Thursday, 2 February 2012
Buying Food in Cuba
As anyone who knows us will suppose, everytime we found a market we went into it. This was the first one, in Cinefuegos. It was the largest market in town, the one we were directed to when we asked about it. We actually only found one other large market in Cienfuegos, out in the eastern suburbs on Calle 60.
I was still a bit shy about taking pictures of people at this point, but do you see the 2 people in Tilley hats in the middle of the photo? It turned out they were Canadians from Edmonton, there with a class full of agriculture students who were all snapping away, so we blended in quite well! We chatted about their itinerary with them and were green with envy.
In Havana, there were smaller markets all over the place. Many of them seemed to operate on a communal basis, with what appeared to be the produce of 4 or 5 farms set up each on their own table. The actual produce didn't vary a huge amount from place to place.
This was one of the larger markets we found in Havana, actually in El Vedado. (The main part of Havana is divided into 3 main sections, from east to west; Old Havana, Central Havana, and El Vedado. Miramar is further to the west, and then it's all surrounded by lots of small suburbs.)
Look at those eggplants! We never actually saw a one cooked while we were there. I think perhaps people think tourists don't like them, and I'm afraid that's probably a fairly safe assumption. People complain about the food being very plain in Cuba, but I suspect after a few bad experiences people feeding tourists also stick to the tried and true.
Next to the main market was a government food depot, where people picked up food using their ration cards. Rice, beans, sugar, oil, vinegar, salt, milk and so forth were sold at very cheap prices here.
There wasn't any vegetables or fruit in the government market; for that you needed the regular market. There was a great selection: plantains, bananas, papaya and guava, onions and garlic, cabbage, lettuce, tomatoes, malanga, yucca, sweet potatoes and more. No mango, it wasn't mango season. I don't know what else wasn't in season. This is the cool and dry part of the year, and so winter in so far as there is one.
Another, smaller market in Havana. We bought a pineapple for 5 pesos (about 20 cents) and 5 pesos seemed to be a typical price for units of vegetables (ie. one pineapple, a can full of peppers, one pound of malanga, etc.) In general I'd say that equates to about 1/10th of the price we pay for vegetables here; very roughly of course. You have to remember though, that Cuban incomes are generally no where near 1/10th of what they are here, so for Cubans these prices are high. Not high enough to stop people from buying though; all the markets we saw of any size seem to do a pretty brisk business.
I was surprised to see how many people were selling already cut up vegetables. I had always supposed them to be a sign of effete western capitalist decadence, but I have to admit they were a good thing in Cuba. Kitchen utensils are very hard to get, and most kitchens pretty basic. They were certainly popular.
Yet another little market. I see some stacks of yummy guava jam in there. I have to say I loved all the fruit in Cuba, and it was so nice to be able to eat it and other raw produce without untoward repercussions.
Some produce heads in from an organiponico in the suburbs to restock one of those little town markets. By motorized vehicle? Not a chance. Hey look! Carrots and beets. We didn't actually see them a lot, apart from a little carrot in salads occasionally. We got served radishes once, to my surprise. No surprise, they weren't any good. Not a vegetable adapted to growing in Cuba, I wouldn't think.
The markets ranged in size from quite large to little booths like this one. You could also often buy produce from people walking around selling it out of a small cart or bag, as with this woman. She was somewhat unusual; most of the mobile sellers were male.
When my father was in Cuba at the end of the special period, he came back commenting on how skinny everyone was. Not so much any more. People were rarely fat, and the lack of motorized vehicles keep them generally pretty fit as well. However, people seemed mostly well feed and even occasionally well padded. The organiponico system and other farm reforms seem to be making a difference, along with increased tourism.