My husband and I recently enjoyed a lovely weeklong vacation in Cuba. We spent a few days near Guanabo, a small town thirty minutes east of Havana, and a couple days wandering around Old Havana. Leading up to our trip, we heard from so many people (and the Internet) that Cuban food is not great and that vegan food would be nearly impossible to find. I’m happy to report that, while I wouldn’t say that Cuban food is my new favourite cuisine, we found plenty of great vegan eats during our trip! So I thought I would do up a post with a few tips to help others find great vegan food to eat in Cuba (and anywhere else you may travel, really). Hope it helps. Happy trails!
1. LEARN SOME FOOD WORDS IN SPANISH
Whenever I travel, I try to learn a few words in the local language to describe generally what I do and do not eat. These words plus a smile and a few friendly please and thank-yous ( “por favor” and “gracias”) can go a long way.
Here are a few helpful words and phrases in Spanish (in my totally imperfect, but workable Spanish):
- “food” = “comida”
- “I do not eat…” = “no como…” (“we do not eat…” = “no comimos…”)
- “meat” = “carne”
- “milk” = “leche”
- “cheese” = “queso”
- “eggs” = “huevos”
- “I only eat…” = “solo como…” (“we only eat…” = “solo comimos…”)
- “fruits” = “frutas”
- “vegetables” = “verderas”
- “rice” = “arroz”
- “beans” = “frijoles”
Knowing a few words and phrases like this is immensely helpful when ordering food in restaurants. We had a kitchen in both of the apartments we rented, so we cooked much of our own food (more on this below), but in Guanabo the ladies we were renting from also offered prepared meals. On our first day, we ordered dinner in broken Spanish and were served a fantastic vegan meal of rice and beans, with veggies, fried plantains, fresh fruit juice and a delicious potato patty. A few nights later we were served a similar meal, with the addition of these neat little fried garlic and onion things that were just divine. And a perk of ordering vegetarian, they charged us half of the usual price and gave us huuuuge portions!
2. BRING SOME PACKAGED SNACKS FROM HOME
Although we ended up finding plenty to eat in Cuba, I would still recommend you bring a few things from home to be on the safe side. This little bit of pre-trip preparation will make things much easier when you’re in transit, can't tear yourself away from the beach in search of lunch or you’ve been wandering the beautiful streets of Havana for hours and need a snack to keep you going.
We brought a few packages of Vega One powder, a couple protein bars, some granola bars, a few homemade banana zucchini muffins and some tamari almonds in our luggage. We had the Vega One powder every morning, just mixed in glasses of water. It wasn’t as delicious as the smoothies I make at home, but it was totally drinkable and acted as insurance in case we weren’t finding all our nutrients elsewhere. The rest we ate as snacks throughout the days.
We also brought some fresh Sesame Kale Slaw (the Plant Hearted recipe is here, with tofu and quinoa added) for the plane ride. We ate this just before landing in Havana, which gave us a few hours to get our bearings and get ourselves settled before we were hungry for our first meal in Cuba.
3. EAT BEANS
I don’t think I have ever seen tofu, tempeh, seitan, or other meat analogues in Latin America, and Cuba is no exception. I also didn’t see any nuts or particularly protein-rich whole grains like quinoa. Thankfully, however, beans are abundant! Beans will be your go to when travelling. Black beans (“frijoles negros”) are super cheap and easy to come by in Cuba. Many places will serve them in liquid almost like a soup (this is just the flavourful starchy broth that results from cooking the beans from scratch). This simplest of bean dishes is typically not prepared with meat or other animal products. Some places will also serve refried beans (which are delicious!), but these are more likely to contain meat or animal lard. Either way, it is best to inquire before ordering. You can avoid accidentally ordering meat-laden beans with with the simple phrase “frijoles sin carne por favor” (“beans without meat please”).
When preparing black beans yourself, simply rinse then soak them over night. In the morning, drain the water then cover the beans with fresh water in a pot (add some flavouring if you like). I often add diced onions, minced garlic and powdered cumin, all of which we were able to obtain from Cuban markets. Bring water to a boil then turn down the heat and let simmer until the beans are soft (1-2 hours). Salt to taste and enjoy. Speaking of cooking your own beans…
4. STAY IN A PLACE WITH A KITCHEN IF POSSIBLE
As I noted above, in both Guanabo and Havana we rented apartments with kitchens, so we did most of our own cooking. While I understand that for some people, cooking your own food may not seem like a vacation activity, I would advocate giving it a try. I thoroughly enjoyed the adventure of finding ingredients in town and preparing them in an unfamiliar kitchen with limited tools (our Cuban kitchens offered a pot, a pan, a knife, a cutting board, and not much else in terms of cookware). And I find cooking while on vacation to be particularly relaxing, because you’re not in a rush and you’re distanced from life’s typical responsibilities and distractions, so you can just enjoy the experience.
Of course, find out whether the water where you are staying is potable. Ever since the time, about 12 years ago in Guatemala, that I wasn’t as careful as I should have been and caught a parasite, I’ve been pretty careful with water in Latin America, including obeying boil water advisories and drinking only bottled water (and ice made from boiled or bottled water). Use appropriate precautions when cooking, including when washing fresh veggies.
Having a kitchen not only lets you prepare your own food, but also allows you to keep leftovers, which you’ll probably have a lot of, because people seem to think vegans need to eat a crazy amount of food. I’m not complaining about the huge portions, I’m just saying the ability to save the extra is handy.
5. FIND MARKETS, BUT DO NOT EXPECT THE SAME VARIETY YOU MAY BE ACCUSTOMED TO AT HOME
Market in Spanish is “mercado”. But in Cuba, “mercado” seems to refer not to produce markets (as you would expect), but rather to what we would call convenience stores: little shops that that sell processed and canned foods, soda, cigarettes, and liquor. To find fresh produce you’ll have to look for small fruit and veggie stands, usually inconspicuously tucked away on main streets. You’ll find bread (“pan”) at a bakery (“panaderia”), not the markets. And it will be simple, white bread, often quite sweet, not the grainy stuff you may be used to at home (in fact, most of the buns we found were a bit yellowish and tasted like fast-food hamburger buns). While not nearly as common as in North America, markets, produce stands, and bakeries are plentiful enough that you can easily find a couple of each on any main street. And locals are always ready to point you in the right direction.
Generally, I am all about eating a wide variety of foods from day to day, both for nutritional value and to keep things interesting. This principle applies nicely in my privileged Torontonian existence, with avocados from Mexico, quinoa from Peru (or as I’ve recently discovered at Costco, from Canada!), kale from California, lentils from Italy, tomatoes from Florida -- all available at the same grocery store. But this is not really possible in Cuba.
When you walk up to a fresh produce stand in Cuba, do not expect to see a ton of selection. In Guanabo, I found the following regularly offered for sale: bananas, tomatoes, cabbage, green peppers, garlic (thank gawd!), onion, cucumber, papaya, pineapple, chili peppers, beets, something resembling eggplant, yuca and one or two other root-vegetable-looking things that I didn’t recognize (maybe a variety of sweet potato? I didn’t have a peeler in our apartment so I shied away from these). In Havana, we found a couple smaller produce markets and one really great one, with all of this plus a bit more, including lettuce and a dark leafy green similar to bok choy, which I was really excited about!
I didn’t find much that was particularly enticing in the mercados (“convenience stores”), but I did find mustard (which was great for making simple veggie sandwiches), dry rice, roasted red peppers (a welcome surprise), olives and vegetable oil, all of which was particularly useful for preparing our own food.
6. ENJOY THE FLAVOURS OF FRESHLY PICKED FRUITS AND VEGETABLES
Papaya in Canada tastes like feet (in my opinion). Papaya in countries where it is grown tastes like, I don’t know, some delightful fruit that clearly does not taste like feet. And the bananas and plantains you can see growing outside your door are fantastic! Vacations are the perfect time to take a break from our typical eating habits and thoroughly enjoy new flavours and so many fresh fruits and vegetables. And after a hot sunny day at the beach, there is nothing as satisfying and thirst quenching as fresh fruit (or, if you’re into it, fresh fruit blended up with a splash of rum).
I love the adventure of finding and trying new foods in other countries, and I suggest you embrace it while enjoying all that Cuba has to offer its visitors.