This Cuban food post was originally written by Claudia at My Adventures Across the World. I’ve added some additional detail based on spending the last 6 months in Havana.
When I visited Cuba, I was positively surprised by the quality of the food there. I usually ate at paladares (privately owned restaurants) rather than State owned ones, as the food was always fresher and more interesting, not to mention significantly cheaper.
The average price of a meal in a paladar is $3-10 USD depending where you go. Prices can be more expensive in the most touristic locations such as Trinidad, Varadero or Cayo Coco. In any case, the portions are always so big that meals can be easily shared.
Cuban food is a blend of many diverse influences including Native American Taino food, African, Spanish and Caribbean cuisines. For this reason many dishes are similar to dishes in other countries, for example some Cuban food use spice and techniques from Spanish, African and Caribbean.
But like most of Latin America, Cuban food is not spicy. However, if you need a little kick just as for salsa picante. Many paladares will keep a bottle of hot sauce in the kitchen for those that like it hot.
The most typical Cuban food is the comida criolla. This is a dish made up of various ingredients. There always is a protein source (it can be fish, seafood, pork, chicken and sometimes beef), a salad, fried plantains and rice and beans. Cubans eat lots of rice so expect it at every meal.
Traditional Cuban Food:
Similar to the Mexican tamales, but in Cuba the meat is actually mixed with the dough and not used as a filling.
Literally meaning “midnight”, it is a sandwich usually served in nightclubs in Havana. This Cuban food consists of sweet egg bread filled with ham, pork, cheese and pickles.
Pernil Relleno de Moros y Cristianos
This Cuban dish is made more interesting as it is filled with another Cuban dish! A pork shoulder is marinated in orange juice, garlic, oregano and pepper and then filled with rice and beans and cooked in the oven.
Literally translated as “fried cow”, this dish is prepared with beef marinated in lime, garlic and salt and then seared till it becomes almost crispy.
The frita is the Cuban version of a hamburger. A bun is filled with a patty of mince beef – occasionally mixed with chorizo; topped with french fries.
Shrimps in coconut sauce
Typical of Baracoa (Guantanamo Province), considered the gourmet capital of Cuba. The coconut sauce (locally known as lechita) is prepared with coconut milk, tomato paste, garlic and a mixture of spices and is generally poured over shrimps, octopus or even lobster.
Arroz con pollo (rice with chicken)
The Cuban version of paella, but without the seafood.
A milk piglet is cooked whole on a spit, until the skin is crispy. It is often served a spicy Cuban marinade called mojo.
This is the Cuban equivalent to meatloaf. It is a mix of mince meat which is well seasoned and ham, with hard boiled eggs put inside, that is however not cooked in the oven but on the stove.
Tamal en cazuela
A dish made of ground corn cooked with meat and spices and served directly from the pot. It is called tamales when it is served in the husk.
Baby back ribs which are marinated and served with a mix of sour orange juice, lime juice, oregano, garlic, and olive oil. They taste sweet and tangy at the same time and are simply delicious.
This meal would hardly catch anybody attention, but it is a local specialty in Trinidad. It actually is a pot roast chicken, slowly cooked to perfection in a thick sauce with tomatoes and onions, giving it a sweet yet spicy flavour.
Ropa vieja is the national dish of Cuba. It’s somewhat amusing as it can be difficult to find beef in Cuba, as much of it goes to the resorts and tourist restaurants.
Ropa Vieja means old clothes but this Cuban food is a stew with beef chunks slowly cooked till they shred, together with tomatoes and onions.
A pork chop is filled with ham and cheese, then passed in beaten eggs and breadcrumbs and fried. The result is a heavy perfection.
The Cuban version of the traditional Spanish dish includes ham, chicken, mussels, chorizo, shrimp, scallops, and lobster.
This stew contains a little bit of everything: potatoes, pumpkin, malanga (a vegetable similar to topinambur), plantain, corn, meat, tomato paste, spices, beers, lemon juice and pretty much any other ingredient available.
Crispy fried pork rinds.
Picadillo cua cua
The Cuban version of hash and eggs, it is usually served with rice, and includes beef hash, eggs, and plantains.
Delicious battered and fried balls of cheese stuffed with bits of ham.
One would hardly think of Cuba food when thinking of pizza. However, even an Italian like me can enjoy a take away pizza from one of the “holes in wall.”
Pizzas are cooked in small charcoal ovens and served really hot, and they cost less than $1 USD. The Hawaiian is highly recommended as the sweet pineapple cuts the salty ham.
Vegetarian Cuban Cuisine
It may appear that Cuba is a meat and potatoes…or rather rice…kind of country. But meat can be quite expensive and so there are lots of vegetarian food options in Cuba. Hearty and filling, ask how the vegetables have been cooked as it’s common for yucca and other root vegetables to be cooked in pork fat.
Corn on the cob
Cuban version of corn on the cob consists in grilling the cob, rolling it in cotija cheese, sprinkling it with chili powder and pouring some drops of lime juice.
Malanga (similar to yam and potatoes in texture and flavour) is grated and battered and then fried till crispy and delicious.
Also called moros y cristianos, congrí accompanies any real comida criolla. It literally is white rice and black beans cooked in garlic, oil and other spices.
Large chunks of yuca fried in oil.
Found all across the Caribbean countries (although with different names), these are plantains thickly cut, fried, then pressed and refried.
Ripe plantain that are slowly cooked in oil till they become caramelized: they are soft, sticky, juicy and delicious.
Eggs cooked over a sofrito – a slightly fried mixture of tomatoes, garlic, peppers and onions. Suitable for vegetarians who eat meat.
Cubans love sweets, there are lots of little bakeries that sell guava and other fruit based pastries. If you’re in Havana check out the congreitos across the street from the Capitol.
They look like little crabs and are full of delicious fruit puree and sold hot for only a few cents each. Just look for the long lines of Cubans.
The perfect example of street food: dough is fried till it is crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, and sprinkled in sugar.
This dessert is similar to the one found in other countries in Latin America. It is made with sugar, milk and eggs cooked together, then cooled down to solidify and caramel is poured over it.
Are you ready to have a feast in Cuba now?
Claudia is from Cagliari (Sardinia) and is obsessed with travelling. A former human rights lawyer and academic, after devoting her life to the protection of cultural identity, in November 2013 Claudia decided to give in to her biggest passion and started travelling around Latin America, and she has hardly stopped since. Blogging came as a natural consequence, for Claudia wanted to let her family and friends be updated with her adventures. Catch her on Facebook and Twitter.