Food In CubaFebruary 28, 2020
Exploring the local food scene of any new destination is an illuminating journey. Depending on your destination, you can be taken back in time through a history of how different ingredients have been cultivated and which traditional methods were used to prepare them.
In Cuba, all at once, you will find that food is art, that food has a history and that food highlights the diverse natural vegetation that infuses the island. Cubans are inventive, mixing old and new, and making delicious dishes from just a few common ingredients. Garlic, onion and green bell pepper are the island nation’s holy trinity at the core of Cuban cuisine. These three ingredients make up the Cuban sofrito that has been used in cooking for hundreds of years. The sofrito was introduced to the island by French and Spanish colonists. The French sofrito is a combination of onion, carrots and celery, while Spanish cooking uses garlic, onion and tomato. Cuba built upon these ingredients to create its own unique blend which adds a torrent of flavor to each dish.
One of the most common rice and bean dishes is called Moros y Cristianos, which directly translates to “Moors and Christians.” The rice represents the Christians, and the beans represent the Moors. The traditional method of preparing this Cuban classic tells the history of the two groups. The rice and beans are slow cooked separately before being mixed and served together, analogous to the history of the two groups who fought for hundreds of years on the Iberian Peninsula.
While exotic, Cuban food remains simple and fresh, relying heavily on ingredients produced on the island. The Caribbean waters provide a diverse array of fresh seafood such as lobster, sea bass and fresh snapper for travelers to enjoy. You will welcome a distinct change from processed fast foods to slow-cooked organic dishes. Each household or restaurant may put a familial twist on a classic dish or spend extra time hand rolling and marinating for the self-proclaimed perfect plate.
The island is also home to a diverse array of fruits, such as mango, pineapple, papaya, and guava – all native to the island. Some local fruits that you must try include mamey and mamoncillo. Mamey is 6 inches long and weighs about a pound. Its unique texture is similar to a baked sweet potato, perfect for frappes and batidos (milkshakes). Mamoncillos are small, with a hard green casing and a light orange fleshy center. These juicy treats can be found at fruit stands throughout Havana and the countryside.
Food in Cuba is wide ranging and multi-faceted. Below is a taste of just a few more of the many island favorites you may find on the menu:
Traditional Cuban Appetizers
Croquetas are a common snack and appetizer in Cuba that come in various flavors.
They are breaded, deep-fried and filled with meats, cheese and vegetables. The gooey centers stick to your teeth as you indulge yourself in this heavenly finger food. Croquetas originated in France as croquettes, gaining popularity in Cuba in the 19th century as a way to preserve scraps from being wasted. Today, croquetas are available on street corners and gourmet restaurants. The most common croquetas are ham and cheese, but make sure and try the croquetas de bacalao. These savory pockets are stuffed with codfish and are the perfect start to any meal.
The magic of plantains is their exceptional versatility. When these banana-like fruits are young, they are green in color, hard and have a bitter taste. As the fruit ripens, they transform from yellow to brown, and they become soft and sweet. This unique quality allows plantains to be used for both appetizers and savory side dishes like tostones to sweet desserts like maduros (fried sweet plantains). Tostones are made from green plantains cut into slices that are smashed, pan-fried and seasoned with salt. Dipping sauces and garnishes often accompany this traditional dish, adding a burst of flavor. Although they are now a common feature of Cuban meals, plantains are not native to Cuba, and likely arrived in Cuba from India by Spanish settlers. Nonetheless, Cubans have made plantains their own.
Typical Main Dishes in Cuba
La Ropa Vieja
No trip to Cuba is complete without a taste of the island’s national dish – la ropa vieja.
Directly translated, la ropa vieja means “old clothes,” but don’t let this quirky name deter you. The name describes the main ingredient of shredded beef which looks like strips of cloth. La ropa vieja is a tribute to the remarkable abilities of the Cuban people to make magic out of just a few ingredients, not to mention come up with a catchy name.
Arroz con Pollo
Arroz con pollo (chicken with rice) is a Cuban classic that arrived to the island from Spain.
In the 1950s, the dish was elevated due to an increase in the cost of chicken, often being made for special occasions with friends and family. The ability to cook the dish in one pot makes it a natural meal for large groups.
Classic Cuban Desserts
Flan is the most common dessert served in Cuba.
Ancient documents reveal stories of the sweet custard being served to Roman soldiers before trotting off to war. In Cuba, flan is an everyday treat. It consists of just three ingredients: eggs, milk and sugar and is easy to make. The inclusion of eggs is the source of the historic belief in the health benefits of flan. To enjoy flan, you do not even need a proper flan pan. Just grab a tin can, plastic wrapping and rubber band, and you have everything you need to make this scrumptious dessert.
Unlike the everyday Cuban classic flan, bruñuelos require a more labor intensive baking process.
This donut-like dessert is made from yucca, a popular root vegetable used in Cuban cooking since the pre-Colombian era. The yucca must be peeled, boiled, and kneaded into a dough before fashioned into pretzel shaped pastries ready for the frying pan. Bruñuelos are most commonly made for special occasions such as Christmas, New Year’s or birthdays.
An emerging hip culinary scene has expanded the types of food on the island to include dishes found all over the world. Innovative chefs and Cuban entrepreneurs are constantly reimagining the traditional dishes above. From native fruit picked fresh to sophisticated and savory prepared dishes, Cuban food embodies its vibrant and rich culture. Knowledgeable travelers who have experienced the authentic flavors of Cuba know that the food on the island is mouthwatering and one of a kind, combining its historic roots with innovative and artistic techniques picked up from experience or passed down from family members.