Cuban cuisine

What to eat and drink on an embargoed island

Cuban cuisine
By Susana Corona Cruz

Cuban food has long endured a reputation as bland and unimaginative, but considering the country’s recent history, perhaps allowances can be made. The special period following the demise of the USSR – Cuba’s main trading partner – and the US embargo, caused imports of oil, fertiliser and basic food staples to plummet, bringing the country dangerously close to famine. For a long time the state was primarily concerned with keeping mouths fed – fine dining wasn't high on the priority list.

Interestingly, that period of extreme hardship led to a blossoming of sustainable agriculture in Cuba as people turned to low oil and organic production, resulting in the emergence of organopónicos – organic urban gardens created by local communities to keep themselves fed. These gardens are still tended today and you can see them in Havana and other cities.

As Cuba continues to open up, its culinary scene is beginning to blossom and standards are rising fast. However, don’t expect an abundance of top quality restaurants. Indeed, the large state-run restaurants, even in Havana, can feel a little uninspiring. Better to experience home-cooking through Cuba’s network of paladares (private family-run restaurants) for a real experience of Cuban culinary culture.

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Home-cooking with a smile at a Cuban paladare

Credit: Jim O'Donnell

Cuban cuisine

Cuban food tends not to use too much spice or heat, but with quality ingredients can be delicious and filling. The staple of most meals is black beans and rice, usually accompanied by pulled pork or beef (called ropa vieja) and chicharritas or tostones (double-fried plantain fritters).

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A plate of ropa vieja in a Santiago canteen: simple, hearty and tasty

Other traditional dishes include tamales (the Cuban version is made from corn with a pork filling and served in corn leaves), yuca con mojo (yucca fried in garlic) and congrís (a drier version of black beans and rice where it’s all cooked together).

When it comes to desserts try casquitos de guayaba (sweetened and cooked guava peelings or shells served with cream cheese), flan de calabaza (pumpkin flan), and dulce de leche (thick, very sweet, evaporated milk).

Cuba produces some incredible chocolate, with cocoa beans grown in the micro climates of Baracoa, which has a rich, honey flavour. Buy a Guamá bar or two to take home and enjoy handmade chocolate delicacies at the Museo del Chocolate in Old Havana.

Cuban drink

While the food may have lacked imagination, the country more than made up for it with the drink. Cuba produces some of the world’s finest rum. The country was home to the Bacardi family (which fled to the US after the revolution) and also to national brands Ron Caney, Ron Santiago, Ron Varadero and, of course, the prestigious Havana Club.

Note that under the new rules affecting US travellers, visitors are now allowed to bring home rum, tobacco and other Cuban products – provided they’re for personal use only.

Naturally all that rum was put to good use, and Cuba is the home of the mojito and daiquirí cocktails which were invented in the Havana bars La Bodeguita del Medio and El Floridita respectively. Both were frequented by Ernest Hemingway and you can follow in his footsteps today (although you’ll find a far better mojito elsewhere).

Cuban cuisine

By Susana Corona Cruz

Susana is a Cuban-born travel writer, blogger and translator. Now based in Europe, Susana returns to her motherland at least once a year to rediscover, photograph and write about her birthplace. She works as an editor and translator for online and offline publications and her work has appeared in The Luxury Report and London magazine Latino Life. You can follow Susana on her website or on Twitter: @susanacorona_