), what do you expect? You have to get in line, and balls of watery ice-cream will be taken out of buckets and portioned into plastic bowls. You will mostly feel like your dog when you eat it, but why not?
Do you feel a bit low and need a good sugar kick? Get a guarapo – sugarcane juice. If it is too sweet for you, have it with lemon juice.
Fresh guarapo juice in Havana
And what about coffee? It is so ridicoulously tasty! You will smell it in the street – slightly chestnuty, which will leave you wondering how Cuba can possibly have chestnut trees, until you will eventually understand that they are roasting coffee. Go for it. You won’t regret it. And if you can, buy some rough Cuban chocolate in Baracoa.
All in all, you can bet that food in Cuba is usually delicious. You may never have beef (hard to get), but seafood is so delicious that you won’t care. And unless you are super-delicate, do try street food. It is a real experience!
Care to know more about Cuba? Click here.
I am not joking here. Latin America food really gives you wings, and no I am not referring to anything amazing I have seen or done (and there has been plenty), nor to the famous Red Bull commercial. I am referring to food. Yes I know, as an Italian, I am picky about my food. Italians are generally used to eating very good food – from plain bread and sandwiches, to pasta, pizza, seafood, vegetables, meat and what not, we are all about great quality, anywhere, anytime. Another thing we normally think is that the more you pay, the better food you will have. This is normally true in the majority of Western countries, actually.
What I am learning in my Latin America trip is that here money does not necessarily buy you quality. You may pay a “fortune” (well, compared to the cost of living here) and have a terrible meal, or you may grab a quick bite at an eatery in a lost bus station and find out that it is actually delicious. The overall problem is that food is terribly monotonous. Food in Latin America simply isn’t that great. It is quite boring, to be fair.
Latin Americans do not really have a taste for much other than chicken, potatoes, plantains, rice. It is really hard to find vegetables or fruits on a menu, which is really strange, since they have a huge variety and the fruit you can buy at the market is actually delicious. Whenever I have a properly equipped kitchen in a hostel, I cook myself.
A typical meal in Costa Rica consists of meat or fish with a small salad, some cooked plantains and rice
But finding the appropriate ingredients is a challenge. Pasta – which is possibly the cheapest food in Italy – is incredibly expensive. Bread is simply wrong to bread eaters like Europeans: it is sweet, it has butter and eggs, almost like a croissant (but they serve it with eggs, at breakfast).
Drinks are good. All over Central and South America, juices are delicious. I have just tried guanabana juice, lulo juice and maracuja juice. Not to mention even plain limonada or jugo de pina.
I will miss them once I am back in Europe and I will be forced to have that sad juice coming out of a carton.
Street food is interesting – like arepa, a tortilla made with white corn flour, kind of sweet, which they serve very hot and with whatever filling you may like. You can also find chorizo, corn on the cob, freshly fried potato and plantain chips, sweets of cheese and jam called bocadillos, and of course lots of freshly cut fruit.
Arepas are a common street food in Colombia. They are corn dough tortillas filled with cheese
Fruits and sweets are also normally sold in the streets or on the bus, along with warm or cold drinks, peanuts, fried plantains and anything (really) you may want, nevermind the smell of smoke, exhaust and the noise you may encounter in big cities like Bogotà. For sure, they are a delicious refreshment if you are walking in blistering hot Cartagena.
These are chontaduros. They sell it as a fruit, although to me it tastes more like a potato. I had mine with salt, but it can also be served with honey. A nice snack!
Chontaduros are served with either salt or sugar in the streets of Colombia – photo courtesy of Edgar Zuniga Jr (flickr)
Once, in Colombia I have been really lucky and had freshly cooked lobster and crab just caught by a fisherman, which were delicious.
At times, when I have no kitchen and I am desperate for vegetables, I go to a chinese and order white rice and cooked vegetables. Although I generally regret it as the hygienic conditions of those places are a bit dodgy.
However, food at times a problem for me, to the point that I sometimes wonder if I’d rather not eat. First of all, fried chicken is available anywhere. In Latin America people apparently love it. They may call it “pollo frito”, “pollo a la broaster” or other names, but the concept is always the same: chunk of chicken, bones and skins included, breaded and deep fried. I can smell it anywhere, and it almost makes me nauseous. As for the rest, I went from interesting corn tortillas and tasty chicken in Guatemala and Honduras, to rice and beans (called “gallo pinto”) for breakfast, lunch and dinner in Nicaragua and Costa Rica, of varying quality and taste – sometimes they would put coconut milk in it, and that was kind of tasty actually. Panama was overall terrible, not even on islands where lobster can literally be grabbed if you jump in the water could I find anything other than chicken and patacones (fried plantains croquettes), and their rice and beans (still present) was really bland.
A typical breakfast in Nicaragua and Costa Rica consists of eggs, a tortilla, platano maduro and gallo pinto (rice and beans) – photo courtesy of Magnus Brath
Then Colombia came, and things got interesting. The only pizza and Italian food I have tried was so bad that I wrote a review on Tripadvisor, saying that it was an offense to Italians to cook that bad food. Then, in some places meals are served in tiny saucers. So, at breakfast, any waitress would tell you that they can offer you “huevitos, frutitas, cafecitos, jugitos, panecitos” – literally, small eggs, small fruit, small coffee, small juice and small bread. To me, this way of speaking sounded hilarious, till I saw that actually, they meant what they said. Tiny portions of everything, served in coffee saucers.
As for the rest, I often eat chicken of varying quality. For about a week, at dinner time, I had to put up with roast chicken and boiled whole potatoes, as for some reasons Colombians (in Bogota which is an enormous city) close everything down at 7pm (I have been told that Colombians like to eat dinner at home, and that only really fancy restaurants stay open for dinner). So, I often ended up ordering in and had to eat my roast chicken, potatoes and cooked plantain with my bare hands, sitting on my bed. But it surely was better than the one I had the night before.
Patacones come in different shapes and sizes. These are from Colombia – photo courtesy of David Berkowitz (flickr)
It’s been so long since I have eaten diverse food, that I am now an expert on chicken and potatoes: I can say if they are freshly made or micro-waved, too!
Hence, I am actually developing chicken wings on my back. Chicken almost every day, for over 3 months. By the end, I will be able to fly back home without actually having to catch a flight!
But, at least in Colombia, there is a way to escape chicken – depending on the region you go to. I am now in Salento, in Quindia (coffee region) and they serve really delicious trout here, cooked in many ways. I like mine simply grilled, with some freshly squeezed lemon on it. Also, patacones here are made differently: they are soooo thin and crunchy. Same food, but prepared in a totally different way that makes it interesting all over again.
Peru is a whole different story – no matter what, food is great. After all, there is a whole culture of traditional Peruvian and Spanish food here, Peruvian chefs are world famous, ingredients are fresh and abundant and fusion cuisine is appreciated.
Care to read more posts about delicious food in Latin America? Read here