Cuba’s cuisine has been influenced by a blend of civilizations over time. Spain colonized the island after Christopher Columbus discovered it in 1492, and the Spaniards brought the flavors of home and the introduction of African slaves. These two cultures greatly influenced the flavors of Cuba, blending their native techniques and spices with the island’s edible offerings.
The tropical climate of the Caribbean also contributes to the country’s fare with crops that include plantain, guava, coconut, avocado, papaya, pineapple, mango, citrus and root vegetables. Because Cuba is an island, seafood is another influence to its cuisine. Beef, chicken, pork, eggs, rice, beans and garlic are other common ingredients.
Cuban recipes use fresh ingredients in simple preparations. Most food is sautéed, and meats are often cooked slowly until ridiculously tender. Rice and beans—a dish served in virtually every home and restaurant—are spiced with onions, garlic, bell pepper, oregano and bay leaf, but the food is not typically spicy in a light-your-tongue-afire way. The resulting fare is similar to the cuisine of the neighboring Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.
During a traditional Cuban meal, all the dishes are usually served at once, not by courses. And like any good feast, Cuban food is best enjoyed with friends in a jovial atmosphere.
Examples of Traditional Cuban Dishes
arroz con pollo: rice with chicken
boliche: stuffed beef roast
boniato con mojo: sweet potatoes with a garlic citrus sauce
cubano: a hot pressed sandwich, usually made with ham, roasted pork, cheese, pickles and mustard
empanadas and pastelitos: pastries filled with fruits or meats
flan: sweet custard
maduros: fried plantains
moros y cristianos: black beans and rice
rabo encendido: oxtail stew
ropa vieja: shredded flank, brisket or skirt steak in a tomato-base sauce
Camaron al Ajillo (Shrimp in Garlic Sauce)
½ cup Spanish olive oil
10 to 12 garlic cloves, chopped
2 bay leaves
3 pounds extra large shrimp or prawns, peeled and deveined
½ cup dry white wine
2 limes, juiced
½ teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon salt
¼ cup fresh parsley, chopped finely
Place a large frying pan or skillet over medium heat. When it’s hot, add the olive oil and garlic. Sauté for one minute. Then add the shrimps and wine, stirring occasionally until the shrimp just begin to turn pink (approximately 5 minutes). Add the lime juice, oregano and salt. Cook for one more minute until the shrimp is done.
Remove from heat and stir in the parsley. Serve immediately over white rice or with crusty bread to dip in the garlic oil.
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
1 small green bell pepper, chopped
1 small red bell pepper, chopped
3 garlic cloves, chopped finely
1 large tomato, chopped
3 tablespoons dry white wine
½ teaspoon cumin
salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons parsley, chopped
Preheat oven to 375°F.
Sauté the onion, red and green bell peppers in the olive oil over low heat until the onions are translucent (approximately five minutes). Add the garlic and cook a few minutes more, stirring occasionally. Add the tomatoes, wine, and cumin and cook over low heat for approximately five minutes, stirring frequently, until the liquid thickens. (This mixture is called “sofrito.”)
Lightly oil the insides of four porcelain ramekins, custard cups or small oven-proof bowls and place them on a baking sheet. Divide the sofrito between the ramekins, filling each halfway. Then break two eggs into each dish, being careful not to break the yolks. Place ½ tablespoon of butter on top of each set of eggs.
Place the baking sheet with the ramekins in the oven and bake for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the egg whites become opaque. (The yolks should still be a little runny.) Sprinkle with salt and pepper and serve immediately.
On people-to-people trips, your guide will help to explain menu items and food preparations to make your experience a memorable one. Until your first (or next trip) to Cuba with insightCuba, we hope we provided you with great insight as to the origins of Cuban cuisine some of the traditional dishes.
Now, invite over some house guests and enjoy the Cuban recipes above in your own home. Tell them what you have learned.
Text by Lise Waring