A Guide to Eating in Cuba

February 23, 2023 | by Serafina Vick

It’s fair to say that Cuba doesn’t have the same variety of international cuisine we might be used to (and vegetarians/vegans will have to get used to eating plenty of rice and black beans) but lots of privately run paladars have opened over the past few years making it easier to find a good meal in most large towns but especially in Havana, Viñales and Trinidad. To help you eat yourself happy around Cuba, we’ve put together a handy food guide with all the information you need – whether you are a meat-eater, vegan, vegetarian or gluten free!

 

A REAL MELTING POT

Cuban food is a reflection of the country’s melting pot history and has roots in African, Spanish, Italian, American, Chinese and Taino cuisines. The key influences came from Spanish country cooking with plenty of beans, loads of garlic and pork. Like Spaniards, Cubans dislike spicy food – a surprise if you have visited other Caribbean nations.

Did you know that until the 1990’s Cuban food was dominated by Eastern Bloc imports? So older Cubans remember the days of East German sauerkraut, Polish pickles and Russian chocolate bars. 

African influences
You’ll find African influences everywhere, brought over by slaves who were forced to work on Cuba’s sugar plantations – from fried plantains and yucca to soups laden with sweet potato and cassava. Every so often you’ll taste hints of Cuba’s pre-Columbian Taino population in corn meal soups and the “tamales” that are still served wrapped in cooked corn leaves as they would have been centuries ago. You won’t find the fiery spices common to African food though, because following the Spanish palate, Cubans find chilli overwhelming!

Over time, Cuba attracted immigrants from all over the world, and each culture left its mark on Cuban food. As a result, you can buy pizza and hamburgers in pretty much every village in Cuba, and many rural restaurants will serve you their version of Chinese fried rice.

Spanish influences
You can see the influence of Spain through Cuba’s love of pulses, especially black beans which are served in a soup (potaje) or cooked with rice and seasoning to create ‘congrí’ or ‘moros y cristianos’, probably the most common accompaniment to any meal. Back in the day, this would have been cooked with pig fat but nowadays lard has been replaced by healthier vegetable oil.

Cuba’s love of pork has been Cuba’s staple protein but since the pandemic and the economic downturn, pork has become scarcer and chicken has taken over.

 

Traditional Christmas meal in Cuba

SO… WHAT IS CUBAN FOOD LIKE?

Cuban food is what the locals call “comida criolla”, or creole food. It is soul food to be eaten with a large group of family and friends, with an emphasis on quantity and gutsy flavours. “Comida criolla” will typically entail a table brimming with a variety of different dishes and will always include rice and beans.

You can’t really talk about Cuban cuisine without mentioning sugar. Sugar is an essential part of the nation’s history and finds its way into every Cuban recipe, from black beans to fruit juice. No Cuban would dream of drinking their “cafecito” (espresso) without a heavy lacing of sugar and no traditional Cuban meal is complete without a “postre” (dessert)!

Here are some examples of traditional Cuban food you’ll find:

Breakfast (Desayuno)
A typical Cuba Casa particular breakfast includes:

○ Bread, butter, jam or honey
○ Sometimes cheese and ham
○ Coffee, tea and juice
○ Tropical fresh fruits like pineapple, fruta bomba (papaya) or mango
○ Eggs

Snacks

It can be difficult to find a decent sandwich in Cuba so please don’t give your guide a hard time if they recommend a proper sit-down meal for lunch! Cubans generally eat two full meals a day and don’t have many places that cater for snack lunches yet, so the sandwiches tend to be pretty basic. It’s a good idea to bring along some snacks like chocolate and biscuits from home, if you like those, as they can be hard to find, even in Havana.

Ropa vieja, Cuba
Ropa Vieja

Lunch & Dinner (Comida & Cena)

○ Arroz y frijoles (white rice served with a black bean soup of mild spices)
○ Fish, chicken or pork (sometimes lobster/prawns )
○ Quimbombo (okra cooked in tomato, white wine and plantain)
○ Arroz congrí (like the Jamaican rice and peas but usually using black beans)
○ Black beans or other pulses such as lentils/chickpeas
○ Ropa vieja (translates as “old clothes”) – this is Cuba’s national dish, called like that because the meat is shredded (like old clothes) into the rich tomato sauce. Since beef is scarce in Cuba, lamb and pork versions of the recipe are also popular.
○ Fried plantain
○ Garlicky malanga fritters
○ Fried or boiled yucca with a garlic and oil dressing
○ Fresh salad (cabbage, tomatoes, cucumber, carrots, and green beans are common )
○ Pork, chicken, lamb, fish or beef
○ Lechón asado (slow-cooked pork – over fire or in oven)
○ Langosta enchilada (fresh lobster in semi-spicy sofrito)
○ Pasta
○ Pizza
○ Burgers

If it were a festive meal (like at Christmas, for example), the main dish would be whole roast pork, often with a little Cuban hat and a cigar in its mouth (true story!). You can’t do proper Cuban cooking without plenty of garlic, cumin, citrus and salt. Although Cuba’s neighbours love spicy food, Cuban’s rarely enjoy picante but love deep satisfying flavours.

Dessert & Sweets (Postres y Dulces)

○ Flan (creamy, custardy deliciousness, similar to creme brulee)
○ Guava jam served with slices of gouda cheese
○ Ice cream

Pizza from restaurant El Bleco Havana, cuba
Pizza from restaurant El Bleco

 

RECOMMENDATIONS FOR THOSE WITH DIETARY REQUIREMENTS

If you’re on a guided tour with us, talk to your guide at the arrival briefing and explain to them your dietary needs. If you have any allergies this is the time to let them know too. Fortunately, most food in Cuba is freshly prepared and wholesome so those with allergies often find Cuba an easy place to navigate. Soya oil is the most common cooking oil – if you have a peanut allergy please let us know.

★Vegetarian food

It’s not that “vegetarian” is a dirty word in Cuba, but it is met with looks of astonishment and the eternal rejoinder “not even chicken?”  There is an increasing number of vegetarian/vegan-friendly restaurants across Cuba with some creative ideas and, though most Cubans still prefer meat, there is a growing consciousness around its consumption.

Like Vegans, expect very little variety but don’t imagine you’ll go hungry. If you want to add some variety to your diet we suggest you bring nut butters, nuts and seeds etc and maybe some hot sauce! Some typical vegetarian dishes include:

○ Pumpkin soup
○ Fresh salad
Quimbombo (okra cooked in tomato, white wine and plantain)
Black beans are always 100% meat-free
○ Cheese
○ Eggs
○ Fresh fruit
○ Rice
○ Plantain

⚠️ NOTE: kidney bean stews often include chunks of pork so please check before you order!

Yuca con mojo
Yucca with garlic sauce

★Vegan food

If you’re vegan then you should brace yourself for a series of misunderstandings and eyebrows raised in bemusement. True, Cuban cuisine was not made for the vegans, but there is room for manoeuvre. In all honesty, food will be adequate but variety very limited. Since it’s hard to find any food in Cuba (Cubans regularly queue for hours for even the basics) we suggest you supplement your diet while in Cuba by bringing nut butters, nuts, seeds and maybe oats for breakfast.

Most breakfast will be limited to bread, fruit and jam with coffee or tea. You can’t find soya, almond, coconut or oat milk in Cuba. You will be able to eat everything at lunch and dinner except for the protein.  You can’t get tofu or plant-based meat alternatives in Cuba either… so be prepared!

★Gluten-free

Surprisingly, Cuba is a paradise for those who require a gluten-free diet! In fact, the only meal where you might need to bring alternative carbs is breakfast where bread is the only carb option. We’d recommend bringing some gluten-free oatcakes. If you are coeliac, then that might be tricky as due to the present limited resources in Cuba, kitchens can’t avoid cross-contamination.

If you are travelling with us, and your trip includes a packed lunch, it will be impossible to find gluten-free bread, but you may be offered rice instead. Again, bring gluten-free oat cakes or talk to your guide and explain your dietary requirements. They will do their best to accommodate you.

team film crew eating at a paladar

★Kosher

It is very difficult for the Jewish community to keep Kosher in Cuba. In fact, the Cuban Jewish Community is one of the few where pork is eaten regularly simply because alternatives are limited or non-existent. Saying that, there is a B&B that does Kosher food in the Nuevo Vedado district, it’s called Chateau Cuba and it’s worth a try! If you are unsure, you can also opt for a vegetarian diet whilst in Cuba.

★Halal

It is very difficult for Muslims to eat halal in Cuba although, rather surprisingly, most of the frozen chicken sold in supermarkets is halal.  To avoid disappointments, we recommend you keep to a vegetarian diet whilst in Cuba.

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Discover the best paladares and eateries in Cuba

Paladares are privately-run restaurants where the service and quality of food are better than in government-run establishments. Prices are reasonable and it’s a great place to try different dishes. Read our guide with our top paladares to eat!!


OTHER FOODIE ARTICLES

Places to eat in Havana
El Cuarto de Tula – extinguishing your hunger pangs, but not your curiosity
Jibaro bar and restaurant Jibaro, “wild” thing – I think I love you
El Del Frente – how the second paladar on one street in Havana is creating a culinary monopoly
O’Reilly 304 – a journey from Ireland, via Spain, to your dinner plate in Cuba
Doña Eutimia – where simplicity means perfection
Sweet treats in Cuba – desserts, puddings and coffee culture
Drinking in Cuba – a guide to Cuban cocktails
The best Cuban Cocktails – Discover Ernest Hemingway’s favourite Cuban cocktails

Viñales
48 hours in Viñales – what to do, where to eat and what to see

NEED HELP PLANNING YOUR CUBA HOLIDAY?

With over 20 years of experience organising sustainable tours in Cuba, at Cubania we have your back. From Cuba cycling tours to the perfect family holiday or LGBTQI-friendly Cuba tours, we’ve got something for everyone!

Written by

Serafina Vick

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