My (Sort of) Vegan and Gluten-Free Adventures in Cuba

updated May 24, 2019
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(Image credit: Haley Knauer)

When I made plans to spend a week in Cuba, my gluten- and dairy-free diet was really the last thing on my mind. I was more worried about how many sundresses to pack, whether I would remember my newly learned salsa steps, and if immigration would stamp my passport (they didn’t). I’m pretty sure my travel companion, a vegan, didn’t think too much about what she would eat either. Spoiled by the food options in our respective cities (Brooklyn and Las Vegas), we naively assumed our meal choices were not something that we had to plan for or worry about.

(Image credit: Haley Knauer)

On Being Vegan in Cuba

Cut to our first meal in Cuba, when we learned that it is not the land of rice and beans; it is more like the land of roast pork. Most dishes consist of a whole lot of meat, a very small spoonful of rice, an equally small spoonful of beans, and maybe a couple slices of plantains. Fine for me, not so great for Caitlin.

The trouble with being a vegan in Cuba is that it is most certainly a luxury and one that, even if you can afford it, might not be available. When Caitlin tried to explain to the waitstaff that she didn’t eat animal products, she was met with confused looks. One server never came back to the table — literally, never came back and we had to leave. She also tried asking to swap out meat for more rice and beans and was told, many times, that it simply was not an option because then there wouldn’t be enough rice and beans for the other patrons’ meals.

Besides plantains and cucumber slices used as garnishes, vegetables were not options either — and after a couple days of a lot of the same, I can tell you, you start to really want some vegetables.

(Image credit: Haley Knauer)

On Being Gluten- and Dairy-Free in Cuba

My quest, meanwhile, was going a bit better. My plan was to familiarize myself with the Spanish words for bread and gluten (surprise — it’s el gluten!) and stay away from sandwiches and cheese or anything that looked suspiciously creamy. And thankfully, I do not have celiac, so my problems digesting gluten and dairy, although painful, uncomfortable, and annoying, are not life-threatening.

Still, I was basically only eating hunks of meat with a few bites of rice, and my body, which is normally pumped full of veggies, was feeling tired and constipated.

Breakfast was a highlight for both of us. We arranged for our host to provide us with a basic, continental breakfast so that we could wake up to some nourishment. Typically, Caitlin would have toast and fruit, staying true to her veganism, and I would have eggs and fruit, following my gluten-free needs. The big struggle for me was the extra-strong café Cubano, which was hard for me to stomach without some almond milk (obviously not happening).

(Image credit: Haley Knauer)

On Breaking Our Food Rules

Even without the array of food options that we were accustomed to, we were having an amazing time drinking and dancing our way through Cuba. In fact, one morning after too much drinking and dancing, Caitlin and I sat down to breakfast and, almost simultaneously, as she reached for a plate of scrambled eggs, I served myself some thick Cuban coffee, complete with a heavy pour of cold cream.

It was painfully clear, yet unspoken, that we were going to need more than our typical breakfast to revive ourselves from our celebratory night. That morning, we took our time eating, sure that it would make our bodies even angrier with us. I was waiting for the lactose-induced stomach cramps and sudden need to run to the bathroom. Caitlin was waiting for her body to reject the animal protein and to feel an intense sense of guilt.

As we waited, something weird happened. We felt better, not worse. In fact, we both felt really good and ready to seize our next adventure. After that, breakfast always included eggs for Caitlin, and coffee with cream for me.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing: One night, Caitlin and I ordered some fried plantains and a salad to share. I remember this salad vividly because it was the only salad or source of vegetables that we had during our eight days in Cuba and it was delicious. The fried plantains were exceptional, too — by far the best I have ever had. But it turned out they were the best for a reason: They weren’t plantains at all, but rather ham-and-cheese croquets. And that night I paid the price: I had a headache, couldn’t sleep, and felt intense stomach pains.

On Coming Back Home

I don’t know why the cream in Cuba didn’t affect me. I’ve tried adding cream to my coffee since I’ve been home, hoping that my lactose intolerance has disappeared. Believe me, it’s still there. I also don’t understand how I could have possibly tasted plantains when I was eating ham. I don’t think I’ll ever have those answers and, to be honest, I don’t really care.

For starters, there is something to be said for eating what is locally available, and when in Cuba, we did as the Cubans do. I also know that when we overthink our food, it adds to our stress and makes our bodies less happy about digesting any kind of food. Better to be happy and relaxed — and with all the traveling and drinking and dancing, I was definitely both of those things.