With this quartet of posts, I’m initiating a novel concept at Here is Havana: a series of old and new writing, linked by theme. While reading every post in the entire series is only for the anal/OCD among us (and by linking posts thematically, I clearly qualify), each also stands alone. Read one or read them all: I hope you take away some insight. This first installment in my serial post concept focuses on practical tips and strategies for making the most of your Cuba trip – whether it’s your first or 40th visit (yes, some people like it here that much).
In the following posts, published here and elsewhere over the past couple of years, you’ll find everything from how to navigate the double economy and 10 peso taxis to throwing a dinner party:
As for new content, I offer this post dedicated to how to shop at a Cuban ‘agro’ and not get fleeced.
Cuban Agros: The Basics
There are several options for where to buy fresh fruits, vegetables and meat in Havana, but grocery stores aren’t one of them (see note 1). No matter where you find yourself shopping, my advice is bring your own plastic or other reusable bags for carting away your goods (though at many markets, little old ladies sell plastic bags for a peso apiece). Also, once you’ve had your produce weighed and have paid, look for the ‘Area de Consumidor’ – this is where you can have your purchases re-weighed to see how much you’ve been ripped off (see note 2). When this happens – as it does to everyone, Cuban and foreign – you simply go back to the seller and they’ll rectify the error without batting an eyelash.
Where to Shop:
Agropecuarios – There are two types of these markets: those with price caps, heavily subsidized by the state, and those where supply and demand dictate price. You can see side-by-side examples at Tulipán, where the chaotic EJT (price-capped) market has long lines and lots of root vegetables mostly, while a block away, the tidy supply and demand market offers stacks of carrots, mounds of tomatoes and all the fruta bomba, watercress, red peppers, limes and string beans to get mouths watering. Not surprisingly, prices are higher at the latter.
Organopónicos – These organic markets are heavy on the veggies, but light on fruit; prices are reasonable for the (mostly) organic produce – not all of it is grown on site. Much of it is however, and I’ve bought just-harvested lettuce, bok choy, okra and basil frequently at organopónicos. The area around the Plaza de la Revolución is peppered with these markets. Two farther afield favorites are the one at 5ta Avenida and Calle 44 and the so-called ‘organopónico japonés’ out on Avenida 25 in the Cubanacán neighborhood. The latter has an awesome orchid selection, as well.
Ferias agropecuarios – There used to be monthly (or more often) neighborhood ‘produce fairs’ where trucks heavily laden with bananas, onions, garlic and anything else in season rolled in for a weekend to sell as much as possible at great prices. Two popular ones occupying blocks and blocks included the one on Avenida 13 in Playa and along Carlos III in Centro Habana/Plaza. Fish, house wares, artesanía, and prepared foods (chicharrones!) were also sold at these fairs, where locals flocked to load up for the week or month. I haven’t seen one of these in at least a year; I’d love to know what happened to them. Anyone?
Mobile vendors – These are a new phenomenon made possible by the economic reforms initiated in 2010. While convenient, these door-to-door produce sales chap my ass. First, they’re gutting state markets (often the price capped ones), snatching up merchandise to resell at a markup – usually by 100-200% (see note 3). Second, some of these agros-on-wheels sell pre-bagged and weighed goods. Of course, when you open that sack of okra/potatoes/peppers in your kitchen, rotted and otherwise inferior produce lurks.
How to shop for some specific, perhaps unfamiliar, items:
Quimbombó (okra) – A popular vegetable in these parts, to ensure you’re getting fresh okra, snap off the tip of a few (or do like we do and test every single one before committing – don’t worry, sellers won’t mind). Tips should snap off crisply, not bend over.
Melón (watermelon) – Watermelon halves are a no brainer. When you’re after a whole one, however, things get murkier. In this case, bring the melon to your ear and give it a few hard taps with your fingertips. A good one will return a “dry” pok, pok, pok sound, according to my local expert. Most sellers will also offer to cut out a small triangle so you can sample before buying.
Limones (limes) – A staple in many Cuban dishes (and mojitos of course!), most cooks have been duped by limes that look luscious but then turn out to be dry and worthless. To avoid this fate, choose limes which have smooth, shiny skin. Most sellers will prove the juiciness of their limes by cutting one open and squeezing out a long stream with a dramatic flourish.
Guayaba (guava) – I remember the first guava I ever ate, off the tree, in the Costa Rican jungle. It was delicious for the first, second and third bite. On the fourth, I bit into a little white worm. I didn’t eat another guava for decades. Cuban advice on how to avoid guava worms? Don’t think about it: the majority has them, even if you don’t know it.
Fruta bomba (papaya; see note 4) – Unlike in other latitudes, there’s only one variety of papaya sold in Cuba – bigger than a loaf of bread and orange as a basketball. Choose one that is uniform in color and smells sweet; if it has a few over ripened black spots, don’t discount it. Instead, ask the seller to cut out a small triangle to taste.
Mamey – I ascribe the licorice axiom to this odd fruit: either you love it or won’t touch it. Mamey look like mini footballs and have brown skin. The flesh is a deep coral color, with a distinctive, slightly perfumed, taste. Mamey diehards scoop it up with a spoon but it’s mostly used in fruit shakes and ice cream. Sellers will flick off a piece of skin to show you it’s ripe.
Yuca (yucca) – A ubiquitous root vegetable, these long tubers are brown to reddish on the outside, blindingly white on the inside. When cooked, yucca is soft and always served with an addictive garlic sauce/bitter orange sauce called mojo. Fresh yucca “weeps” from the cut end – you should see little droplets of gathered moisture. Some sellers display a dish of already cooked yucca at their stalls to prove that “se ablanda” – it cooks up soft.
Malanga (taro) and boniato (sweet potato) – While consulting friends for this post, I asked how they distinguished the good malanga and boniato from the bad. Everyone agreed: these root vegetables a caja de sorpresa. Translation: you never really know what you’re going to get. The same can be said for zanahoria (carrots), any bunch of which can contain a few that are sweet and toothsome and others that taste like soap.
Miel (honey) – Fresh honey is sold in repurposed Havana Club bottles at many agros and is a real treat. To make sure the honey you’re buying hasn’t been cut with sugar (an old trick in these parts), invert the bottle; the honey should try your patience it moves so slowly and importantly, have a large air bubble making its way to the top.
1. In my experience, many visitors think, logically, that fresh produce and protein can be purchased at grocery stores. Not so here in Havana.
2. So widespread is the practice, each market now has an Area de Consumidor. Old hands come to market with their own hand scale to weigh their purchases in front of the seller, before paying.
3. This is also happening in other sectors, whereby ‘cuenta propistas’ (freelancers) buy light bulbs, cleaning products and hardware in state stores to re-sell at a steep markup.
4. In Havana and many surrounding areas, ‘papaya’ is not used to designate this fruit, but is instead reserved for a certain part of the female anatomy. In the Oriente, papaya means the fruit.