Food in Cuba
Many travelers are pleasantly surprised at the quality and variety of food that can be found in Cuba. Beans and rice are the staples, along with cucumber, tomato and cabbage as conventional ingredients for a Cuban salad. Chicken and pork are the most common meats served in Cuba. However, fish and a surprising variety of delicious seafood are also very frequently offered.
Here are eight of the most common Cuban foods and dishes. Try not to drool all over your keyboard!
- Moros y cristianos — Also known as “rice and beans” is a staple of the Cuban diet. It can be found at pretty much ANY Cuban restaurant. It is literally translated as “Moors and Christians”. The black beans represent the “Moors” while the rice represents the “Christians”. The black beans are boiled in water and the rice is then boiled in that same water. Other ingredients such as garlic, bell pepper, oregano and bay leaf are added for more flavor. Moros y cristianos can be eaten alone or with a meat/fish dish.
- Ropa vieja — This is one of Cuba’s most famous dishes and can be literally translated as “old clothes”. Don’t worry though, the taste is far from that of an old pair of gym socks! This specialty consists of shredded beef flank slow cooked in its own juices and stock along with tomato sauce. There are some vegetables such as onions and bell peppers added and it is usually served with rice and/or beans.
- Plátanos — Plantains look just like bananas, but are less sweet and are commonplace in Cuban cuisine. You’ll find them prepared in different ways, but every way is delicious! I actually went through painful plantain withdrawal after leaving Cuba! 😉 One way you’ll see them is in the form of mariquitas or pan-fried in thinner slices, which gives them the appearance and texture of crispy chips! Another common plantain preparation method is twice-frying them and when prepared this way, they are called tostones. They are also known in Cuba as tachinos/chatinos.
- Picadillo — A dish that is actually common in a lot of Spanish speaking countries, but is equally popular in Cuba. It is made of minced beef that has been seasoned with onions, garlic, oregano, cumin and other herbs and spices. Picadillo is almost always served with… You guessed it! Rice and/or beans! It can sometimes have a slightly Christmas-y taste thanks to the occasionally added cinnamon and raisins.
- Mojo — Austin Powers lost his mojo and you can find yours in Cuba! Mojo is a sauce used in the preparation of some dishes, but is also frequently used as a dipping sauce for fried plantains and cassava/yuca. It usually contains garlic, olive oil, onion and a citrus juice. Although I could probably do without the plantains or yuca and just drink straight up!
- Medianoche — You might know it as the Cuban sandwich, but the one that you’re probably used to is a bit different than what you’ll find in Cuba. Its name means “midnight” in Spanish and is called this because it is a popular snack to have after a night out on the town. It will typically have ham, roast pork, mustard, swiss cheese, and dill pickles. The main difference is the bread on which it is served. Cubans usually make a medianoche with a sweeter egg bread.
- Arroz con leche — In English it is called “rice pudding”. It is a simple dessert that is eaten all over Latin America as well as Cuba. Cuban-style rice pudding is made with rice, sugar, cinnamon, lemon, evaporated & condensed milk. It can be eaten warm, but also can be served chilled and is quite refreshing after a meal on a hot day.
- Flan — It’s not specifically Cuban, but a lot of people eat it in Cuba. You’ll usually see it two different ways. First, it might be plain, but even without any topping or garnish, it’s pretty dang tasty! The second way you’ll often see it is with a caramel sauce poured on top, which is also really delicious, especially when paired with a nice cup of café cubano!
Additionally, fresh fruits and vegetables that are in season are to be found and include : mango, pineapple, papaya, guava, coconut, orange, grapefruit, breadfruit, corn, an assortment of sweet potatoes, bananas and enormous avocados, as well as many other tropical fruits.
Breakfast is included everyday on all of our trips in Cuba. It is an especially wholesome and filling experience at the homestays (casa particulares). The breakfast varies from house to house and typically includes coffee, milk, fruit juice, bread, eggs (or omelette), and fresh fruit.
Cubans are gradually becoming more aware of vegetarianism. Many of them are aware of its existence, but do not quite understand the reasoning behind it. The belief that to eat well means eating meat is still firmly embedded in the nation’s consciousness. However, through the influence of tourism, more and more vegetarian options are to be found on restaurant menus in Cuba and the cooks in the homestays are now quite accustomed to providing vegetarian meals. Therefore, it is not too difficult to get a vegetarian meal in Cuba, although you generally won’t find much variety and you may get tired of being offered the same (i.e. rice, beans, omelet and salad) everyday.
A vegetarian dinner in the homestays in Cuba will cost between 5 and 8 CUC. This isn’t much cheaper than a dinner containing meat and the reason is that vegetables on the free market in Cuba are of similar prices to those of meat.
There is little problem maintaining a strict gluten-free diet in Cuba. This is mainly because the food in Cuba is very natural (there isn’t much processed food available in Cuba). This is especially true in the homestays where there is also the additional advantage of being able to order specific meals and give the cook instructions about what you can and cannot eat. The guides are informed about gluten intolerance and to know which ingredients to instruct the cooks to avoid.
Most of the food you will have at paladares is limited to what is produced locally and what is in season. The US relies on mass imports and industrial farming to provide us variation in food year round. In Cuba, you will be offered what is in season. If it is avocado season, you will eat many avocados. If it is guava season, you will eat a lot of guavas, and so on. It is quite a treat to eat local and organic food. Monsanto and other US pesticide and GMO corporations are not allowed into Cuba due to the embargo, so think of how fresh the fruits and veggies will taste! Also, the meat is all grass-fed and free range. In Cuba, there is no industrial farming in which the livestock are pumped full of antibiotics or mistreated. Cuban pigs can lay on their backs and play in the mud! ¡Buen provecho!