A Vegetarian in Cuba

Yusimi Rodriguez

Banana seller on a Cuban highway. Photo: Caridad

HAVANA TIMES, Feb. 16 — I decided to stop eating meat eleven years ago.  I can’t say that consuming it had harmed me up to that time, nor do I know if I’m free from developing carcinogenic cells, though many scientists assert that a vegetarian diet prevents colon cancer, intestinal problems, irregular blood pressure and high cholesterol levels, among other health problems.  My reasons, though, have to do with respect for animal life.

Many people ask me what I eat, how I manage to do without protein, because for most Cubans protein is synonymous with meat.  Many people are unaware that vegetable protein also exists. It’s present in beans, in dried fruits like almonds, nuts like hazelnuts and peanuts, and in vegetables like broccoli and green beans.

My meals almost always consist of white rice (I hardly ever have brown rice), beans, root vegetables, a vegetable stew or a salad with fresh raw vegetables (sometimes both).  My diet also includes fruits, milk products, pies and sweets.  I generally don’t spend a lot of time preparing food when I’m at home; nevertheless, I’m able to fulfill the three basic requirements of my diet: remaining a vegetarian, eating the most nutritious food possible and pleasing my palate.

The problems begin when I’m away from the house.

Havana street food

My options for getting something to eat in the street consist of salted peanuts, a peanut nougat bar (whose makers generally add too much sugar and throw in non-peanut ingredients to make it more profitable), fruit milkshakes (which the vendors make with too much ice and water, too little milk and fresh fruit,  and lots of sugar), sesame nougat bars (which you can’t always find, plus it’s not the form of sesame I like most), ice cream (I love it, though it’s not good for me to consume milk products in excess), sweets (sugar and flour – in other words, items that are more harmful than nutritious), and pizza (the good ones are expensive, the cheap ones are… cheap, with too much flour and little nutritional value).

The most common item sold on the street is cold pork sandwiches.

I sometimes find cheese sandwiches and also drink natural fruit juices (sometimes I’m lucky enough to get ones that aren’t watered down).  Instant and canned soft drinks are excluded from my diet, except for malt, which I love.   However, it’s sold in hard currency and is expensive; therefore it too is practically excluded. Also sold in hard currency are almonds, hazelnuts and apples.  I like these a lot, but I seldom buy food in hard currency (when I do, I spend days repenting having done it).

My mother worries because sometimes I have to leave the house early and return late owing to work or because I go to the cinema.  Before heading out, the question is always the same:  “So what are you going to eat?”  This is accompanied by an expression of anguish because she already knows the answer: pizza, candy, ice cream or peanuts. “That’s not food,” she tells me. And she’s right.

For eating lunch away from home, I generally bring along a container of food.  But I can’t carry another one for dinner; it would be too much weight, keeping in mind I also have to bring along a bottle of water and the books I might need.  I have to also foresee the possibility of walking a long distance or having to run to catch a bus.

When I’m feeling hungry and run up on a cafe (be it state-run or private), what I find on the menu is bread with ham, bread with ham and cheese, bread with a hotdog, bread with an egg tortilla, and bread with pork.

The pork sandwiches sometimes come with a few small leaves of lettuce inside, in which case I’ll ask the salesperson if they can make me a sandwich with lettuce only.  They’ll tell me they can, but I still have to pay the regular price: five pesos.

This is something I expect and am willing to pay, even though the price of a whole head of lettuce in the market is five pesos – six or seven at the most.  There isn’t even room in the sandwich for only half a head of lettuce, but the person who serves it must report five pesos for each sandwich they sell.

When I go into restaurants, what I find is fried rice (with ham), rice with pork, rice with chicken, pork chops or fried chicken with beans and rice, vegetables and a root vegetable.  The prices range between 15 and 30 pesos. In some places they also sell caldosa (soup) with meat.  In private establishments I can sometimes strike a deal to pay only 15 pesos for a plate of rice and beans (not cooked with meat) along with a little salad and a root vegetable.

I sometimes find tamales for five pesos.  These consist of the sweet corn flour, which acquires a solid consistency when it’s cooked inside its leaf. It can be prepared only with seasoning or with pork or chicken inside.  I almost always ask the vendors if the tamale contains meat, though they look at me like said something stupid.  “Of course,” they respond.  Only on one occasion have I been able to find a woman who sold tamales without meat inside. But later I was left wondering whether those had been made with pork shortening, because it’s cheaper than vegetable oil.

The sprouting of vegetarian alternatives

In Havana there exists an ecological restaurant where all the food is absolutely vegetarian; not even eggs or milk are used.  For only 18 pesos you can eat all you want. It’s one of my preferred places in the capital, but it’s located in the Botanical Garden, about 10 miles from downtown, and not many buses go that far out.

"Cuban's are not vegetarians"

This was the only true alternative for vegetarians in the capital until the end of 2001. Around that period I went to a vegetarian restaurant in Vedado for the first time.  It was El Pekin, which had previously specialized in Chinese food.  El Viky also opened up as a vegetarian restaurant (located at Infanta and Carlos III streets), as did the restaurant located in front of the Amadeo Roldan Theater, one in El Monaco, and another one in Vibora Park.

In these eateries were served varieties of stews and fresh vegetable salads, soups and rice, as well as juices, fruit cocktails, desserts and lasagna with cheese and vegetable protein (soya), with which hamburgers and meatballs were also made.  Dehydrated vegetable protein also began to be sold in many state-run establishments (inside the package were instructions on how to prepare it).

In that same period some television programs and spots reported on the benefits of eating vegetables in abundance.  On the program “Pasaje a lo desconocido” (Passage to the Unknown) they interviewed a couple of specialists who talked about the advantages of a vegetarian diet over one that includes meat.  The media never dealt with the ethical aspects related to vegetarianism’s respect for animal life; nonetheless, pamphlets have been distributed with recipes for dishes made based on vegetarian ingredients.

Not only vegetarians went to these restaurants, in the beginning all types of people praised the variety of plates and the preparation.  You could choose between serving yourself and being served by a waiter.  The food was sometimes not very hot and the vegetables not that fresh.

By that same token, over time the rice and salads began to get a little bland, but you could always add a little seasoning for three pesos extra.  The prices were a bit high at the beginning, and when the portions began to diminish, those prices stayed high, though this varied from one restaurant to another.  The price differences were not appreciable, maybe a peso or two.

It didn’t sell

In any case, these restaurants continued to be the best alternative for vegetarians, though some dishes disappeared, for example those made with vegetable protein.  Vegetable protein also disappeared from those eating places where it was sold.

Then the menus began to include chicken in some dishes, though the restaurants continued to be “vegetarian.”

In December 2009, I was near El Viky, so I stopped in to buy a salad and a juice.  Immediately I saw things had changed.  I no longer had to eat a vegetable salad of questionable freshness, nor did I have to pay five or six pesos for an almost tasteless stew, or pay between 13 and 15 pesos for a tiny portion of vegetarian fried rice.  In fact, it was no longer a vegetarian restaurant.

El Viky is now a Creole food restaurant.  When I asked one of the servers why they had stopped being vegetarian, her answer was that it was not profitable – it didn’t sell; “Cuban’s are not vegetarians,” she figured.

Prior to that, the vegetarian restaurant in Vibora Park and the El Monaco had disappeared.  El Pekin has returned to serving Chinese food, and the closest thing to a vegetarian plate being served at the restaurant in front of the Amadeo Roldan Theater is a cheese and tomato pizza.

In these last two restaurants, both located in Vedado, I asked why these were no longer vegetarian. In El Pekin they told me it was an “orientation of the [State] company” – the employees had no idea.  In front of the Amadeo, one of the employees told me that vegetables had started becoming scarce, “So since the restaurant couldn’t close…”

Profitability? Vegetable shortages?  Both? Other reasons?  The fact is that there are no longer vegetarian restaurants in the capital.  What has indeed become plentiful over the last several months are carts and stands selling hotdogs and pork sandwiches.  It seems there’s no shortage of animals to kill.  What’s more, it’s not necessary to speak on television about the nutritional value of hotdogs or pork (assuming they have any), people line up to eat them and a lot are sold.

Meanwhile, I’ve returned to resigning myself to my previous alternatives.

12 thoughts on “A Vegetarian in Cuba

  • February 17, 2010 at 9:40 pm
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    Hi Yusimi,
    Thank you for this really excellent article. And may I say I am pleased to find there are vegetarians in Cuba. I live in England, where it is very easy to be a vegetarian, perhaps the easiest place in the world. As a foreigner visiting Cuba I have access to CUC and therefore have een able to uy Spaghetti napolitano or Pizza napolitano. Attempting to be a vegetarian on moneda nacional is obviously a nightmare.
    I became a vegetarian because I felt it was hypocritical to pay others for a job, slaughtering animals, that I had no intention or ability to do myself. The animal welfare issue goes hand in hand with that. I have also been convinced that food poisoning is more common with meat products than anything else, so I could see a health benefit to humans. However, what made me a die-hard vegetarian for now over more than twenty years is very simple:
    With the ever growing human population on planet earth, it just does not add up trying to feed mankind indirectly, by which…

    Reply
  • February 17, 2010 at 9:41 pm
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    With the ever growing human population on planet earth, it just does not add up trying to feed mankind indirectly, by which I mean feeding animals with the vegetables that could be used to feed humans. The per capita waste of energy for meat production compared to vegetable production is simply unsustainable. So, whatever animal concerns came first, have long been overtaken y concerns for humans.
    Cuba would be an ideal country – giving the scarcity of many things on the island – to be more energy-conscious in food production. Sadly, those who count themselves to be on the left cannot kick the habit of eating meat any more than those on the right. The issue in a county like Cuba is central planning. There is simply no room within society to develop alternatives while the state has the effective monopoly on planning food production, purchasing of food abroad and the distribution of food products.

    Reply
  • February 17, 2010 at 9:42 pm
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    I know very few Cubans, if any, who are aware of the problems with eating meat. It is an unthinking habit being repeated and transferred to the next generations. There are no discussions on television or elsewhere looking at the pros- and cons of a vegetarian diet.
    When I first came to Cube, my travel guide had a full section on vegetarian restaurants in Havana. Like yourself I noticed that they have now reverted to standard fare. I hazard a guess, that tourism planners in Cuba saw vegetarian restaurants in US dollars (later CUC) as a way of attracting revenue from tourists. However, when I went to a vegetarian restaurant in Vedado, I found it rather wanting. The price was high the choice limited and the staff unfamiliar with vegetarianism. It failed because little thought was given to the point of view of a potential customer. It was an attempt to earn money from tourists, but was done rather half-heartedly.
    Anyway, with food production in the world we live in will force increased…

    Reply
  • February 17, 2010 at 9:43 pm
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    Anyway, with food production in the world we live in will force increased vegetarianism on an unprepared humanity. Just as we have to prepare for peak oil, not preparing for the need to cut down on meat production is simply no longer an option.

    Reply
  • February 17, 2010 at 10:07 pm
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    i’ve been vegan for a decade, and have noticed an improvement in my energy level, my skin, hair, and nails. I use delicious spices and create beautiful meals. i’m not as easily aggravated, i sleep well knowing i haven’t participating in the violence of pain and death to my animal friends. i love cuba, but I found it very difficult to be vegan there. I’m happy with beans and rice (which are a complete protein, as is a wonderful grain called Quinoa) but I would even find meat in my beans sometimes. There are a million reasons to stop oppressing and consuming animals ….. I wish you much luck with your quest!

    Reply
  • February 19, 2010 at 3:34 am
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    Great article! I have a friend in Havana who has been a vegetarian for about a decade. I have argued and argued with Cubans about the beauty of soy and the problems with dairy and meat (health and environmental). But they won’t have it. I’ve argued extensively with one friend in particular and no matter what you say, it boils down to this: to him soy = poverty. He cannot believe that in the US soy alternatives cost extra! He cannot understand why I seek out frozens (veggie based ice cream) instead of eating “real” ice cream at Coppelia. There was a place on 20 de Mayo where you could buy brown rice and textured vegetable protein. It was dirt cheap and seemed like nobody wanted anything to do with it. The restaurant at the Botanical Garden mentioned here is FABULOUS. But beware, tourists pay in CUC, so it’s not cheap, but it is well worth it!! Its not typical veggie food, its fourmet. It includes native flowers and plants grown right there at the garden. There’s a beautiful lake…

    Reply
  • February 19, 2010 at 1:21 pm
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    Hi Yusimi,

    nice article.
    Am visiting Havana this March and feel guilty that I can afford CUC. Still, shall try to be adventurous and see what I can get for pesos.
    I do know you have libertas and a black market…but is it allowed for families to grow vegetables/herbs in planters/pots at home?

    Reply
  • November 26, 2010 at 5:44 pm
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    good article. We are both vegetarians and going to Havana for 2 weeks in May 2011 staying at the hotel national. A little worried that we won’t find anything to eat. Steve is a diabetic so eating is fairly important! I guess pizza will be the main option.

    Reply
  • December 7, 2010 at 4:36 pm
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    Hi,

    I think the article is a very interesting depiction of eating habits in Cuba and some other carribean coastal areas in South America. I haven’t been to Cuba for about ten years but was recently in Venezuela, Isla Margarita. I found that meat and refined grains and highly sugared foods where the only option. Brown rice and other grains simply did not exist and the variety of greens was incredibly poor. Herbs and spices to flavour dishes were extremely expensive (more so than in London!) and I think a vegetarian or, god forbid, vegan diet in places like this would be under nourishing. I think it is a shame. In Mexico, eating meat is popular, but there are also a plethora of extremely tasty vegetarian dishes which form a large part of the gastronomic culture and heritage. Whilst brown rice is expencsive it is available, as are many other whole grains and plenty of high quality veg and a good choice of herbs and spices. I really hope that countries like cuba catch up!

    With all of this in mind I would like to say two things:

    Firstly, soya is not the answer. I find many vegetarians use soya to fill the “meat gap”, which if you are eating a balanced vegetarian diet should not be necessary. Never mind the ecological concerns of growing soya. Most is of GM origin and soya cultivtion is now the number one cause of Amazon rainforest deforestation. Aside from which there are concerns about its effect on hormonal balance particularly in males. Remember that whilst soya does form a part of the Asian diet it is not a main feature.

    Secondly, whether we eat meat or not we are all responsible for the suffering of other beings. I am sure millions more beings die to get a bowel of rice on my table than a chicken thigh. The important thing is to be mindful of this whatever we eat!

    Reply
    • February 5, 2012 at 10:32 am
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      “I am sure millions more beings die to get a bowel of rice on my table than a chicken thigh.”

      Excuse me? Would you please clarify your statement, since, as it is, it seems ludicrous.

      Reply
  • October 19, 2012 at 12:13 pm
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    The overwhelming reason soya cultivation is the number one cause of Amazon rainforest destruction is because 80% of it is grown to feed farmed animals (see http://www.forestdisclosure.com/footprint/soy), not because some vegans/vegetarians eat soya. Having said that however, there are lots of other non-animal protein sources, apart from soya.

    Reply

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