Eating Vegetarian “Like a Local” in Cuba

 
Photo by Gabriel Flores 

Photo by Gabriel Flores 

Written by Tyler Anneliese Moselle

Intrepid vegans and vegetarians: it may be tough, but here’s how to do it.

Savoring local rum, cigars, and vintage cars is surely on your checklist on your trip to Cuba. But how can you enjoy traveling like a local in the country whilst a vegetarian?

Vegetarianism is still not the easiest feat in a country known for abuela’s chicken, roasted pork, classic crusty grilled cubano sandwiches, with a side of rice, beans, and plantains.

We have a few epicurean tips for our veggie-eating friends. Please keep these three recommendations in mind, if you’re an eager traveler looking for vegetarian-friendly options on your visit to Cuba:

  1. Be sure to integrate “sin carne” and “sin jamón” into your Spanish vocabulary. An important phrase when sampling local delicacies sans meat or ham, especially since locals frequently categorize  jamonada (Spam) as a non-meat option.

  2. Embrace rice, beans, eggs, plantains, salad, and pizza. Major staples will be include traditional rice and beans, eggs and omelettes, fried plantain, salads, and, yes, pizzas.

  3. Vegans, hit the paladares*. Vegans are pretty limited when it comes to local Cuban eats that fit their dietary preferences. A paladar, or in-home restaurants, offer guests an opportunity to simply order off-menu. Most spots have rice, black beans, and root vegetables -- potato and malanga--readily available.

Photo by Gabriel Flores

Paladares

As Saveur points out, “In-home restaurants like Atelier, known as paladares, were legalized in the 1990s but limited by idiosyncratically enforced regulations: a maximum of 12 seats, no beef or lobster, only ingredients purchased at state stores, at least two “family helpers” as staff.”

“Those restaurants that survived despite the restrictions possessed a speakeasy ambiance and exclusively served Cuban food. In 2011, nationwide economic reforms loosened regulations, and in short order, paladares—some selling comparatively exotic Indian or Spanish food—outstripped state-run restaurants in both number and popularity.”

With the reopened American Embassy in Havana and tourists are changing the face of what it means to be a culinary entrepreneur in Cuba. When chefs were accustomed to only limited selections of ingredients just a few years back, now multiple options, like a new variety of fresh produce are available. Revitalized local green markets ( known as agromercados) are flourishing thanks to reorganized farming co-operatives.

Without a wholesale market, however, products can vanish from Cuba’s government-run supermarkets without any notice whatsoever.

So just as vegetarians must be resourceful when it comes to planning their trip to Cuba, chefs are equally creative when it comes to last-second menu substitutions.