It’s amazing what people are able to create with so few ingredients: Cuban food is simply delicious.
I am hardly a foodie. In fact, whenever I have to fill a dietary requirements’ form before a trip, I am almost tempted to write down what I actually eat, rather than what I don’t eat. It would be easier and faster. This, however, doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy eating. Quite the opposite, indeed. And one of the things I love the most when I travel is discovering a country and its culture through its food. Such was the case with Cuban cuisine and one of the reasons I find Cuba to be a fantastic holiday destination.
The thing is, when I traveled to Cuba I was actually impressed with the food. It’s incredible what Cubans manage to put together with so few ingredients. Cuban food, for as simple as it may seem, is full of flavor, fresh and (quite importantly for a health freak like me) healthy. Whether I had a simple snack bought in a kiosk or a full meal, I enjoyed what I ate.
But why would someone who’s not a foodie ever write something about food at all? It just so happens that the other day that my sister told me she’s missing traveling with me; she misses the time when we’d get to dinner time already a bit tipsy from drinking a mojito, and then stuff our faces with delicious food. She was obviously referring to Cuban food. Hence my urge to write about it, and remember it.
Check out my post on the most amazing things to do in Cuba.
Where To Find The Best Cuban Food
Before digging deep into the most mouthwatering Cuban dishes, it is worth pointing out where to find the best food in Cuba. Keep in mind that this 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) Restaurants
Restaurants in Cuba are typically owned by the State. And as with any State owned “business,” people who work there hardly have an interest in growing it. This means that restaurants hardly do any justice to Cuban cuisine.
Cuban food at State owned restaurants often resembles that of school cafeterias. It often 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 people 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 at a paladar vary. They can go from under $5 USD to even $15, depending on the location and on how popular the paladar is.
So for example, a meal of Cuban dishes in a paladar in Cienfuegos, which is less touristy compared to the rest of Cuba, is much cheaper than a meal in Trinidad, possibly the most touristy city in the country.
For more information about Trinidad, check out my post “Trinidad, Cuba: The Most Complete Guide.”
A casas particular is the equivalent of a western bed and breakfast (though come to think of it, breakfast is always available but never included in the price). 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 Cuban dishes 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 (fruit, juice, bread butter and jam, eggs, cakes, coffee 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 is actually really good. It 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 Cuban dishes. Some sell just fruit (which, by the way, is delicious in Cuba). Others sell small freshly baked pizza; sandwiches; churros; fried plantains and potato chips. The prices are super cheap – expect to spend no more than $1 USD.
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.
However, we should not forget that Cuba has been suffering from isolation for well over half a century. What this means is that some ingredients are simply not available: all the food in Cuba is cooked using local and seasonal produce. Go in February, and mango will simply not be on offer. Apples are not to be found (or at least, they were nowhere to be seen when I visited); beef is hardly on the menu; I don’t remember seeing much milk (or yogurt) around.
The daily diet of Cubans consists of rice and beans and a few other things. The most typical Cuban food is the comida criolla, a dish that along with rice and beans has a salad, plantains (often fried) and at times eggs, pork, chicken or fish.
All The Best And Most Mouthwatering Cuban Food
The following is a list of some of the most delicious Cuban dishes. I have tried most of them when I was there, and all I can say is yum!
Rice based 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 which are cooked in garlic, oil and a bunch of other spices. I think I had it every day when I traveled to Cuba, and I actually loved it. The best one I had as at Abalidia, a lovely casa particular where I stayed in Havana.
Looking for more things to do in Havana? Check out my post!
Cuban cuisine has its own version of one of the most typical dishes in Spain. I tried it in Havana Vieja, the day after I arrived, and it certainly was good. It had chicken, ham, chorizo (sausage), and a bunch of seafood such as shrimps, scallops and lobster. What can I say, other than it was delicious – especially if accompanied by a mojito!
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.
Pork Based Cuban Food
I ate lomo ahumado the very night I arrived in Havana. Felix, the owner of Abalidia, the casa particular where I stayed in Vedado, described it as one of the most delicious Cuban dishes. He recommended a place nearby where I could have it, and since I was starving after 24 hours of flying I decided to try it.
To my surprise, I learned that the lomo (fillet) isn’t actually made of beef (which is hard to find in Cuba) but of pork, which is a staple of Cuban food. The fillet is smoked so slowly until the meat becomes full of soft, moist and oh so tasty.
As far as pork goes, costillitas are probably one of the best Cuban dishes. It is made of 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.
One of the Cuban dishes that most reminds me of food in Sardinia is lechon asado. It is a suckling pig which is slowly roasted on a spit, until the skin is light and crispy. It’s perfect, and even better when served with mojo, a spicy marinade. I saw it being cooked in the countryside around Baracoa – it looked like a feast was in the making!
This is the Cuban (pork) version of the Chicken Kiev I had in Ukraine. It’s not exactly a healthy meal, but it’s ever so tasty that I find it to be one of the most comforting Cuban dishes. It is made by filling a pork chop with ham and cheese. This is then dipped in beaten eggs, passed on breadcrumbs and fried. My mouth waters at the thought.
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. Easy to see why they have to be included in a list of Cuban dishes. They are crispy fried pork rinds that melt in the mouth.
Chicken Based Cuban Food
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. I ordered it in Trinidad, and when the waiter brought it I realized it was a pot roast chicken, cooked with tomatoes and onions and simply mouthwatering.
Fish And Seafood Based Cuban Food
Fish and seafood are easily found in Cuba, they literally are staple ingredients in Cuban cuisine. I had it quite often when I traveled there, often a la plancha (just grilled). Yet, some of the traditional Cuban dishes are quite complex to make and oh so good.
Shrimps (or any other seafood) in coconut sauce
This may well be the most memorable dish in Cuban cuisine. It is typical of Baracoa (in the Guantanamo Province), a small city which many consider the gourmet capital of Cuba. What can I say – I was actually reluctant to try it. In my Italian mind, the association of seafood with a sweet sauce would be a sacrilege. Then I did and well, my mouth waters just at the thought and I’d travel all the way back to Baracoa just for it.
The most delicious of Cuban dishes is 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.
Eggs Based Cuban Food
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’s 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, peppers and onions.
Picadillo cua cua
I’m not sure under what to classify this Cuban food. It is similar to hash and eggs, and among the ingredients there are plantains and at times beef. It is served with rice.
Beef Based Cuban Food
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 Cuban dishes that include beef among their ingredients. I never had it in the over 3 weeks I spent there, so the ones I mention below are those that can be found on menus but I didn’t try.
Ropa vieja literally means “old stuff.” As far as beef-based Cuban food, this is the most popular one 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 shreds. It also contains onions and tomatoes.
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 (though come to think of it, my mom cooks it in a pot, in tomato sauce, and it is yummy). In Cuba, it is cooked on the stove. Clever.
One of the most famous Cuban dishes that includes beef is frita, which 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 Cuban 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.
Corn Based Cuban Food
Tamales are one of the staple foods in Mexico, so I thought I’d give them a try in Cuba too. They are quite similar, though in Cuba the meat is mixed in with the dough as opposed to being used as a filling. One of my favorite Cuban dishes for sure.
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
We don’t really eat corn on the cob in Italy, but I grew a taste for it when I lived in the US, and it is a common thing to eat all across the Americas. 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
I wouldn’t know how else to classify this Cuban food other than “a bit of everything” because really, it does have 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.
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 of Cuban cuisine.
Street Food In Cuba
The best street food in Cuba is all fried. Definitely not the healthiest food to have, but surely some of the tastiest. Here’s my favorite picks.
I’m actually lactose intolerant and I should keep away from cheese. I knew I was going to make myself sick when I tried croquetas, but it was worth it. The best of Cuban food in terms of street finds is ball 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 Cuban dishes.
Tostones are made of plantains, thickly cut, fried in low temperature oil, then pressed together and refried in boiling oil. They look like croquettes. They aren’t properly street food, at they are often served for dinner at paladares. They are known with different names in other countries of Central America. In Nicaragua they are called patacones. Either way, they are one of the most common food in Cuba. And they are good.
I’m Italian, I am a fussy eater, I had pizza in Cuba and I actually enjoyed it. Ok, it’s 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.
Sweet Food In Cuba
I don’t really have a sweet tooth, but some of the most interesting food in Cuba is sweet so I gave it a go.
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. Yet, the only time I actually had ice cream in Cuba was in Camaguey, at Cornelia. Cubans love this ice cream chain, but I admit that I wasn’t too impressed with it. As far as sweet food in Cuba goes, I wouldn’t recommend it.
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. I love them at breakfast.
Much like ice cream, churros can be found anywhere in Cuba, to the point that I thought it was the ultimate Cuban food in terms of desert. It is a very simple dough made with eggs, flour and little else, then fried until crispy yet moist, sprinkled with sugar and / or chocolate sauce. It’s addictive.
Flan is common in all of Latin America, and when it comes to dessert, it’s considered one of the best Cuban dishes. 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! In terms of sweet Cuban food, it’s the way to go.
(Virgin) Pina Colada
I wouldn’t know how else to qualify the most delicious virgin pina colada I have ever had – to me, it was 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. As far as sweet food in Cuba goes, this is my top pick.
Have you ever been to Cuba? What is your favorite Cuban food?
Further readings about international cuisine
Will you travel for food? Then make sure to read my posts about international cuisine:
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