“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.
What to Eat: A Cuban Food Guide
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:
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
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?
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.
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:
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)
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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/
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!