CubaFood

What to Eat When Traveling Cuba: A Cuban Food Guide

Jetsetter Jenn34 comments412 views
Cubano Cuban Food Guide

“Cuban food isn’t very good.” It’s a statement I heard from my fellow travelers and on blogs as I researched my trip. I was flabbergasted. One of my favorite local restauarants in my homeland of Orange County was Cuban restaurant called Felix’s. It had an arroz con pollo that sent me into ecstasies, so I couldn’t imagine that the authentic version would be worse. After visiting, I understand what they mean. Cuban food lacks the punchy spice of Mexican and Caribbean cuisine, and it’s earthy comfort-food vibe can get a bit monotonous. But not good? It’s a bit of a stretch, I think. So here’s a Cuban food guide that will make sure you don’t make the same complaint.

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What to Eat: A Cuban Food Guide

Breakfast

Most travelers to Cuba will start their day with a home-prepared meal from their casa owner (for more on casa particulares, see this post). While you have some influence on the meal, for the most part you’ll get what your host serves. Here are a few things to look out for:

Cuban Coffee

Cuban Food Guide Coffee

They do not mess around with their morning caffeination in Cuba. The espresso beans that grow in Cuba are Strong with a capital “S”. The traditional way to make Cuban coffee is to brew the espresso with raw sugar, creating a sweet and strong beverage that’s served in a tiny mug and sends a jolt through your morning. I take my coffee black, with sugar — so the Cuban method is exactly what I’m looking for in the morning. Cafe con leche and a smaller cortadita are also coffee drinks you’ll find in Cuba, though they tend to be favored by locals as a post-dinner dessert accompaniment.

The Fruits: Papaya, Mango, Guava, Pineapple

Cuban Food Guide Fruit

Tropical Cuba is a fruit-lover’s heaven. A traditional Cuban breakfast in a casa particular (more on these here) consists of scrambled eggs, some sort of breakfast meat, and loads of fruit. Fresh papaya, mango, guava, bananas, and more will be heaped upon you until you feel like you’ll burst. Not the worst way to go, hey?

Tostada

Some mistake tostada for plain old toast — toast that’s been inexplicably smashed into a flat wafer and served with a coffee. But tostada is made from Cuban bread, which is a little like French bread but also includes a tiny bit of lard. It sounds gross, but we all know that fat makes everything a little tastier. This bread is toasted or grilled, generously buttered, and served up hot. It won’t change your life, but it rounds out the Cuban breakfast table beautifully.

Lunch

If there’s one thing Cubans do for lunch, it’s sandwiches. The famous Cubano has made it’s way onto menus and food trucks all over the United States. A Cubano in Miami is like a cheesesteak in Philly or a lobster roll in Maine. But there is more to the Cuban midday meal than just sandwiches, even if it’s what they do best. Here are your options:

Cubano

Cubano Cuban Food Guide

The epitome of a classic Cuban lunch, this is a ham sandwich on steroids. Take that Cuban bread, in all its lardy goodness, and slather it with mustard and maybe a little bit of mayo. Then pile up ham and roasted pork, throw on some veggies like onion, tomato, and lettuce, and toast the whole thing. Something magical happens as it heats up. The flavors fuse together to create a hearty, savory mouthpunch that will have you wolfing down that sandwich like a starving person.

Tostones (Fried Plantains)

Tostones Cuban Food Guide
Credit: Máirín via Creative Commons

It’s a Cuban potato chip! They’re made from unripened plantains, which are fried, flattened, salted and served up next to that incredible Cubano. In Cuba, they stay true to the unripened version of these, ensuring a savory side dish rather than the sweet-salty combo of other regions. While plantains contain a bit more Vitamin A and C than potato chips, they’re not necessarily a healthy choice, so remember moderation!

Picadillo

Many Cubans will call this the truest taste of Cuba. It’s a ground beef and tomato stew, and it’s a (pretty heavy) sweet-savory treat found on lunch and dinner menus all over the country. Each recipe is as unique as the chef who cooks it, but there are a few things that are constants: lots of seasoned ground beef, tomatoes (fresh or canned is a hotly-debated topic), salty olives and sweet raisins. It won’t hit all the corners of your palate, but it will deliver a full belly with plenty of flavor.

Empañadas

Empanada Cuban Food

You may find picadillo encased in a flaky pastry shell. If you do, count yourself lucky — you’ve discovered the Cuban empañada. Empañadas are a staple of Latin American cooking, and Cuba didn’t miss the boat with their version of a hand pie. I usually saw them served with a cilantro-based dipping sauce that reminds me a good deal of chimichurri (hello, YUM), but different regions of Cuba have different opinions regarding the best accompaniment for this savory treat.

Cuban Salads

Salad is not a staple of Cuban cuisine, but health conscious tourists have ensured that you will find them on the menu. I can’t say much for Cuban lettuce — you’re lucky if you find any leaf darker than shredded iceberg. But the Cubans do throw on some of my favorite salad accouterments: avocado and black beans. If you’re a vegetarian, you may struggle in meat-happy Cuba. But the salads may be your salvation.

Dinner

When it comes to the evening meal, Cubans do not mess around. It’s as if the rest of the day was just a warm-up for a gut-busting dinner, full of protein and carbs. Perhaps that’s why the national drink, the mojito, is chock-full of refreshing mint. A couple of those will keep you feeling just light enough to keep shoveling it in. Here are the dishes not to miss.

Ropa Vieja

Ropa Vieja Cuban Food
Photo: Rinaldo Wurglitsch, used under Creative Commons

It means “old clothes” in Spanish, which is a fitting name for Cuba’s national dish. The ever-resourceful Cubans will always find ways to use and re-use things, including breaking down old clothing into strips for cleaning. It’s these strips of clothing that are said to resemble the tender, slow-cooked beef, bell peppers and onions that make up this dish. Like many Cuban dishes, ropa vieja starts with sofrito, a hearty mix of bell peppers, tomatoes, onions, garlic, and spices that form the foundation of flavor. Onto this base, flank steak is slow cooked until it falls apart — not an easy task for such a low-fat cut of beef. By the time the stewing is complete, you’ll have a dish full hearty, meaty goodness. Good luck cleaning your plate!

Arroz con Pollo

Arroz Con Pollo Cuban Food

This dish is how I first fell in love with Cuban food. It’s essentially Cuba’s answer to paella, and variations of this dish can be found all over Mexico, Central and South America. In my opinion, Cuba does it best. Perhaps it’s because the rice is cooked with a healthy dose of beer and a little white wine. Perhaps it’s because the yellow color comes from annato in Cuba instead of saffron. Whatever it is, the rice in arroz con pollo is the perfect companion to bone-in chicken pieces. A few chopped asparagus, onion, and bell peppers are scattered into the rice, but they are decidedly not the stars of this show. Chow down and enjoy. http://www.cubaenmiami.com/recetas-de-comida-cubana/arroz-con-pollo/

http://www.juanperez.com/cocina/pollo.html

Moros y Cristianos

This isn’t so much a “must-try” as it is a “can’t-avoid.” Moros y Cristianos are served with everything in Cuba. What is it? A pretty basic combo of black beans and rice, all stirred up together. The name is a throwback to an old conflict between the Moors and Christians of Spain. It may be a little tongue-in-cheek, considering everything is all mashed up anyway. It’s usually prepared with a little bit of lard, and sometimes some vegetables will make an appearance. But usually this is a straightforward beans-and-rice side dish that you’ll find an almost every dinner plate in Cuba.

Vaca Frita

Vaca Frita Cuban Food

If the hearty stewed beef in ropa vieja isn’t your jam, consider vaca frita instead. With this dish, the shredded beef is marinated in lime juice, garlic, salt and pepper before being flash-fried until crispy. The citrus creates a lift that’s missing from ropa vieja, and the texture feels less like a stew.

Lechon Asado

It seems every country has it’s own way of roasting a whole pig, and Cuba is no exception. The Cubans marinate their meat in mojo, a concoction of sour orange, garlic, and a couple of earthy spices. The pork sits in this bathtub of flavor for at least half a day, then it’s grilled over low heat for almost as long as it marinated. It’s a long-haul meal, and it takes at least a day to cook. But in the end, you get tender, juicy pork and crispy-crackling skin that is so worth the wait.

Dessert

Typical Cuban desserts are similar to those found all over Mexico and South America. If you’re craving a sweet treat, Cuba can definitely deliver.

Flan

Flan Cuban Food

Traditional Cuban flan is similar to it’s Spanish predecessor: caramel, evaporated milk, eggs, some vanilla. However, chefs are putting their own spin on this traditional Latin dessert by getting creative with the flavors, incorporating guava, coconut, mango, or other local flavors into their recipes. If you consider yourself a flan officianado, searching out the most creative version of this dish could be a fun way to explore Havana.

Tres Leches Cake

This is white cake, but not as you know it. After the cake has been baked, it’s smothered in a “milk sauce” consisting of the tres leches, or three milks: evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk, and heavy cream. Throw in a little vanilla and Cuba’s finest rum, then pour it over the cake. It creates a moist, super-sweet flavor explosion that gives you just the tiniest hit of spice from the rum. With a little meringue on top for texture, it’s a perfect ending to a hearty Cuban meal. If you can find the space for it in your belly.

Have you tried any Cuban food in your travels? Ever been to a place where the food surprised you? Let me know in the comments!

34 Comments

  1. Oh no, you just make me want to try a Cuban restaurant, all of them looks delicious. I just skip the coffee, I don’t like, I don’t know many people who don’t like it ahah!
    Cuba is on my list for so longgggg, maybe is time to go there soon!!

  2. Your post makes me hungry, Jean! I am originally from the Philippines and I could say we have similar influences when it comes to food. Thank you for the heads up aout Cuban coffee! better to know it than to wonder why I am jumping off the walls after one cup. Would you know if it is easy for vegetarians to travel around Cuba as well?

    1. Ahh yes I love Filipino food! There are a lot of similar influences, though I do find the cuisines to be quite different! Unfortunately, I think Cuba would be pretty tough for a vegetarian. They’re a meat-heavy society that outside of the high-end resorts, you may have a hard time finding a vegetarian option on the menu.

  3. From your post, I feel there are good food options available for the day and some of them look tempting too. Yeah, it will be bland as compared to the Mexican dishes. In your pictures, the coffee and Cuban sandwich look great. And for fruit lovers like me, it will for sure be like heaven.

  4. When I went to Cuba I stayed in a resort for most of the time (I wish I’d gone a bit more independent!). I have to say the food wasn’t particularly good, especially not for vegetarians. But the fresh fruit and the “Vitamin R” as a rum shop owner called it more than made up for it! If I go back I’ll make sure I try some of these dishes. Those desserts look and sound lovely!

    1. Yes, they’re still trying to get down the concept of ‘fine dining,’ I think. I did a few days in a resort but personally I preferred the casa particulares and the authentic experience!

  5. Well, now I am hungry! I could really get in to the Vaca Frita and Ropa Vieja. When I was in Miami I saw a few places that had Empanadas for breakfast – is that a thing in Cuba or an Americanized thing? (or maybe it was just totally random!)

  6. YES I totally agree! I heard so many times the food was bad and I found it was okay to good. Sometimes I would spend a few cents and get what I paid for – butter on bread, but other times I would eat a whole lobster for $6 USD ! And don’t get me started on the $1 Mojitos omg!

    1. Yay! So glad I have a fellow traveler in my corner! I was shocked when I read that there was no good food in Cuba… then I tried it myself and realized that ‘good’ is pretty subjective. Yes, not super spicy and not as much variation as other countries, but there are definitely some star dishes!

  7. Can’t understand why people dislike it, although I’ve not really tried much Cuban food, from your pictures and how you’ve described each dish it sounds amazing! I’d love to try some soon!

  8. Yummy! As I mentioned on your Facebook post, coffee is one of the necessities and the stronger the better! I must say though, Vaca Frita sounds delicious! What a great combination of flavours. We just tried fried plantain for the first time in Fiji – surprisingly tasty.

  9. Cuban food sounds amazing! I think all those people mustn’t have tried it properly! Love that you’ve written about the etiquette of when to drink different types of coffee, it’s quite an art to get it right when you travel, I’m sure I’ve committed so many mistakes in Italy, like ordering cappuccino in the evening!

    1. Thanks Heather! I think if you’ve had Cuban food in other countries it may be a bit of a let down — the consistency just isn’t there at all of the paladars and some of the ingredients leave a little to be desired. But there ARE some phenomenal spots and I have faith that a renaissance in fine dining is just beginning in Cuba. I can’t wait to see where it goes!

  10. All this food makes me want to book a ticket to Cuba right now! I would definitely spend most of my time in the dessert area, but that coffee and the Arroz con Pollo sound good too! What are typical costs for food/meals in Cuba?

    1. I found simple rice dishes for as low as $5USD, and some fancier meals (like the lobster) could top out at $30USD. Overall, Cuba is pretty good value, but it’s not an uber budget destination like a lot of Southeast Asian countries where you can get a meal for a buck or two! I’m glad you liked the post, thanks for the comment!

  11. I absolutely love Cuban food and I grew up in Miami, where I ate the most amazing Cuban-American food all the time. When I was preparing to visit Cuba a couple of years ago, one of the things I looked forward to the most was the food. I have to say that it disappointed me a bit because I found it very bland compared to the Cuban food that I grew up with in Miami. I think that’s one of the first instances where the more authentic version of a particular cuisine disappointed me.

    1. Ahh I have heard about this Rebecca! I think the biggest difference is the ingredients — in Cuba everything is regulated by the government, which means zero competition between producers. Because of this, there is no real incentive to produce something better. It’ll just cost the same anyway! In the US, if you produce a bad product, the people won’t buy it. So there’s motivation to make sure something is fantastic. The one area where this capitalist mindset is infiltrating is in the paladars in Cuba. They’re privately owned businesses, so to get people in the door they need to start turning out great food. I’m sure this will work it’s way up the chain (slowly), and soon there will be more consistent good Cuban food in Cuba. But if you check out my Havana guide, I already found a few spots! 🙂

    1. Thanks Amanda! If you plan a long stay it can get a little repetitive because everything is so hearty, but that doesn’t mean the food isn’t good! Glad you enjoyed the post, thanks for the comment!

  12. This post makes me very hungry 🙂 Strong coffee in the morning sounds like a good way to start the day. I think the food looks very good, and especially would love to try the Cubano sandwich and tostones.

    1. The coffee is BOMB! Loved it from day one, it definitely cured my jetlag. And if you’re ever in Miami they have Cuban food all over the place, so you can check it out if you can’t swing a ticket to Havana!

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