It’s amazing what people are able to create with so few ingredients: Cuban food is simply delicious.
Cuban cuisine is much better than you’d imagine and was and one of the reasons I found Cuba to be a fantastic holiday destination. Cuban people manage to put together great dishes with so few ingredients. Traditional Cuban food, for as simple as it may seem, is full of flavor, fresh and generally healthy. Whether you have a simple snack bought in a kiosk or a full meal, you will enjoy what you eat.
Curious to discover what to eat in Cuba? Whether you want to indulge for a proper Cuban-style feast or for something a bit more low key I have you covered. I’ll also give you some tips that will help you make the most of local cuisine.
The Staple Ingredients Of Cuban Cuisine
The staple ingredients of Cuban food are similar to those of other Caribbean and Central America countries such as Nicaragua – some dishes are actually quite similar, though they have different names.
Cuba has been suffering from isolation for well over half a century. What this means is that some ingredients commonly found in other countries are simply not available here: all food is prepared using local and seasonal produce.
The daily diet of Cubans consists of rice and beans and a few other things. A Cuban-style meal is usually very plain. The most typical dish is the comida criolla, which sees rice and beans served with a salad, plantains (often fried) and at times eggs, pork, chicken or fish.
The Best Cuban Food
Also known as moros y cristianos, congrí is a staple of Cuban cuisine. It is a combination of white rice with black beans cooked in garlic, oil and a bunch of other spices. The best one I had as at Abalidia, a lovely casa particular where I stayed in Havana.
Cuban cuisine has its own version of one of the most typical dishes in Spain. It has chicken, ham, chorizo (sausage), and a bunch of seafood such as shrimps, scallops and lobster.
Arroz con pollo
Arroz con pollo literally means rice with chicken. It’s quite popular in Cuban cuisine, though I know it is found in other Caribbean islands such as Puerto Rico. It pretty much is like Cuban paella, minus the seafood.
Arroz con leche
Arroz con leche is found typically across all Latin America. It basically is just rice pudding. But in Cuba they make it with evaporated milk, so it is even thicker and more delicious. They also add lime peel, cinnamon and vanilla sticks – pure yumminess.
Lomo (fillet) isn’t actually made of beef (which is hard to find in Cuba) but of pork, which is a staple ingredient of Cuban cuisine. The fillet is smoked so slowly until the meat becomes full and soft, moist and oh so tasty.
As far as pork goes, costillitas is what to eat in Cuba. The dish is made with baby back ribs, marinated in a mix of sour orange juice, lime juice, oregano, garlic, and oil. The result is a sweet and tangy flavor which is truly mouthwatering.
Guava basted ribs
This is one of the local dishes. Pork ribs are marinated and then barbecued and served with a good amount of guava barbecue sauce. Mind you, Cubans tend to overcook meat so the dish may end up being a bit dry – in that case, ask for an extra serving of barbecue sauce.
One of the dishes that most reminds me of food in Sardinia is Lechón asado. Lechón is a suckling pig which is slowly roasted on a spit, until the skin is light and crispy. It’s even better when served with mojo, a spicy marinade.
This is the Cuban (pork) version of the Chicken Kiev I had in Ukraine. It’s not exactly a healthy meal, but it’s incredibly tasty. It is made by filling a pork chop with ham and cheese. This is then dipped in beaten eggs, passed on breadcrumbs and fried.
Pernil Relleno de Moros y Cristianos
One of the best known Cuban dishes is actually a combination of two dishes. It is prepared by marinating a pork shoulder in orange juice, garlic, oregano and pepper. The shoulder is then filled with rice and beans and slowly cooked in the oven. Needless to say, it is delicious.
Chicharrones can be found all over the world, and are certainly popular in the Caribbean and in Central America. They are crispy fried pork rinds that melt in the mouth.
Roast chicken is a comfort food in Italy – we buy it take away when we don’t feel like cooking yet want something yummy. But this traditional Cuban food is actually not what one would expect it. Indeed, it’s a pot roast chicken, cooked with tomatoes and onions and simply mouthwatering.
Fish And Seafood Dishes
Fish and seafood are easily found in Cuba, they literally are staple ingredients in Cuban cuisine. Often served a la plancha (just grilled), some of the traditional dishes are quite complex to make and oh so good.
Shrimps (or any other seafood) in coconut sauce
Typical of Baracoa (in the Guantanamo Province), a small city which many consider the gourmet capital of Cuba, it’s so good you will want to travel back there just to eat it. It’s prepared by pouring lechita, a sauce made with coconut milk, tomato paste, garlic and mix of spices over shrimps, octopus or lobster. The dish is served with rice.
Don’t try this dish if you are not a fan of spicy food, because it burns! But if you do, you are in for a real experience. Crab meat is stir friend and served with abundant enchilada sauce. You may want to ask for extra bread, or for some white rice to mellow it down a bit!
Eggs are one of the few ingredients that are easily available in Cuba. After all, everyone has chickens, even in cities – even in Havana. Needless to say, there’s a lot of eggs based food in Cuba. Here are a couple of unmissable dishes.
One of the most lovely Cuban dishes actually reminds me of a typical dish of Israel, shakshuka. It is made of eggs cooked over a sofrito – a gently fried mixture of tomatoes, garlic, bell-peppers and onions.
Picadillo cua cua
I’m not sure under what to classify this dish. It is similar to hash and eggs, and among the ingredients there are plantains and at times beef. It is served with rice.
Beef isn’t exactly a thing in Cuba, or at least I don’t think that Cuban people eat it often. I often asked why there was hardly any beef on Cuban menus and I never got the same answer. Some told me that cows are State owned in Cuba, so killing a cow for meat is considered a crime. Others said it is a government’s health concern, as beef is associated with cholesterol.
In any case, there are some dishes that include beef among their ingredients. .
This dish contains both beef and pork. It’s prepared by simmering beef that is stuffed with chorizo in water, onions and abundant oil. It is usually served with yuca, fried plantains, and rice.
Ropa vieja literally means “old stuff” or “old clothes.” This is the most popular beef stew in the country and I saw it on the menu in many paladares, though it was hardly on offer in casas particulares. It is a stew made with beef chunks, cooked so slowly until the beef indeed shreds. It also contains onions, bell-peppers and tomatoes. It is usually served with rice and sweet plantains.
A stew kind of dish prepared with oxtail, potatoes, onions, tomatoes and herbs. The meat cooks for so long on slow fire until it literally falls off the bone. It is served with white rice and plantains – one of the most filling local dishes for sure.
Polpetta in Italian means “meatball.” In Cuban cuisine, pulpeta indicates a meatloaf, made of ground beef and stuffed with ham and hard boiled eggs. In Italy, such a dish would be typically cooked in the oven. In Cuba, it is cooked on the stove. Clever.
This is the local version of a hamburger. It is made of a soft bun filled with a patty of ground beef. It’s also possible to get patties of a mixture of beef and chorizo. It is served with french fries or, more often, with plantain chips.
The Cuban version of a stir fry, vaca frita literally means “fried cow.” As with many other dishes, the meat is marinated in lime, garlic and salt and then seared till. The end result is quite crispy – reflecting the fact that Cubans like their food really well done.
Tamales in Cuba are quite similar to those you may come across in Mexico. Here the meat is mixed in with the dough as opposed to being used as a filling.
Tamal en cazuela
Among the nicest dishes of Cuban cuisine there’s the tamal en cazuela (which means pot), made with ground corn stewed with meat and spices, in the pot. It’s served in the corn husk.
Corn on the cob
In the Cuban version, the cob is grilled, then rolled in cheese. The finishing touches are chili powder and drops of lime juice.
A Bit Of Everything
This dish has a bunch of ingredients – including potatoes, malanga (which is similar to topinambur), pumpkin, corn, plantains, tomato paste, meat, lemon juice and whatever else the chef can put her hands on. The end result is quite interesting for sure.
Black bean soup
This thick soup is made with black beans, avocado and well-seasoned with oregano and to make it tastier Cubans also add a few pieces of bacon. It’s one of the best Cuban dishes – if you are vegetarian, just ask to have it prepared without bacon (provided they understand what you mean!).
Medianoche means midnight, and in Cuba it refers to a sandwich made with sweet egg bread stuffed with ham, pork, cheese and pickles. Not exactly a light snack, but definitely one of the most interesting sandwiches. Should you find yourself in Miami and crave for one, head straight to Little Havana for a bite.
Cuban Street Food
The best street food in Cuba is all fried. Definitely not the healthiest food to have, but surely some of the tastiest. Here are my favorite picks.
Balls of cheese, stuffed with ham then battered and fried. It’s crispy and melts in the mouth and oh so good.
Malanga is similar to yam and potatoes. To make malanga fritters, it is grated. It is then battered and fried till crispy and delicious. As far as streed food in Cuba goes, this is a must.
If I didn’t know that it is yuca, I’d be 100% sure that the fried chunks I had in Vinales were just potatoes. Either way, it’s one of the most delicious foods you can find along the streets in Cuba.
Yuca con mojo
This Cuban dish is prepared by stir frying yuca in bitter orange. It is usually served as a side dish with pork.
One of the most popular street food, this puff pastry can be filled with just about anything – sweet ones will have guava and cream cheese; savory ones will come with ground meat. It’s a common dish for breakfast or for a snack.
Tostones are made of plantains, thickly cut, fried in low temperature oil, then pressed together and fried again, this time in boiling oil. They look like croquettes. They are often served for dinner at paladares. They are known with different names in other countries of Central America. In Nicaragua, for example, they are called patacones.
Ok, Pizza in Cuba is not even remotely resembling pizza in Italy. But the soft moist yet crispy dough, topped with tomato sauce, cheese and other ingredients such as mushrooms, cooked in tiny coal ovens and served for less than $1 USD at holes in the wall around the country is by far one of the nicest things to eat in Cuba.
The Best Cuban Desserts And Sweet Food In Cuba
Cubans love ice cream. I often saw them walking around with the most inviting cones, and I admit I wanted to stalk them to ask where they got them. One of the most popular ice-cream chains is Cornelia – though I was hardly impressed.
Again, one of the Cuban dishes that can be found in all of Central America. Maduros are ripe plantains are slowly cooked in oil until they become caramelized. They become sticky, sugary, moist and simply delicious.
Much like ice cream, churros can be found anywhere in Cuba. It is a very simple dough made with eggs, flour and little else, then deep-fried until crispy yet moist, sprinkled with sugar and / or chocolate sauce. It’s addictive.
Flan is common in all of Latin America. It’s made of milk, eggs, sugar cooked together then cooled until solid. It’s usually topped with caramel sauce.
I am not the biggest chocolate fan, but after walking around cocoa plantations in Baracoa and learning that the chocolate factory there was inaugurated by Ernesto “Che” Guevara, I thought I’d give it a try. I had various chocolates, a slice of cake, and a cold chocolate. Chocolate isn’t nearly as refined as it is in Europe, but it tastes good!
(Virgin) Pina Colada
Meant to be a cocktail, the one I had in Cuba was more of a dessert. I bought it from a hole in the wall in Vinales, and it was made with fresh coconut, fresh pineapple, milk and sugar. It was thick and rich and simply delicious.
Where To Find The Best Cuban Food
Keep in mind that Cuba is a country like no other, where commerce and businesses are hardly free as we know them, and the word restaurant shouldn’t necessarily be associated with the finest food. So, here’s where to eat in Cuba.
(State Owned) Cuban Restaurants
Cuban restaurants are typically owned by the State. And as with any state-run “business,” people who work there hardly have an interest in growing it. This means that restaurants hardly do any justice to Cuban cuisine.
Food at Cuban state owned restaurants often resembles that of school cafeterias and tastes like warmed up leftovers. And the prices hardly reflect the quality of the food. The equation “mediocre food for high prices” should be enough to deter you from going to State owned restaurants.
Paladares are restaurants as we know them. They are owned by privates, and they are the best places to enjoy Cuban food. Portions at a paladar are typically huge – something to keep in mind when ordering a meal. It may be worth sharing. The prices of a full meal vary. They can go from under $5 USD to even $15, depending on the location and on how popular the paladar is.
A casa particular is the equivalent of a western bed and breakfast. Many Cubans, when they have a couple of spare rooms in their house, rent them out to travelers. Staying at a casa particular is one of the best ways to experience Cuba. And to add to the experience, it is also possible to enjoy some of the best food there.
Cuban food at casas particulares is typically delicious (and quite cheap). The great thing about it is that it really is home cooked food, with the owners going above and beyond to make their guests happy and to hear the words “delicioso” and “que rico!”
Eating at a casa particular is usually cheap.
Breakfast costs no more than $4 or $5 USD and it includes more food than a human can eat (fresh fruit, juice, bread butter and jam, eggs, cakes, Cuban coffee – or cortadito, as it will be called in Cuba – and what not).
Dinner can cost anything between $7 and $12 USD, depending on the location and on the main course (lobster will cost more than pork, obviously). Either way, eating at a casa particular is one of the best ways to enjoy Cuban cuisine.
Kiosks And Holes In The Wall
Street food in Cuba can be found anywhere – street corners, main squares and beaches. Holes in the wall are fun to see – they are typically small windows from where a person serves whatever is on sale for the day.
Kiosks and holes in the wall are great places to have a meal on the go, and to try some of the most interesting snacks. Some sell just fruit (which, by the way, is delicious in Cuba). Others sell pizza; sandwiches; churros; fried plantains and potato chips. The prices are super cheap – expect to spend no more than $1 USD.
Will you travel for food? Then make sure to read my posts about international cuisine:
- 21 Mouthwatering Guyanese Food And Drinks You Need To Try
- A Complete Guide To Israeli Food
- Tel Aviv Vegan Food Guide – The Best Vegan Restaurants In Tel Aviv
- All The Food In Rome You Should Eat: 25 Delicious Dishes
- The Most Delicious Food In Mexico: All The Dishes You Should Try
- 33 Countries With The Best Food
- Food In Sri Lanka: 25 Delicious Dishes You Should Try
- All The Nicaraguan Food You Should Try