Cuban food often gets a bad rap. Granted, some of the ignominious reputation is warranted: who hasn’t sawed through a tough cut of meat, lunched on a flabby pizza, or craved a leafy green in their travels here? After more than a decade writing guidebooks for Lonely Planet, I’ve learned that such episodic dining disasters and cravings can strike no matter what your international destination. Cuba is no different.
But after plowing through more tough meat and flabby pizza than I care to remember, I’ve also learned that if you stick with down home traditional comida criolla in Cuba, you (usually) can’t go wrong.
The building blocks of comida criolla are basic, with the fundamental ingredients available year-round, enlivened by seasonal variations. Everything is locally-grown and raised of course, and much of it is organic. This is just one of the esteemed elements of Cuba’s food sovereignty approach and why eating here can be a healthy, satisfying experience. True, things can get challenging for travelers with dietary restrictions or allergies – traditional Cuban food is built on meat, specifically pork and lard, for example and cooks here will deep fry anything, plus certain shellfish are favorites – but even these restrictions can be accommodated.
No matter where you travel, Cuba included, local cuisine is the nexus of a country’s culture, nature, history, and daily life; diving into that cuisine represents one of the most accessible and revelatory experiences available to visitors. So while here, why not try some of these comida criolla favorites (and if you want to recreate them at home, look for the classic cookbook Cocina al Minuto by legendary Cuban kitchen maven Nitza Villapol):
Tamal en cazuela – A variation on the common tamale (cornmeal flavored with meat, wrapped in a corn husk and boiled), this ‘tamale in a casserole dish’ is favored by many for its superior texture and taste. It’s often spiked with chicharrones and is rumored to be Fidel Castro’s favorite dish.
Chicharrones – An addictive snack for diehard carnivores, these fried chunks of pork rind are a popular party food. They are also highly addictive and you can easily stuff yourself sick with them. It probably goes without saying, but chicharrones go well with copious amounts of cold beer. NB: The completely inferior chicharrones de viento (puffed chicharrones) are also available but they are to a meaty chicharrón what a Cheese Doodle is to Brie.
Yuca con mojo – A beloved tuber from the lily family, boiled yucca is an obligatory accompaniment to celebratory meals. Alone it is nearly tasteless, which is why it is always served with a delicious garlic and sour orange sauce known as ‘mojo.’
Congrí – Perhaps the most ubiquitous of all dishes on this list, this rice and black bean mixture accompanies almost all comida criolla. You may hear it referred to as Moros y Cristianos (Moors and Christians); in eastern Cuba it is sometimes made with red beans. If you like your food components separate, go for frijoles durmidos (‘sleeping beans’) – a potage of black beans.
Tostones – Twice fried plantains (from the banana family) may be terrible for your arteries, but are incredibly tasty and could easily turn into your preferred Cuban side dish. Two types of ‘plátanos’ are used for tostones: the longer, thinner plátano macho or the stubby, stalwart plátano burro. Ask a Cuban which is better and watch the debate heat up!
Puerco asado – The jewel in the crown of Cuban cuisine, spit roasting a whole pig over a bed of charcoal is a labor intensive endeavor worth the work. The pig is slaughtered, gutted, shaved, and skewered (and sometimes stuffed with congrí) right before roasting: it doesn’t get any fresher than this! Due to the work involved, roasting a pig is usually saved for big celebrations, like New Year’s and Carnaval.
Chilindrón de chivo – Camping on the beach one summer, a local guy sauntered over to our campfire proffering food. ‘Our goat was hit by a car, so we made chilindrón de chivo.’ Road kill or no, this classic dry stew made with goat (or mutton), tomato paste, fresh tomatoes and peppers is divine.
Camarones enchilados – This is a simple, colorful dish made from shrimp and tomato paste, with the classic staples of garlic, onion, red pepper, onion, and bay leaf contributing the signature flavor. The same dish is often made with lobster.
Torrejas – This classic Cuban sweet treat is made from bread dipped in a bath of milk, eggs, cinnamon, vanilla, drizzled with wine (usually the dry cooking wine known as ‘vino seco’) and fried in oil until golden brown. It’s typically served drenched in a simple sugar sauce spiked with cinnamon. Think “French toast for dessert.”
Casquitos de guayaba con queso – Too treacly for some, this is a traditional dessert made from guava skins boiled tender with generous amounts of sugar; it’s typically served with thin slices of cheese. The guava-cheese combination is also enjoyed using guava paste – you’ll see folks lining the highways east and west of Havana selling blocks of the garnet red paste atop slabs of cheese.
Conner Gorry is Senior Editor at MEDICC Review and author of the Havana Good Time app, available for iPhone/Pad and Android. She blogs at Here is Havana and has two Cuba stories in the anthology Best Travel Writing 2012.