Eating Healthy in Cuba, the Country of Scarcity
In Cuba, the country of scarcity, healthy eating takes a back seat in the country’s long list of priorities. Lovers of healthy eating or those with nutritional requirements headed for Cuba, may face some hurdles. But with preparation and knowledge, it is possible to eat nutritiously in Cuba. Whether you’re moving long-term or touring for a short period, I will break down the background, hurdles, and logistics on how to eat healthy in a country with limited access to resources and information.
Simple Basics: Why Don’t More Cubans Eat Healthy?
Cuba has a shortage of nearly everything from transportation and fuel to food and agriculture. This means a shortage of taxis to bring you to the small number of shops or markets, limited variety of fresh foods for sale, and sold out menu options in restaurants. The combination of these shortages can cause what should be a 30-minute food shopping run into a half day errand.
Most goods are more expensive in Cuba than in other developing countries. For example, one apple or small watermelon can cost a Cuban about five percent of their average monthly salary. It’s much cheaper and easier for a Cuban to walk a few minutes to his/her local Panaderia and buy a week’s supply of bread for $1, rather than hike for an hour to a market that may have an apple for $1.
Many, if not most Cubans (just like many underprivileged folks around the world) do not understand the logistics or value of healthy, nutritious eating. Many Cubans have more pressing concerns than counting calories or learning how to make almond milk.
Background: Scarcity of Fresh Fruits and Vegetables in Cuba
Setting aside all political theories, such as the effects of the U.S. embargo against Cuba and/or whether communism and Castros have failed Cuba, it is important to understand a few key background points.
Poor Agriculture in Cuba = Increased Accessibility to Processed Foods
According to the World Food Programme, 70-80% of Cuba’s food is imported. A large portion of these imported foods are not fresh, they are processed, canned, or dry.
It is far more common and feasible to provide frozen hot dogs and processed ground meat pumped with additives and preservatives to Cubans, than oranges or potatoes. Fresh food doesn’t last as long and can be more burdensome to produce in mass quantities.
Taking this into consideration, it’s not surprising that the government food rations rarely consist of fresh foods. And it’s understandable that most Cubans tend to focus on filling their bellies with whatever is cheaply available (bags of hotdogs, coffee, bread, and sugar) than trekking across town and coughing up 5% of their monthly salary for a few cucumbers and lettuce – which also don’t last as long.
Cuba’s Limited International Trade
I have learned to accept that the types of fruits and vegetables available depend on whatever is harvested locally and by season. This may sound obvious to some, but for folks from more commercially developed countries, we are use to having almost any type of fruit or vegetable at our fingertips during any time of the year. But in Cuba, I haven’t seen avocados, papaya, oranges, grapefruit, strawberries, blueberries, apples, plums, or mangos in months because they’re either out of season or not produced locally.
Tourism’s Effect on Cuba’s Food Supply
Further adding to the scarcity of food is the booming tourism industry. Small business (casa particular and paladar) owners buy up nearly everything (especially fish) because they have the money to do so and to cater to their ever-growing businesses.
Drought/Climate Change in Cuba
Lastly, there is currently a drought in Cuba. This year has been one of the driest dry seasons in Cuba’s recorded history which doesn’t help out its failing agricultural industry.
Shopping for Food & Its Everyday Hurdles
No “Real” Supermarkets
Despite all the food I packed into my suitcases, I couldn’t bring things like fresh fruits and veggies, potatoes, eggs, or an oven. There are no Walmarts or any major supermarkets that carry all your needs. For example, to find pumpkin, eggs, milk, chicken, soap, cheese or wine, you must go to different and specific shops for each one.
Getting Around Can Be Difficult
I had to walk almost an hour each way to get lemons at the “higher-end” market on Calle B + Calle 19. I had to walk for so long because currently there is a scarcity in collective taxis, so getting around locally has now become pretty difficult. The public buses are unreliable and when they do show up, you must figure out a way to fit in without getting violently squished by the closing doors. So aside from the scarcity in available items to eat, the logistic of procuring scarce items can be a hurdle itself.
Eating Healthy While Traveling Through Cuba
If you’re traveling short-term through Cuba, bite the bullet and either temporarily sacrifice your: 1) stomach; or 2) wallet. Go to the fancier more expensive private restaurants (paladares). The more resourceful paladares may be able to offer you more options for fresh greens.
How you can prepare:
- Pack healthy dry food before you go. The best are nuts and nutrition bars. Since you’re traveling short-term, you likely won’t have an apartment/kitchen to yourself and/or you won’t have time to figure out how to buy foods and cook at home. This is also great for snacking on the road, since it’s hard to get a quick healthy bite in Cuba.
- Talk to your waiter about the menu items before sitting down because sometimes what they have on the menu might not be available that day. And ask exactly which types of vegetables (viandas/verduras) they have, because sometimes a “side of vegetables” can literally mean a thin slice of potato.
- Eat at your casa particular. They will be more willing to cater to your nutritional needs than a busy restaurant. These plates should cost about $7-10 for dinner. And $3-5 for breakfast. It’s “expensive” for a developing-country/Cuban-standards, but your time and options will be slim.
- If they are offering a “natural fruit juice” – sometimes it is juice from a carton with tons of sugar, coloring, and preservatives. Ask if its pre-made or a freshly cut up fruit blend.
- Ask for little to no added sugar. Otherwise, a third of your cocktail/drink may consist of granulated sugar.
- If you happen to pass by a fruit stand, seize the moment and stock up!
My Favorite Healthy Restaurants/Cafes in Cuba in Havana
Cuba Libro – For real fresh fruit juice and a sweet respite from the hustle of Havana.
El Del Frente – Incredible interior, and one of the only places I could get a varied plate of fresh vegetables.
Cafe Brown – Very affordable. They offer a delicious and generous plate of tomato-roasted chickpeas with vegetables ($2) and it’s the only restaurant with freshly-made gazpacho soup ($3).
Contact me for recommendations outside of Havana.
If you have serious food allergies, this is likely not the country for you. You could possibly explain it to your casa owner ahead of time and only eat there.
Eating Healthy While Living in Cuba
- Dedicate at least an entire suitcase to just food. For me, this was a lifesaver. When any friends or family come to Cuba, ask them to replenish your things. For an idea of some items to bring take a look at what I packed: quinoa, coconut flour, raw cocoa, coconut oil, oatmeal, peanut butter, walnuts, cashews, peanuts, sunflower seeds, chia seeds, flax seeds, dried fruits, maca, hemp, hundreds of energy/protein/fruit bars, herbal seasonings, non-caffeinated teas, olive oil, snack chips, and nutritional supplements.
- Ask local Cuban folks where the nearest food markets are for the specific items you seek and what time they close.
- Depending on how long you will be here, consider growing your own fruits and veggies.
- To truly eat clean and healthy, cooking will likely become your new friend. You’ll not only be eating healthy and saving money, you’ll also be saving time. Eating in a restaurant in Cuba can take hours.
Agromercados – Cuban Supermarkets
Shopping for food in Cuba is not easy. There are some agromercados (tiny “markets”) where you can buy certain fruits and vegetables. These are usually open until 3 or 4PM and are closed on Mondays and Sundays. They also usually sell about 3 or 4 types of food items. So you have to either get creative with limited items or go to multiple mercados to fulfill your varied needs.
Finding Specific Fresh Foods
Viandas (aka viveres or root crops) will be your friend in Cuba. Especially if you are averse to grains/gluten. “Root crops” are more commonly consumed in Latin America, the Caribbean, and Africa. They include but aren’t limited to: potatoes, plantains, cassava (yuca), malanga, boniato (batata), yame, etc.
Beans/Frijoles are everywhere in Cuba. They’re delicious and nutritious!
Bananas are either not ripe enough to eat or they are too ripe when you find them for sale. Be careful buying them green, some are plucked too early and never turn yellow. They go from green to black and moldy. Source: experience.
Apples need cold weather. Therefore, they are almost impossible to find growing in Cuba unless imported. If you do miraculously find apples, they are usually sold on a street corner for about $1 each. Apples are luxury item in Cuba.
Mamay is a super sweet fruit, perfect for smoothies. They are very hard to find ripe. Avoid buying mamay if it’s too hard on the outside. But if you do find ripe ones, seize the moment! I couldn’t begin to try to describe the taste of this fruit, but it’s a must try while in Cuba.
Garlic can be rare and expensive. A “good” wreath (about 20 bunches) on the street goes for $6 (~20% the average monthly salary).
Onions are similar to garlic, but can cheaper during high season. I bought an entire healthy wreath for $3.
Eggs are only legally sold in a number of places, sometimes. So when you see someone carrying eggs, ask them where they got their eggs and run to make that line!
Meat & Fish – It took me a month to figure out a place to buy chicken here after being denied in random shops for not being a libreta/ration-card holder. In Havana, frozen meat is available in specific indoor mercados, such as FOCSA and Mercado Amistad in Havana. Or you can ask locals where to find the nearest vivero (pictured above). Admittedly, I’m not a big meat-eater so I didn’t try too hard.
The key to finding items while you’re in Cuba is patience, money, endurance, and getting out there. In Cuba internet is limited, and updated information about Cuba is rarely posted online. Talk to your neighbors, co-workers, roommates, professors, host family and local expats. Get to know your neighborhood by walking around on foot.
Talking to people and walking around, is the best way to discover what your neighborhood has to offer. This may not come naturally to us folks raised dependent on cars and the internet. But this is the Cuban way. Once I wrestled Cuba’s learning curve for eating healthy, I was amazed at how little I really needed. And I grew a special appreciation for the little things I had once taken for granted back home.