In the Caribbean, a sea of tea green and gentian blue, of overlapping cultures, diverse tastes, a thousand histories and conflicting visions for the future, there’s one view that unites everyone: Cuba has the Worst. Food. Ever.
You might blame bad food on the blockade, yet there are thriving markets filled with fresh fruits and vegetables. In Havana, around 60 percent of the delicious tropical produce comes fresh from the city and its surrounds. Even if most Cubans eat it only a handful of times a month, the backbone of Cuban food needs to have bones in it. Anything that isn’t meat is just treading water, and often tastes that way too.
Some people suggest that today’s Cuban love affair with meat stems from the 'Special Period,' after the end of communism, when Cuba’s trading links sank with the Iron Curtain, and the average Cuban lost 20 lbs because food—especially meat—was so hard to come by. Yet while this explains meat's popularity, it doesn’t explain why it's often so poorly cooked.
Some of the more embarrassed Cubans I spoke to blamed the Spanish, for bringing their meat and beans and rice culture to the Caribbean. But Spanish food is often quite good, while Cuban cuisine rarely manages to rise above the culinary low water mark of 1970s English boiled beef.
Which is why it's odd that one of the finest restaurants in the country is a government owned vegetarian joint 100 miles away from Havana. Its impresario, Tito Núñez Gudás, is as unlikely as the food. Trained as an industrial engineer, he set his first restaurant in Havana’s botanical garden, where the signature salad involved the marpacifico, a flower that had previously been considered purely decorative. He became vegetarian for health reasons, but when the government was desperately trying to persuade the population to eat less meat in the early 1990s, his culinary skills turned him into a Cuban TV celebrity chef.