Cuban gastronomy is a fusion of the native Taínos -the pre-Columbian population of the Caribbean-, Spanish and African cuisines, with Caribbean influences. This unique mix created a very rich and traditional.
Famous Cuban Food
The cultural heritage of Cuba results in a unique and tasty gastronomy known for very different kinds of dishes. If you go to Cuba and want to experience all that Cuban gastronomy has to offer, don’t forget to try the following dishes:
- Arroz con pollo: Chicken with rice is one of the most popular traditional Cuban dishes. Every family has its own special recipe that goes from generation to generation, and you can find this dish in every Cuban restaurant. No doubt, a must-try if you go to Cuba.
- Ropa vieja: A typical shredded beef dish made with tomato sauce. Sometimes fresh vegetables are added and sometimes not, as there are many recipes depending on who you ask.
- Picadillo Cubano: A Cuban ground beef dish is a simple but very tasty and popular Cuban dish with an intense flavor, made with vegetables, olives and raisins. It is typically accompanied with a side dish of white rice and avocado.
- Arroz Congris: A typical Cuban dish made of rice and beans. The name Congris comes from Haiti, where in Haitian Creole red beans are called “congó” and rice is called “riz”, being “Congris” the result of these two words.
- Cuban sandwich: This kind of sandwich was born in Cuba and became very popular in the mid-19th Century, which is also found nowadays in some US cities with a strong Cuban community, like Miami or Tampa. It was designed to be a whole meal, being its main ingredients are Cuban bread, a kind of white bread, sliced roasted pork, glazed ham, Swiss cheese and sliced dill pickles, with optional spicy yellow mustard.
- Cuban black beans: There are many different recipes with black beans in the island: from soups and casseroles to a dish called “Sleeping black beans”, every family has a distinct way of cooking them that won’t let you indifferent. Try as many as you can!
- Mojo sauces: We can’t finish this section without mentioning these delicious sauces, inspired in the “mojo picón” sauce from the Canary Islands due to the heavy Canarian emigration to the Caribbean. They are made with garlic, olive oil or pork lard and a citrus juice, generally bitter orange juice and are commonly used to flavor the cassava tuber also known as yuca, an edible root from Latin America and to marinate roast pork.
Now you know about traditional Cuban food… but what about the drinks?
As you may have guessed, the most typical drink in Cuba is rum. The precursors of this alcoholic drink -other fermented drinks made from sugarcane- weren’t first made in the Caribbean but in Greece, Malaysia and Iran. However, these American coasts were the first place where rum itself was distilled in the 17th Century, being discovered by the slaves from the sugar plantations. You can enjoy its flavor drinking it solo or try it in one of the most popular Cuban cocktails.
Of course we all know the typical Cuban mojito, a cocktail made of rum, sugar, lemon, mint or peppermint and mineral water. It became famous in the US for being Hemingway’s choice of drink in La Bodeguita del Medio, one of Havana’s most popular places, where it’s been told that he drank it daily.
Another classic is the daiquiri, made of white rum and lime juice. This drink was created in Santiago de Cuba by US engineer Jennings Cox, becoming very popular in no time. A Spanish barman took it to Havana, where La Floridita, another bar that Hemingway went to drink daiquiris, made it its signature drink.
At last, we can’t forget the famous Cuba libre, made of rum and Coke. This drink has its origin in Havana in 1901-1902, during the Spanish-American War in which the US military forces were helping the Cubans independence soldiers. It is called like this in reference to the battle scream of the Cuban troops: “¡Cuba libre!” -”Free Cuba!”-.
And if you are not into alcoholic beverages, the juices made of fresh tropical fruits are delicious as well and very refreshing.
The rise of the paladar to taste Cuban food
Paladar is a uniquely Cuban word and it simply means privately-run restaurant. To American ears, this might sound kind of strange because we only think of restaurants as being privately owned. However, in Cuba this is a relatively new phenomena because previously all restaurants were owned by the state. The majority of restaurants are still state-owned but the paladares are giving them a run for their money and in most cases they are winning. The best Cuban food you can taste nowadays is always at the paladares.
In the early 90s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Cuban government was forced to make some economic reforms which allowed some private enterprise. That is when the first paladares appeared. These establishments were usually run by families in their own homes. At that time, the paladares were under a lot of restrictions as the number of seats available, had limitations in dishes they could offer and hiring labor was banned.
The paladares had a very simple formula as entrepreneurialism was so new at that time. I remember when we visited Havana for the first time, we were led by a young person to a paladar, which according to him was the best one on the island, and suddenly we found ourselves sitting in the living room of a family home. It was an austere place of very unique style, with three tables and a menu with a few dishes. The homeowner took our order, a timid man who went out of his way to attend us, including telling us some anecdotes that had us laughing. The food was not Michelin-starred but the service and the warmth of the owners were exceptional. We went back a couple of times during our stay in Havana.
Discover the traditional Cuban Food
Paladares started to blossom in 2010, when Raúl Castro reformed the program and lifted many of the previous restrictions for private businesses. It is this new generation of paladares that has grown not only in Havana but throughout the island in places like Trinidad and Baracoa, where they have drastically changed the dining experience in Cuba.
Dozens of new individual entrepreneurs and families have opened establishments with a wide range of styles from trendy cafes and hamburger stands to luxurious mansions with bohemian atmosphere and cozy home environments. The varied culinary offerings are based on delicious traditional Cuban dishes like fresh fish, shrimp, lobster, yuca, roasted pork and other recipes from the regions. In addition, you can find fusion food such as with Basque, Italian, French, Japanese or Chinese cuisine. All made with fresh and quality local ingredients.
The initiative has also prompted businesses to take advantage of their terraces and bars to serve incomparable tropical fruit juices or cocktails such as the classic Cuban mojito, daiquiri and pina colada, and of course accompanied by good music.
Today paladares are at the same level as some high-end restaurants in any other country in Latin America. What’s even more, in 2012 Doña Eutimia, a paladar in Havana was selected by the magazine The Daily Beast-Newsweek, among one of the top 101 restaurants to eat around the world. And in 2014 TripAdvisor included the San Cristobal paladar on the Travelers’ Choice list awarded as the “best restaurants” on the planet. Cuban cuisine has come a long way in a short period of time.
Join one of our tours and you will almost exclusively dine at these charming places, being able to try the typical Cuban homemade dishes and refreshing cocktails.