Cuba is famed for its beaches, diving, lifestyle and dancing. But one aspect of the Cuban holiday which is often overlooked is the Cuban cuisine, which is unfortunate because the mixture of cultures combine to make a truly unique combination of flavours and textures. The country’s cultural influences are so diverse as to create a unique flavour to the food – a mix of Spanish, Chinese, African, Portuguese, French and Arabic.
Yet these global influences are completed by indigenous local food stuffs – yucca, malanga and boniato are local root vegetables routinely used in Cuban food. The main meats used in Cuban cuisine are chicken, pork and beef (though the latter is subject to rationing as government property, so is harder to find) usually marinated in citrus juices and slowly roasted until tender. It’s simple, but delicious, and something that will see you hunting out the best restaurants throughout your Cuban holiday.
Cuba is also home to even simpler snacks and light treats. Masitas de Puerco Fritas (lightly fried pork cuts, slow cooked until tender), Pinchos (kebabs) and Fritas (the Cuban hamburger, spiced with shoestring potatoes and onion) all put this country’s fast food to shame not only in terms of value, but flavour. So below is a quick list of some of the dishes to look out for while enjoying a holiday in Cuba.
A quick note of warning for vegetarians, before I begin though: You’re likely to be considerably less gushing about Cuba’s food than your carnivorous friends. The concept of vegetarianism for ethical, health or religious reasons is virtually unheard of. You should still be able to find something, either from the large quantities of local fruit or the handful of rice and bean dishes available, but Cuban cuisine is unlikely to be a highlight of your vacation.
These are hot thick belly cuts of pork with skin, a layer of fat and meat. The flavours and textures to combine for a tasty (though not necessarily good for you!) snack. You may find these sold in Cuba’s markets and cafes, and are the perfect antidote for a growling stomach while exploring.
Masitas de Puerco Fritas
As mentioned above, these are pork chunks slow cooked until tender and then fried lightly in their own oil. Often these are served with sliced onions and ‘mojo’ sauce. Surprisingly filling for something considered a lighter snack!
Arroz con Pollo
This chicken and rice dish is actually popular throughout Latin America – its principally made up of rice, chicken, vegetables, herbs and saffron. It’s not a million miles from Paella, but in Cuba, the dish has a slight variation whereby it includes garlic and tomato – it can be highly spiced, but not spicy hot. This one is worth trying for the authentic Cuban experience, as it’s a popular Sunday lunch dish on the island.
Moros y Cristianos
This dish translates as "Moors and Christians", and its name is supposed to hark back to times when Moors and Christians lived alongside each other on the island. The basis of this recipe is black beans (the Moors) and white rice (the Christians) and the dish is found throughout the Caribbean. Of course, the Cuban version is delicately spiced giving it a unique localised flavour.
Don’t let the Spanish translation of this put you off ("old clothes) – Ropa Vieja is one of the more popular dishes in the Caribbean, and as ever the Cuban version leads the way in terms of delicate spicing. The basis of the dish is shredded beef, vegetables in a sauce (usually tomato based). As with much Cuba cuisine, local belief is that it tastes better on the day after preparation, when the flavours have had greater opportunity to mingle.
These make a wonderful lunch food – and were made popular on the island in the 1930s with sugar cane workers. Using Cuban bread (similar to French and Italian loaves), the sandwich is lightly toasted and typically contains roast pork (sometimes marinated in garlic or citrus), ham, dill pickles and swiss cheese and mustard. Once you have had one of these you will crave them for the rest of your days!
These are mouth-watering babyback ribs, marinated in typical Cuban fashion with citrus, garlic and herbs and then cooked slowly for the best part of an hour to guarantee tenderness. They are then typically served with black bean and rice.
I’ve barely scraped the surface of Cuban food and drink here – the beverages, for example are unique and the deserts (unsurprisingly for an island with so much sugar cane) are some of the sweetest I’ve ever tasted. Hopefully this should convince you that a holiday in Cuba can be just as focussed on the food as a vacation in one of its more culinary renowned holiday rivals.
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Emma Lelliot is the general manager of Captivating Cuba (http://www.captivatingcuba.com), an independent Cuba holiday specialist. With offices in Havana and the UK, Captivating Cuba offer expert local knowledge for island visitors looking to explore Havana and Varadero and Cayo Coco as well as lesser known resorts including Jibacoa and Trinidad.