In general, we’re discovering that shopping à la Cubana is a bit hit and miss for the sort of menu planning we are used to. I suspect your average Cuban wife (I don’t think husbands cook here) cooks what she can get hold of on a particular day, rather than buying what she needs for a chosen recipe. "Supermarkets" have only a few random items in them and food shopping is a time-consuming business which seems to involve a lot of peering into a wide variety of different shops and markets to see what each might have. One day there might be cheese in that otherwise empty fridge at the back – so you grab some of that. Or chicken drumsticks have just come in in that freezer over there, so you join the queue. Or there might be sausages. Or jam, or whatever. We made the mistake early on of not buying a block of cheese when we saw it. By the time we came back, cheese was gone, and we didn’t see it again for days.
For that reason I suspect Cubans stock up – if they have the money. There hasn’t been any butter in Cienfuegos for two months, apparently, but our landlady Carmen still have a bit in the fridge. Getting the basics seems very hard work to anyone used to a supermarket with 42 different types of cereal. That may be why so many Cuban women don’t seem to work – shopping is a keeps you busy all morning, and the markets all close up at lunchtime.
Still the situation these days is a considerable improvement on conditions for Cubans just a few years ago. During the super-austere “Special period” of the 1990s – when Soviet support and subsidies disappeared almost overnight (the USSR had its own problems at home!), rationing and acute shortages took most food items from Cuban shelves. I may have mentioned before, but I’ll repeat it because it’s an impressive statistic: according to the Lonely Planet guidebook, during the period 1991-94, the average Cuban, who had been relatively well-off a year or so earlier, lost a third of their body weight, and ate practically no meat at all. Things didn’t really pick up until the 2000s.
Some staples seem to be readily available. Bread (always white) is everywhere, and there is a large warehouse in the centre dedicated largely to selling eggs, which you buy individually for 1 peso (about 5 US cents) each, and carry home carefully! Rice, beans and flour are sold from similar warehouse-like places in huge sacks. You hand over your bag or container and they fill it up. When you get it home you pick it over very carefully, removing sticks, stones and other items surplus-to-requirements.
When we first started cooking for ourselves I didn’t know whether you could get herbs and spices, but then I spotted a queue in front of a kiosk on the main street where you could buy a variety of spices, weighed out for you and handed over in a twist of plastic bag. I purchased black pepper, oregano and an orange spice I think might be saffron. Of course I ended up buying far too much because a) Cuba still uses pounds, not kilos (surely the revolution could have sorted that?) And b) I had no idea what quantity to ask for – I’ve never looked carefully at the weight of those little packets in the supermarket. However, with my new super Cuban housewife skills I can now tell you there’s a hell of a lot of oregano in half a pound! I have some extra in the kitchen if you are short.
Top shopping tip for self-catering in Cuba: NEVER FORGET to take empty plastic bags or containers with you when you go out anywhere, in case you come across some delicacy on your travels. You do not want to miss out.