The Food Markets of Cuba
In Cuba last month, I kept my eyes on the food.
Because of strict regulation of private businesses, you don’t see the massive markets of other countries, like the ones that kept me browsing alpaca meat for hours in Peru. Cubans receive ration books, which entitle them to bread, eggs, basic vegetables, and rice at very inexpensive prices, and I passed the bakeries where residents pick up their daily rolls before or after work and bike tuk tuks await fresh loaves to deliver (that’s more expensive). A common sight was folks carrying dozens of eggs fit into piles of flat cartons. In the cities, stalls sold candy, including a ground peanut bar I adored. There were also small markets on street corners and decrepit alleys in cities or on the sides of roads outside of them, which carried sweet potatoes, bananas, and cabbage, as well as more modern delis where you could get cheese and ham. Some men carried braided garlic and onions around their necks, selling door to door, individual roving grocers.
Outside of cities like Havana, Trinidad, Cienfuegos, and Santa Clara, I cycled through the countryside in the middle of the country, and though I saw a lot of agriculture, both high-tech and low-tech, and beautifully maintained container gardens called organoponicos, there were also fields lying fallow for lack of investment or materials. Though the percentage of food imported is debated–I’ve seen a claim to 80 percent–there was some large drop in production and simultaneous increase in food imports from before the revolution til after, though a third of Cuba’s land is arable and a fifth of its population farms. I saw a lot of fresh fruit–papaya, mango pineapple, and bananas–but vegetables were limited to the starchy roots, cucumbers, and cabbage. The government owns the right to slaughter cows, so beef is pricy, but goats abound and pigs aren’t uncommon. There’s a black market for everything, including food. We tourists devoured a lot of pork, rice, and black beans. Locals eating out seemed to prefer pizza and fried fish sandwiches. Everyone drank cola, rum, and two beers–Bucanero and Cristal.