In a country with an indisputably rich mix of flavours in its culinary traditions – coming from Spain, Africa and the Caribbean – how do locals manage the common shortages of supplies? What are their favourite snacks, no matter the season? On a sunny January afternoon, we went on the Lonely Planet Experiences Old Havana Street Eats tour powered by Urban Adventures tour to sample a selection of grab-and-go foods made on the busiest streets of Havana.
It was also an excursion into the non-touristy part of a city where relentless ingenuity makes up for the irregular availability of ingredients. No one, not even our guide, knew what we were going to find on our tour!
We started off at the Parque Central where our guide, Yanet, briefed us about Cuba’s dual-currency economy: Cuban Pesos (CUP) are used mainly by locals and Cuban Convertibles (CUC) were created to buy goods at specific stores. In the last decade, local entrepreneurs were able to set up new shops and stalls, thanks to the new regulations permitting independent businesses, including cafeterias and restaurants.
Informed and ready to walk our way through the oldest part of Havana, we made our first stop at a small cafeteria in a house in Obrapía 465, where a smiling girl offered us the day’s menu: chicken ropa vieja (shredded meat in a tomato sauce) with yucca, rice and black beans. Nothing fancy; pure flavour and local friendliness.
Off we went then to the corner of Obrapía and Aguacate streets, where a Japanese immigrant explained her love affair with Cuba and offered us a selection of homemade sushi, alongside sweet potato croquettes spiced with onion and aromatic herbs. As is common in Cuba, where disposable materials aren't widely available, we ate our tasty samples off a piece of paper and moved on taking a turn in Aguacate to return back to Obispo for a freshly made guarapo (sugar cane juice), with the option of pouring some rum in it – it was past 4pm already, anyways!
Obispo boulevard was a festival for people-watching and we paused to catch up as Yanet explained more about how the locals strive to bring food to the table using the rationing system shops (local bodegas) and complementing it with additional articles bought in CUC stores. The boulevard was a feast for street food lovers, with chiviricos (fried dough chips with sugar and condensed milk), churros and chicharritas (sweet-potato chips) leading our choices.
Our next stops, almost at the end of Obispo, included a pizza joint, where we shared slices while talking about how even salty dishes taste sweet in Cuba. Yanet explained that tomato sauce, with a sweet twist, is often used to season the main dishes in Cuban homes, and also in pizzas! After a quick stop for a fruit juice next door to the pizza place, we ended our two-hour walk at the beautiful Plaza Vieja.
It came as a fantastic surprise that our final treat for the street food tour was boiled corn on sticks, served with butter and salt right at a corner of Plaza Vieja. With a dense flavour and perfect softness, our hearts melted along with the butter a smiling lady spread onto them.
As we delivered our goodbyes, Yanet split a peanut butter cream bar she had bought at the beginning of the tour and we indulged our sweet tooth with a truly Cuban snack: turrón de maní.
In all, it was more than just a food tour. From the ongoing culture lessons to the smiling people welcoming us into their homes, not to mention the incredibly tasty snacks we tried, Havana had hidden surprises at every turn.
Meeting a Japanese immigrant and sampling her personal selection of sushi while hearing her story of becoming a mother in Havana.
Sampling local snacks and getting to know the non-touristy Havana.
Comfy walking shoes, a reusable water bottle, napkins, and an openness to culinary adventure (plus cash to tip your guide).
This is a great tour because… it gives you a fantastic overview of Cubans’ lives while tasting their favourite street snacks.
Lonely Planet Experiences, in partnership with Intrepid Travel & Urban Adventures, are a new range of multi-day, day and half-day tours offering amazing experiences in the world’s best-loved destinations.