It’s not all beans and rice. While vegetarianism isn’t very common in Cuba, veganism even less so, eating vegetarian or vegan in Cuba isn’t a mammoth task. Given how uncommon meat-free diets are here, you may have to explain exactly what your dietary choice means. But once they understand exactly what you do and don’t eat, Cubans are more than accommodating. Here’s what to expect eating vegetarian or vegan in Cuba:
The Cuban government subsidises and rations out a few key things, in an effort to make everybody equal: rice, black beans and coffee are key components of the Cuban diet. Herbs and spices are used too of course, but Cuban food is never very spicy in terms of chilli. Rum is also very easy to find!
Salad, fresh fruit and Cuban bread are often given as starters before a meal. You’ll often find beans & rice and sometimes chips as side dishes on offer. Dairy milk alternatives are basically non-existent in Cuba (I had to explain what almond milk was to one of my guides). Dry cereal and espresso are the dairy-free alternatives here.
Breakfast generally consists of fruit and bread/pastries, and often also includes some hot food. In smaller hotels and homestays, egg is usually the only hot food on offer. Obviously larger hotels will often have buffet breakfasts, some more accommodating to meat-free diets than others. Generally, there’ll be a few types of cooked vegetables, and sometimes things like spring rolls and curry puffs.
Lunch tends to be the biggest meal of the day, however I found that restaurants, hotels and homestays alike all served pretty big portions all the time. I’m not complaining though! While often simple, Cuban food is absolutely delicious.
Eating Vegetarian/Vegan in Cuba
Some restaurants will have at most 2 vegetarian main dishes, whereas at others you will just have to order a couple of starters or sides. If there’s really nothing on the menu, you may have to request a special meal (or the chef may just offer). Most often, you’ll be offered rice, beans, vegetables and an omelette (unless you’re vegan, of course). Vegetarian restaurants are definitely not common, however there is a popular one in Las Terrazas called El Romero, and I spotted one in Bayamo. Check the Happy Cow App to find vego restaurants where you are!
A Quick Crash Course in Spanish
5 phrases that are essential for eating vegetarian or vegan in Cuba:
I am vegetarian/vegan = soy vegetariano/vegano
I don’t eat meat or seafood = no como carnes o mariscos
I don’t eat animal products = no como productos animales
I don’t eat egg = no como huevo
I don’t eat dairy products = no como productos lacteos
Some Cubans do know what vegetarian means, but most won’t know what vegan means. Let your guides/tour operators know ASAP. Fair warning for anyone eating vegetarian or vegan in Cuba: some Cubans think being vegetarian just means really enjoying vegetables. As such, my “vegetarian” sandwich was apparently made vegetarian by adding a lettuce leaf on top of the ham. Yep.
What I Commonly Ate & Drank in Cuba
Beans & rice: While I know I said beans & rice isn’t all you’ll eat, it tends to be a side dish for all main meals. Since rice and beans are so easy to come by in Cuba, if there’s nothing much else on offer for vegetarians/vegans, it’s the way to go. Plus, beans are incredibly nutritious – get the good stuff in you!
Vegetable soup: Each time I had vegetable soup in Cuba it was absolutely fantastic. While the most common soup I had was a broth with lots of vegetables in it, I also had a melanga (a type of root vegetable) soup.
Omelettes: Eggs are another staple food in Cuba, and while I normally don’t really eat eggs, if I hadn’t been eating many beans I felt I needed the protein. If you’re vegan or just not a fan of eggs, bring along some protein bars or nut snacks just in case you feel like you’re lacking protein.
Pizza: Italian food is surprisingly common in Cuba. Pizza is a common street food in the cities, and is also often sold in restaurants. Risotto, while less common, can also be found at a few spots.
Fried Plantain: While it’s usually just a side dish, it’s absolutely delicious. Plantain is like a banana, and it makes a great snack!
Churros: Often sold in little carts on the street, I’ll never pass up the opportunity for a hot, fresh churro. They’re usually dirt cheap too, often around 50 cents or 1 CUC. Try to make sure you get them made fresh though – if they’ve been sitting around for a while they’re never nearly as good.
Papas Fritas: When all else fails, you’ll always have the trusty, humble potato.
Guarapo (Sugar Cane Juice): A fairly common drink in Cuba, guarapo is sweet and delicious. It’s also very nutritious, with plenty of vitamins and minerals packed into the juice. Served with a squeeze of lime juice, it’s the perfect way to soak up the Caribbean sunshine.
Fresh Fruit Juice: Being a beautiful tropical island, there’s beautiful tropical fruit all over Cuba. Pineapple, guava, mango and papaya are very commonly found in juice form, in hotels, restaurants and homestays.
Cocktails: Rum tends to flow pretty freely in Cuba. Piña coladas and mojitos are the most common Cuban cocktails, however you’ll often find regional or city specialties. Be warned though – drinks in Cuba are often way stronger than you’d make back home. I never considered myself a lightweight drinker until I drank a genuine Cuban cocktail! But I mean, who wouldn’t want to drink a piña colada at 10am, looking out over a beautiful mountain range?!
While some parts of Cuba were more difficult than others, eating vegetarian or vegan in Cuba shouldn’t be too hard. I think it’s good to be prepared though – having some nutrition bars just in case is a great idea (Clif bars were my go-to!). Overall, most places will accommodate so you definitely won’t be starving – it’s only the nutrients that can be an issue. At times I could definitely feel the lack of iron – and that’s never fun!
Cuban food is delicious – even something as simple as beans & rice is awesome! Cubans are also very accommodating to your diet, so they will find you something to eat! I loved my time in Cuba, so make sure you check out my other Cuba posts here.