Cuba is one of the most legendary Caribbean islands and almost mystical in its reputation for preserved old-world character. Thanks to a long period of communist rule and strict trade embargoes, Cuba has remained largely untouched by many modern influences. And these influences have had a significant impact on everything in Cuba, including the cuisine.
Cuba is going through a bit of a food revolution right now. After the government relaxed rules on private enterprise in 2011, the chefs of Havana delightedly stepped up to the plate and unleashed their pent-up culinary creativity.
Although it’s been possible to eat at privately-run restaurants in Cuba for almost 20 years now, it’s never been an easy business. The awkward regulations imposed in the early days meant that many restaurants couldn’t make a viable profit. Now, that’s all changed. State-run restaurants are no match for private restaurants that are making the most of easier-to-produce ingredients and relaxed regulations.
Cuba is an emerging culinary destination in its own right. There are many adventures to be had with food here, but we’re going to look at five of the traditional comida criolla (Cuban foods) that you have to try when visiting Cuba…
This dish actually translates to “old clothes” in English, but don’t let that put you off! It’s a tasty beef dish originating from a Sephardic dish dating back to the Middle Ages. The ingredients include shredded beef in a chilli, onion, tomato, and cumin sauce, although other ingredients are often used in addition to the base dish.
It’s traditionally served with the popular Latin American staple of fried plantains, rice, and beans.
Picadillo is an amazingly versatile dish. It’s a soft, slow-cooked stew of ground meat and tomatoes with raisins added for sweetness and olives for salt. The meat is usually beef, but it’s also made with turkey, chorizo, or a mix of pork and beef. There are several different versions of this dish across the Caribbean and Latin America, but it’s widely claimed to have originated here in Cuba. Rice is traditionally served alongside, but it also goes well in tacos or a tortilla!
Piernil Relleno de Moros y Cristianos
Another take on the classic meat and rice combination, this traditional dish is served at almost every Cuban restaurant. Succulent roast pork is stuffed with black beans and rice and flavored with sour orange, garlic, and oregano. This dish, reportedly represents a reminder of the years of oppression under Islamic rule during the 8th-century Islamic invasion, is a key culinary marker of Cuba’s history and food culture that’s not to be missed!
Yuca is sliced and fried in this traditional Cuban recipe. Often served with a less traditional dipping sauce called cilantro (created in the 1980s by culinary historian Maricel Presilla), this side is an ideal complement to any traditional Cuban meal.
Arroz con Leche
We know it as “rice pudding,” this traditional Latin version is made with rice, cinnamon sticks, and lemon and served cold. Delicious served with fruit, chocolate, or nuts.