Contrary to popular perception, Cuban cuisine is not especially spicy, nor characterized by heavy sauces or deep frying.
Cuba’s foods reflect its history: Spanish settlers, Caribbean neighbors, African slaves, and Native American and other influences—including Chinese! Indentured servitude in the mid 1800s brought Chinese and Indian citizens to Havana’s harbor. As a port city, Havana saw Spanish spices and other exotic ingredients. The rise of apiaries in the late 1700s gave Cuba organized honey harvesting.
Arroz con Pollo (Chicken and Rice)
Pork, salads, and rice-and-bean dishes can be seen on dinner plates throughout the country. Arroz con pollo (chicken with rice), moros y Christianos (rice and beans) and ropa vieja (literally translated as “old clothes,” a long-cooked falling-off-the-bone meat meal) represent typical main dishes.
Cuban cooks use local seafood and vegetables, including plantains, and sometimes sweet fruit for dessert, or citrus for cooking. Many of the region’s best-known recipes are flavored with “sofritos,” sauces made from garlic, green pepper, lightly fried onion, tomatoes, and spices such as cumin, oregano, and cilantro.
Local ingredients include the mamey fruit, malanga root (often made into fritters), and several species of fish. Beef, pork, and chicken are staples. The island holds few vegetarians.
Café con leche (Cuban Coffee)
A Typical Cuban breakfast might include tostada, toasted buttered bread similar to American toast. Tostadas sometimes are flattened, the better to dunk into Cuba’s strong coffee. Café con leche—a kind of espresso and milk—is popular at breakfast time.
Although times are changing, Cuba still employs a rationing system, allotting grocery and household items according to the numbers, ages, and physical conditions of people in each household.
Other things that might surprise you about Cuban cuisine:
Cuban bread typically is baked with lard instead of oil.
Dinner at Abella Hospedaje Playa La Altura, Pinar del Rio, Cuba [Photo credit: Robin Thom]
At home, island meals have no courses, with the exception of dessert. All components are brought to the table together.
“Cuban sandwiches” (often called “mixtos” or “Cubanos”) date back to the late 1800s or early 1900s. No one can be certain, but the pressed bread, ham or roasted pork, Swiss cheese, pickle and mustard treats might have been invented for factory worker lunch pails. No one is sure of their place of origin, either. Travel between Cuba and Tampa, Florida, was common and comparatively easy in those days.
Cuban salads tend toward simplicity—but are always presented prettily.
To end the day, the “medianoche” (midnight) sandwich, similar to the Cubano, but on softer bread, has proven popular at late-night clubs in Cuba and Cuban communities throughout the U.S.
Read more about Cuban Cuisine and even learn some recipes you can cook at home in our blog post, "When Cultures Collide in the Kitchen: Two Easy Cuban Recipes".
Text by Chelsea Lowe