29 January 2009
Cuba Today: Eating well without breaking the bank
When it comes to eating in Cuba you will have heard a lot about the private restaurants, known as paladares. The name comes from an old Brazilian soap opera that Cuban TV bought cheap and which featured a heroine who opened her own eating house and called it the Palate - Paladar in both Portuguese and Spanish. Frankly, I don't rate these eateries all that highly; partly because they are not all that cheap, but also because of their restricted menu.
Most paladares offer a set menu which is great if you want a full meal, but a bit of a pain if all you want is a quick nibble. Usually they will not allow you to just have a simple dish - say a bowl of the delicious Cuban rice and beans known as moros y cristianos - and they insist on the customer eating the set meal for the set price.
The bill for that meal is going to be in the region of £10 - £20 per person, which is the sort of price that a customer could expect to pay at a near top of the range restaurant in Mexico City. However, the paladares are far from top of the range, so why anyone would want to pay over the odds for such mediocre food and service is beyond this writer's understanding.
Probably the best restaurants in Havana are to be found in the hotels. Most have a snack bar where reasonably priced eats can be found, and the main restaurant will not disappoint in the evening. The bill will be the same, give or take, as what you would pay in any other five star Latin-American hotel, but the prices will be lower than their London equivalent. Just not all that much lower. . .
Given the cost of eating out in Cuba, why not do as the Mexicans do when they visit the place? Well, maybe not, because the Mexicans tend to lug a microwave or an electric griddle with them, but the principle is the same: cook in your hotel room.
The simplest thing to do is to invest in an international kettle that will work on any voltage. In an emergency you can get them at Heathrow Airport, but obviously they are cheaper at a travel or camping shop. They hold about two pints of water so are not all that big, but if you want to try and save money then the ability to do some simple cooking will certainly enable you to do that. Just make sure that you buy a travel adaptor along with the kettle. Most Cuban buildings use the old American two flat pin plugs, but the more modern hotels have the round European type.
Then just fill all available spaces in your suitcases with powdered milk, tea, coffee, packets of soup and so on and so forth. Trust me, just by lugging a few packs of food across the Atlantic you will save quite a lot of money.
What Cuba lacks is what most other third world countries have: those platoons of street sellers who cater to a local market, but who will feed you as well. They are making a come back, but at the time of writing the country still has a long way to go before the kettle can be left at home.