Cuban food is hardly the smorgasbord of delights that one encounters in other Caribbean islands. None of the fancy spice soaked seafood sins for this island. It may have something to do with the fact that times have been tough here like nowhere else when the country reeled under a severe shortage of food items during the Special Period. The Special Period lasted about a decade after the collapse of the USSR when the entire country was put on scrounge mode during a long haul austerity drive. Cuba is just coming out of the Special Period but apparently its cuisine hasn’t taken up where it left off. That has to do with the fact that Cuban food wasn’t rave material ever, neither is its variety large nor is its use of ingredients particularly imaginative.
Cuban food takes its inspiration from Spanish cuisine mixed with a sprinkling of the Caribbean. It isn’t as reliant on seafood as most other islands in the region are but incorporates a fine-sized amount of beef, pork, mutton, vegetables and poultry. Seafood is not readily available but when it is, lobster, prawns, salmon or tuna, you can be sure it will be fresh and well prepared. Rice is usually the base but Cuban bread, ever so slightly sour, is also a staple. Unlike Mexican cuisine, Cuban food isn’t spicy. The typical meal is comida criolla, a combination of rice and meat with beans. Beans are an integral part of lunch and dinner: black and red beans, and chickpea soup are had ladled over rice. Side dishes include vegetables like cassava and plantain and a salad of tomatoes and cucumber. Cubans also sometimes grab a pizza or pasta for a quick lunch: these are available at streets stalls in every city.
The major meal of the day is the evening one. Breakfast is a continental affair, comprising the usual toast and eggs. Some hotels go the whole hog and supplement the meal with cereal, fruits and meats. Coffee is the beverage of choice and though the best Cuban beans are exported, what you get is also good aromatic stuff. Fruits like mangoes, pineapples, oranges and mamey and soursop are available in season. Mamey is a thick-skinned sweet fruit, and soursop is a green thorny fruit with a more than a tang of the tangy.
The sweets in this sugar-producing nation are delicious. The state even supplies the most popular cakes topped with meringues for children’s birthday parties. Other favourites include cookies like torticas, shortcake biscuits, and cocos of coconut and brown sugar, and guyaba pasta jelly.