Want Vegetarian Food or a Spinning Class in Cuba? Tough (Guest Blog Post by Lisa Goldman, Part 2 of 2)

[by guest blogger Lisa Goldman]

[Eric’s note: in March 2013, Lisa and I visited Cuba. I have written several posts on the subject that I’ll be posting to my Tertium Quid blog and ultimately cross-posting here, probably in the next month. I also have posted a monstrous set of 230 photos (see a smaller batch of “favorites”), and Lisa posted her own batch of photos. Lisa has written two reflection pieces on the visit, and this is the second post. See the first.]

Cuba: I came. I saw. I did not eat (or exercise).

Guidebooks had warned me that the food in Cuba was notoriously bland, and the selection poor. I’ve travelled enough to take those warnings seriously, but I’ve never experienced anything like this. Lack of decent food choices while travelling is a familiar hazard for vegetarians, but Cuba took it to a new level. It’s the only place I’ve ever been when there wasn’t even a place to pick up a granola bar or bag of snacks – and I don’t mean there wasn’t a place to purchase these near our hotel. I mean there wasn’t a place to purchase these in the entire country. Well, now. That’ll keep a girl honest. I’ve never eaten so few calories for so many consecutive days in my life. Forget your cleanses, your South Beach, your paleo diet. If you want to lose weight, try the “Vegetarian Tourist in Havana” Diet.

The food in Havana isn’t a prize even for omnivores. Cubans primarily get their food from 4 sources: (1) ration stores for a handful of limited basics at extraordinarily low (subsidized) prices, (2) what they call a grocery store, which is closer to a liquor store in the US with a small selection of non-ration food items at much higher prices, (3) farmers markets for fresh produce and meat, again at mostly high prices, and (4) restaurants (which used to be solely government run with limited options, but has recently widened to allow for private restaurants in individual’s homes).

If you want to find a place on this planet that is untouched by the chemical sh*tstorm of processed foods and the unrelenting marketing and packaging that comes with it, try Cuba. The trade off is that Cuba has also isolated itself from knowledge and availability of healthy foods. The food that is available, like most everything else in Havana, reflects a time warp. Most options seem like items the government decided to purchase or produce for the masses during a planning cycle dating back to 1960. The government restaurants look like somewhere Arthur Fonzarelli might fit in, from the menu to the diner decor. If you like extremely bland baked chicken, ham sandwiches, white rice, white bread, canned green beans or bad pizza, you’ll be good. Otherwise, you are seriously out of luck. They have never heard of whole grain anything. A cup of yogurt, greek or otherwise? Forget it. And if you want a leaf of kale, it’s gonna be a long swim.

Here is a summary of my meals:

Day One: We arrived in the evening, and the concierge suggested a nearby private restaurant called La Moraleja. He said it had the best vegetarian selections in the area. When we arrived we discovered that the menu listed zero vegetarian options. After speaking with the waitress, she said they could prepare three vegetarian choices: pasta, lasagna or risotto. She emphasized the lasagna as a good choice, but Eric doesn’t like gobs of cheese, so we ordered the pasta and risotto. Ten minutes after placing our order, the waitress returned to our table to ask us if we were sure we didn’t want to switch our order to the lasagna. Hmmm, they were obviously struggling with our order, but we still declined the lasagna. Forty five minutes later, our meal arrived. Eric’s pasta was plain spaghetti with some oil and a diced tomato mixed in. My risotto appeared to be Chinese white rice, congealed together with some sort of cream and a tiny amount of diced eggplant mixed in. Both dishes were tasteless. The meal cost about the equivalent of US $25.

Day Two: Our hotel offered a large complimentary buffet breakfast. Surveying the options, I was initially hopeful that I would find something good to eat. My hopes were dashed quickly, and by the end of the week, I simply couldn’t face the breakfast buffet anymore (I skipped it entirely my last two days). The eggs were so greasy they slid around my plate and left a trail that made me think of snail slime. The beautiful looking fruit had so little flavor I pulled it away from my mouth to double-check that I had bitten into the melon I thought I had, and not a piece of potato. The cereal was so stale and gritty, it recalled the Passover “Crispy O’s” we’d deemed inedible a previous year. And the bread, oh sweet mercy, how did they screw this up? They were working with identical ingredients to bakers the world over: flour, water, yeast. And believe me when I tell you, I have previously never met a carb I didn’t like. But these rolls, pastries and BLOs (bagel-like objects – or was it supposed to be a donut? It did have sugar sprinkled on top so we never did resolve this) were abysmal. I’m at a loss to describe exactly what was wrong. The texture? The flavor? Yes.

Lunch on Day Two was at a restaurant with the tour group. Anna the tour guide was very good about reassuring us that she would talk with the restaurant and make sure they served us a vegetarian meal. And yet, the first thing I was served was soup with large pieces of chicken in it. Anna was embarrassed and apologetic and had them correct it with a salad. This was my first of several Cuban salads consisting of shredded cabbage, topped with canned corn and canned green beans. Mmmmm mmm. My entrée was white rice, boiled sweet potato, and “salted vegetables” (basically the same as the salad, except the cabbage is cooked and saltier). Dessert was … wait for it … white rice (this time with sugar in some sort of pudding type presentation). Oh my. Cue the search for a grocery store.

Clearly restaurants were not going to be bastions of satiety, so I asked Anna where we could find a grocery store. I was naively hopeful that I could at least find a place to pick up a few items to survive on, perhaps some granola bars, pretzels, yogurt, or produce. In previous travels when I’ve encountered difficulties accommodating my vegetarianism, I’d always been able to cobble together a work around by visiting the local market, however humble. I wasn’t expecting to find Whole Foods, but I wasn’t expecting what I did find either.

The first “market” Anna dropped me off at was so unrecognizable as such that I walked right past it. Turns out the market was the snack stand outside of a bar, selling newspapers, soda, water and a bit of candy. No food here.

For dinner that night, Eric and I decided to walk to La Buena Vida, a private restaurant that had previously been purely vegetarian but had evolved into a pescatarian restaurant. When we wandered inside, the place was absolutely empty, but adorable. It was a little disconcerting to be the sole patrons, but I felt encouraged by the apparent effort someone had put into decorating the place and designing the menu. Communication was an issue. This restaurant was deep into residential Havana, far from tourists. The menu was Spanish only, and between my poor high school Spanish and the waiter’s poor English, ordering was a bit of a stab in the dark. We ended up with a black bean soup that was so salty I could not eat it. This was beyond a matter of my personal salt level preferences. It tasted like the lid of the salt container had fallen off and dumped into the soup. At about 48 hours into our trip, plus a 5 mile walk to this restaurant, I was hungry, but this was inedible to me. Our entrees were a vegetable kebab and a vegetable pie. The kebab veggies were very oily, and had a bizarre texture. The piece of corn was so chewy and tough, if I had closed my eyes, I would have never guessed it was corn in my mouth. The veggie pie dough tasted “off” and inside the sauce was oddly sweet, as if they had put sugar in with the vegetables.

Eric and I enjoy sampling vegetarian food, especially vegan food, when we travel. We’ve been to more than our share of “funky” restaurants, since many vegan places are run by people from other cultures and religions/cults. You’ll have to take me at my word when I say I think we have a fairly high tolerance for new flavors and unfamiliar dishes. So long as they’re vegetarian, we’re pretty open-minded. But, this wasn’t simply unfamiliar, it was bad cooking. Too salty or too sweet and just badly prepared. The waiter said the chef used to work at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. We decided perhaps he was the dishwasher there. The food looked pretty, as if someone had seen how Chez Panisse presented the food, but any resemblance to Chez Panisse food ended there. After politely eating what we could and paying our bill, we departed without ever encountering another customer. I don’t think shifting from vegetarian to pescatarian is going to save this place.

Day 3: Breakfast at the hotel was identical every morning, I’ll spare you further description.

Lunch that day was at a restaurant with a large cow sculpture on the roof – not the most auspicious sign for a vegetarian traveler. I ate some black beans served with my daily staple, Chinese white rice. I was also served more “salted vegetables” that were so oily I barely touched them. Lunch was served with a glass of sangria and a piece of cake with neon green frosting, both were tooth-achingly sweet. I don’t turn down many desserts, but this one stayed on the plate.

For dinner, the group went to a Chinese restaurant. What the hell, at least the rice was thematically appropriate here. Again, we found nothing vegetarian listed on the menu, but the waiter was happy to accommodate us. Eric and I shared vegetable chop suey and vegetable chow mein (turns out these were identical dishes, except the latter was served over noodles). I found these vegetables vastly superior to the salted veggies we’d be served everywhere else. I even spied some dark green leafy vegetables in the mix. The group as a whole found the meal barely passable, but I was so grateful to see vegetables beyond cabbage and canned corn and green beans, I ate more than at any other meal all week, save one. Also, Anna had told us that this restaurant was located in “real” Havana, appeared to be filled with locals rather than tourists, and the prices reflected that. This was one of the cheapest meals we had all week. Eric and I paid about US $12 for our two entrees, bottles of water and tip.

Day 4: Lunch today was at “the best Creole restaurant in Cuba.” I ate a portion of a greasy unappealing plain egg omelet. I skipped dinner entirely. Thank goodness I had packed a few emergency Luna bars in my luggage; by this point I was rationing them to myself, 1-2 per day depending on the circumstances. Today was a 2 bar day, however there was one food highlight. Anna took us to a farmers market. By this point in our trip, finding a fresh fruit or vegetable was a bit like hunting for Big Foot. I wasn’t sure they really existed here. But, lo and behold, this was a beautiful farmers market with a great variety of produce. Has anyone told the restaurants about this??? I could no longer blame the poor vegetarian food experiences I’d had on lack of ingredient availability. I conjectured that it must be due to 50 years under a political regime and culture that restricted choices and exposure to culinary ideas. Get these people some Food Network TV and epicurious.com stat!

Today, Eric and I also ventured out in search of exercise classes. Since I teach indoor cycle, pilates and other fitness classes at home in the Bay Area, I was very curious to learn the options available in Cuba. Initially Anna had told me enthusiastically, “Of course Cuba has pilates and indoor cycling!” But, when I kept checking back with her, she was unable to turn up anything. The closest she came was a sort of a spa in the wealthy Miramar neighborhood that used to offer cycle classes, but it had cancelled them indefinitely because the bikes fell out of repair and needed to be replaced.

Turning elsewhere, we asked the concierge at our hotel for guidance. She had never heard of any classes, but suggested maybe trying another fancy hotel catering to foreigners. At Meliá Cohiba Hotel, we found a lobby and pool area much more deserving of the 5 star rating than our Hotel Nacional, but the concierge was similarly stumped by my query. We wandered by Cohiba’s gym room, asked around there, and found someone who had heard of a yoga studio nearby. Finally a lead! We walked straight there and found a yoga studio of sorts in a residential area. It appeared more of a religious gathering place that incorporated a few yoga classes a week than an exercise studio, but it was locked up and wouldn’t be reopening until after we left the country, so I couldn’t inquire further. This is the closest thing to a group exercise class of any sort that I was ever able to find in Havana.

Day 5: Field trip! This was the only day that we left Havana. We headed to Cuba’s mountains to an area called Las Terrazas. By this time, Anna and the group were so sympathetic to the pathetic food offerings all week, they made special arrangements to drop us to eat at El Romero, a vegetarian restaurant (there are 3 total in the country if you count the pescaterian one we tried in Havana earlier). This was our best meal of the week, incorporating many kinds of produce and flavors. Much of it was unfamiliar to us, and some of it was kind of bizarre. My main dish was sort of like an Italian eggplant parmesean style entrée, with sautéed vegetables in between slices of eggplant, but then it was topped with a layer of Mexican style refried black beans. I can’t say I have plans to try to replicate the dish, but I did eat it all. Also, the fresh baked bread at this restaurant was very good, and someone needs to put the baker in touch with whoever is responsible for the daily bread travesty occurring at Hotel Nacional’s breakfast buffet.

Dinner was a scoop of ice cream at the famous Coppelia in Havana. We’d heard about this place many times, walked by it and seen the lines, and even gotten a cone to share at one of the outposts earlier in the week. Tonight, when we tried to order, we learned that they only had vanilla left at that time of day, so we went to one of the satellite counters maybe 20 yards away which was still offering chocolate and almond. I ordered the almond. It tasted like vanilla. The popularity of this place with the locals confounded our group. Coppelia has about 6 different places to order under the same roof, all under the same name, part of the same property, but the flavors may vary from one counter to the next, only steps away. The upstairs area serves the identical product for a lower price (using the Cuban pesos, instead of the Convertible tourist dollars); the line for those tables can be very long, but not always. The ice cream is fine; our group found nothing extraordinary about it.

Day 6: Another 2 bar day, I skipped both breakfast and lunch. For dinner, Eric and I, along with another from our group, sought out Al Medina, a Mediterranean restaurant in Old Havana that the guide book had suggested was a good place for vegetarians. All I can say is, all the warring countries in the Middle East should join together and direct their ire here. The hummus was inedible (watered down mayonnaise maybe??), and the falafel unrecognizable (potato balls?). I don’t even know. (See the photo).

Day 7: I skipped breakfast again, and gorged on a crappy and extremely overpriced ($30!!!) veggie burger and fries when I arrived at the stop-over terminal in Cancun.

It took me about 2 months to recover the weight I lost on our Cuban vacation. I used to know someone who cycled on and off Nutrisystem every few months. I’m considering the same sort of system for myself, visiting Cuba every time my jeans get tight.