Cuba’s gastronomy has its origins firmly rooted in Spanish cuisine, African culinary customs, and the traditional dishes of the Taino Indians, the first inhabitants of the island.
All this mixture of cultures, which originated during colonization, contributed to the conglomerate of flavors that characterize today’s Cuban cuisine.
Since I’ve been to Cuba for the first time, I’ve fallen deeply in love with the local food traditions. This is why I want to give you an overview of my absolute favorite dishes that you have to try while you are in Cuba.
Where is Cuba located?
Cuba is the largest island in the Caribbean, and is located just south of Florida in the United States. In terms of population, Cuba is the most populous country in the Caribbean with over 11 million people.
The official language of Cuba is Spanish and the majority of the population is Roman Catholic. The country is known for its beautiful beaches, as well as its cigars and rum.
Ropa vieja is one of the most popular dishes in Cuban cuisine. It is a Spanish legacy that has managed to position itself among the most requested by the island’s residents. Ropa vieja, of Sephardic origin, was originally made from leftover meat that was shredded and mixed with chickpeas, reheated, and served scrambled. Its curious name which literally translates to old clothes comes from its appearance.
Over time the recipe underwent numerous variations such as the inclusion of chopped chorizo, tomato sauce, potatoes, and peppers among others, to become one of the favorite and most popular meals in Cuba. The beef can be substituted for pork or chicken, accompanied by white rice, black beans, fried ripe plantains or tostones, and salad.
An old legend, quite widespread in the largest of the Antilles, narrates that an old man of very low economic resources did not have enough to money feed his family, so he searched among his worn-out clothes and tore them until he turned them into lint. With the lint, he prepared a stew with which he tried to feed his wife and children. At that moment, a spirit of the forest appeared to him and transformed the torn clothes into shredded beef.
Cuban-style black beans
The presence of black beans in Cuban cuisine is unconditional. This dish, which is basically made with salt, pepper, and olive oil, also contains brown sugar and a touch of dry wine. Its origin is generally attributed to the African slaves who worked in the plantations, although it is believed that the Taino Indians already consumed this food before the arrival of the Spaniards.
Contrary to what many would think, this classic of Cuban gastronomy only takes about 30 minutes to prepare. Black beans have the particularity of accentuating their flavor the next day after their preparation. They become the perfect garnish for many dishes.
For a unique experience, these beans are prepared in a thick sauce with jalapeños, finely chopped onions, and mild peppers. I particularly like to add lime juice and a touch of vinegar, and then sprinkle with chopped cilantro.
This dish can be found in several restaurants on the island, although the recipe has spread to several Latin American countries and the United States, where many Cuban immigrants have taken up residence.
Chilindrón de Chivo
This dish has its origins in the Far East, from there to Spain and, during the time of the conquest, it arrived in Cuba where native ingredients were added, giving it the identity that makes it one of the most famous dishes in the entire Caribbean region.
Any time is perfect to enjoy chilindrón de Chivo, you just need to be in the mood to taste this stew. In Cuba’s capital city, it is more likely to be found in some restaurants, as well as in a few places in the western part of the island.
This Cuban delicacy is composed of chopped goat meat (alternatively you can use lamb), oregano, sour orange, salt and pepper. Then onions, crushed garlic and chili peppers are added to sauté for a couple of minutes. Add tomato puree and let it cook for a little more than 30 minutes before serving.
Arroz congrí (Cuban Rice and Black Beans)
Arroz congrí is the favorite dish in Cuba to commemorate any of the island’s festivities, meetings or family celebrations. Researchers say this dish, which originated in the eastern region of Cuba, has strong Haitian influences.
This traditional Cuban food is composed of beans, rice, onion, and garlic as the main ingredients. It also has red peppers, chicharrones, cumin, bay leaf, and oregano. Some chefs also use chorizo or bacon, vegetable oil, and salt. As with most recipes, they tend to change according to the place or region of the island where it is made.
This typical delicacy of the largest of the Antilles, thanks to its popularity, is served in most Cuban restaurants, especially in Havana, where it is regularly accompanied with black paprika water or some other refreshing drink.
To recognize a good preparation of Congrí, the grains should not be too soft, nor should they be soggy. The best type of rice is long grain. The colored beans are the ones used in the preparation of Congrí, while the black beans are used for Arroz Moros y Cristianos, however, on the island both dishes are called Congrí.
Fricase de Pollo (Chicken fricassee)
Chicken fricassee is one of Cuba’s most demanded traditional dishes among the island’s inhabitants. Originally from Guantánamo, it has been made in that region since ancient times, when the French entered Cuban territory in colonial times to take its mineral wealth.
This dish, one of the most sought-after by the French monarchy in the 18th century, is prepared with chopped chicken seasoned with salt, dry wine, garlic cloves, sour orange juice, paprika, onion, and tomato puree.
The first step in its preparation consists of browning the chicken, then a sofrito base is made for the tomato sauce where the chopped chicken is cooked until tender. Then add the olives, potatoes, and the rest of the ingredients.
The chicken fricassee is mostly accompanied by white rice; however, many people omit it and opt for a good piece of bread to take advantage of the delicious sauce.
The wine can be replaced with the chicken broth left in the pan, while the chicken breast can be used, but it is advisable that it has bone, so it does not dry out too much.
The Cuban sandwich is one of the most popular street foods among young people. This bread is prepared with roast pork, mustard, ham, and cheese as ingredients that cannot be missing. Its popularity transcends the island and is consumed in places in the United States such as Miami or Key West.
A lot of controversies exist regarding the origin of this dish. Some historians claim that it was born from the ingenuity of a group of Cuban workers in the tobacco industry who worked in Florida. Others insist that the Taino Indians were responsible for its creation some 500 years ago. At that time, instead of bread, they used cassava cakes and instead of pork, they used fish.
In any case, this bread, which can reach 30 centimeters in length, is often consumed with olive oil or some butter.
The variations in the preparation of this sandwich are notorious, especially the versions that are made outside the island. For example, salami became an essential ingredient for the residents of Tampa, Florida, thanks to the Italian influence. The flute bread used in Cuba also differs from the U.S. version. Nevertheless, the Cuban sandwich is a must-try dish if you are visiting the island or passing through the U.S. state of Florida.
Caldosa (Meat and Vegetable Stew)
Caldosa is a delicious soup with tender beef, pork, chicken, and various vegetables including peppers, corn, potatoes, plantains, garlic, yucca, sweet potatoes, bay leaf, and oregano.
Although it is consumed at any time of the year, its presence at Christmas time is notorious. In order to prepare this Cuban cultural heritage that originated in Las Tunas, enough water must be placed in a large pot.
Then, add the pork meat with the bay leaf and cook over low heat for approximately 40 minutes. Subsequently, add the rest of the ingredients together with the chicken and let it cook for another 30 minutes.
Once the indicated time has elapsed, the broth is ready to serve. According to the diner’s taste, the onion and paprika can be sautéed before adding them to the broth.
Caldosa is considered a symbol of Cuban cuisine, one of the native foods that tell the story of the island.
Vaca Frita (Cuban Fried Beef)
Vaca Frita is a dish consisting of shredded and fried beef, very easy to prepare and equally delicious. It is usually accompanied by rice and white and fried plantains.
Primarily, the skirt is used for the preparation of this dish, due to the ease of shredding the meat, although it is a little dry. However, arrachera is also an excellent option.
Sometimes people tend to confuse this dish with Ropa Vieja, but they differ in the crunchy texture of the fried beef, besides the fact that it has no sauces.
Garlic, green peppers and onion are some of the ingredients that cannot be missing in the preparation of this meal. Some go further and add bay leaf, cumin or oregano to this dish.
In addition to white rice and fried plantains, in Cuba, it is usually accompanied by red beans, mashed potatoes or mashed malanga.
For a change there is a chicken version called vaca frita de pollo. Likewise, the chicken is shredded and cooked until it is crispy and with a flavor that has nothing to envy to the beef version.
Arroz Imperial (Imperial Rice)
Arroz Imperial is a Cuban recipe, although its origin is not defined. It is basically composed of four ingredients: Rice, mayonnaise, cheese, and chicken. These ingredients are used to make a kind of cake, which is its characteristic shape.
For its preparation, in addition to the essential ingredients mentioned above, it has ham, shrimp, oil, white wine, bay leaf, onion, salt, cheese, and cumin. The chicken should be softened in a large pot and then shredded into thin strips. In a frying pan fry the onions and salt and then add the shredded chicken, and leave it for about five minutes more.
In the same pan add the shrimp, ham, garlic and cumin. Then add the rice, bay leaf and cumin for another five minutes. Finally, add enough water and let it cook for approximately 20 minutes over medium heat until it is ready.
It is important to have a mold that allows to give it the shape of cake that you want to show. If you do not have a mold, you can substitute it with a tray with high edges so that the preparation keeps its shape.
Avocado Salad is a Cuban dish with few ingredients so it is quite simple to prepare. Just peel the avocado and cut it into small pieces. Do the same with the pineapple, remove the peel and cut it into small cubes without including the center of the fruit.
Both are placed in a bowl and lemon juice, chicken bouillon, olive oil, and salt to taste are added. The sweet and sour flavor obtained from this combination makes this salad the perfect accompaniment to grilled meats.
Although it predominates at Easter, this typical habanero dish can be eaten at any time of the year. This dish can mainly be found in restaurants in the western part of the country.
Avocado Salad is a very versatile dish that allows many variations with different ingredients. For example, you can add sliced tomatoes with chicken or chopped tuna. If you prefer, feta cheese can be included to increase its flavor and texture.
One of the characteristics of Cuban food is that it is often slow-cooked and well seasoned, in order to achieve the unique flavor that identifies the island.
Beans and rice are constant ingredients in the preparation of the various dishes that make up the Cuban recipe book. Besides vegetable proteins, there is an abundance of animal proteins from cattle, pork and fish. All of this is masterfully combined with onions, tomatoes and garlic, resulting in dishes that, in addition to being tasty, provide a lot of energy.
Cuban cuisine is one of the pleasures offered by the Caribbean that should be enjoyed every time you visit the largest Antillean Island.