By Lauren García
Lauren grew up in Havana. She is a Cuban Art Historian, one of our clients’ most beloved Havana arts & culture guides, a rock guitarist, huge baking enthusiast and photographer.
First Of All: What is Unique About Cuban Food?
I can’t lie to you. To me Cuban food is one of the most fascinating and delicious things in the world. As Cuban culture itself, our cuisine emerged from diverse roots, which is why it has such rich flavors and plentiful recipes. Understanding a bit about Cuban cuisine also gives an understanding of our history. So let’s start with three historic dishes that define Cuban food.
Traditional Cuban cuisine has its foundations in the foods of the Taino People, who were indigenous to Cuba and other Caribbean islands long before the arrival of Colombus. During Cuba’s colonization by the Spanish, they began to adapt their own recipes using “new world” ingredients from the Taino, like yuca, sweet potatoes, beans, and peppers. Then, with the importation of enslaved laborers from West Africa, their cooking techniques and ingredients were also mixed-in. This fusion of Taino, Spanish, and West African influences is what we call Criollo (cree-oyo), and is really the basis for understanding so much about Cuban culture: our food, our music, our visual arts, our dance, even our religion Santería is the same kind of mash-up.
This results in multiple cultures mixing. A unique flavor that certainly makes you feel alive.
One of the most popular Cuba travel experiences that we offer our clients is our Cuban Cooking Class and Marketplace Tour. This is not a fancy demonstration by a chef in a show cooking kitchen, but a fun culinary adventure with a regular Cuban mom who speaks English. She’ll take you to the Marketplace where you’ll decide what you’ll cook based on the ingredients available (not everything is always available in Cuba)
What is Cuba’s Most Traditional Food? The Question of Questions
We know this is a popular question among visitors, and as usual, we at Cosmopolitours have the answer. A plethora of Cuban dishes could be mentioned when speaking of traditional cuisine on the island, but after a lot of debate and arguing amongst the team I have made this task much easier for you: I am going to introduce you to the ultimate top three Cuban cuisine treasures that define Cuban food. You can ask any local or Cuban around the world and they would mention these next three recipes without even blinking, always present in celebrations and even day to day life, each Cuban grandma (abuelita) competing to see who cooks them better (mine is the absolute winner, by the way). Are you ready?
This is the awaited answer: Ropa Vieja, Lechon Asado and Frijoles Negros. You’re welcome.
Ropa Vieja: One of The Traditional Dishes That Define Cuban Food
Cuban cuisine’s emblematic dish, Ropa Vieja, is one of the worldwide most popular dishes of traditional Cuban food. And it is like this for a reason. Ropa Vieja is a stewed, tender juicy steak, slow-cooked, mainly with tomato, pepper, bay leaf, cumin, garlic and onions. I know, your mouth is watering right now, mine too. An all-time favorite and even delicious to imagine.
The words “ropa vieja” literally translate as “old clothing”, which comes from the idea that slow cooking and shredding beef is compared to washing old clothing tossed around carelessly. Of course, Cubans never lack imagination. This flavorful and tender cooked beef is often served with tostones which are mashed fried plantains (sort of our french fries), white rice and black beans.
Ropa Vieja is a must, and immediately comes to mind when speaking about traditional Cuban food. No doubt it is authentic Cuban cuisine and that it places the name of Cuban culture all around the world, but something interesting happens with this recipe, and it’s the fact that beef is not easily accessible for el cubano de a pie (day to day average Cuban person). Beef is very expensive and not sold in every store or marketplace in Cuba. One of Cuba’s most bizarre random facts is that sometimes sales of beef have been heavily penalized to manage food shortages. Until 2021, a cattle owner who commercialized beef products without a rigorous authorization from the government could face up to 15 years in prison.
Still, we never stopped eating Ropa Vieja because of that. We Cubans always know our way around and Ropa Vieja kept circulating on the downlow.
Ropa Vieja is a memorable, palate pleasing inspiring meal. The combination of the sauce and the meat provoques an awakening of the senses. Definitely a symbol of Cuban food. It’s rich, tasty and unforgettable.
Lechon Asado: Succulent Crown Jewel of Cuban Food
First of all: I have no words. Lechón Asado is THE. MOST. DELICIOUS type of roasted pork you will ever try. There’s a Cuban song that goes like “el puerco, mamífero nacional” which means: pork, national mammal… Totally true.
Lechon Asado (or Roast Suckling Pig) is, without a doubt, Cuba’s most celebrated dish for holidays. Roast pork is every Cuban’s dream dish and is very significant in traditional Cuban cuisine, almost considered the main course for all kinds of celebrations. On birthdays, weddings, graduations, there’s always Lechon Asado with mojo sauce (a combination of spices, sour orange juice or lime juice, vinegar and garlic, which helps create the perfect roast suckling pig). One main event where Lechon Asado cannot lack, under any circumstances, is definitely New Year’s Eve. This is a holiday where Cuban cuisine reigns, and the whole family gathers to celebrate. Some of my core memories are of New Year’s Eve: the chilly glasses of rum, ice and lemon in the hands of my aunts, uncles and grandfathers sitting on their rocking chairs while discussing who was the biggest hero of the Revolution, the smell of the sour oranges coming from the kitchen to prepare the mojo criollo, my dad peeling the yucas, my mom and grandma checking how cooked was the meat and of course me trying to steal at least just a tiny bit of some roast pork. All of us anticipating to delight our taste buds with traditional Cuban food around 8:30 or 9 O’clock in the evening, and at the very center of the table, the glorious Lechon Asado.
This Cuban crown jewel can be prepared in the oven, but the traditional Cuban way is to cook it al carbón, typically on a charcoal-powered open-grilled griddle, or, as it is done in the country side (where is mainly cooked outside the house) roasting it on a spit, rotating it right over the fire.
As special as it is for Cubans, this highly popular dish is not only reserved for holidays. You can also find it as some kind of Cuban version of fast food. It’s so common to be walking down the streets of any province in Cuba and suddenly find a Pan con Lechón little spot (the original Cuban sandwich). During my college days these were a life-saver. The best, quickest and most delicious lunch alternative, followed of course by a good cafecito.
For our clients, we often organize our Fiesta Campesina Cuban Travel Experience in virtuous locations throughout the island. We roast the pork with all the side dishes, add live music, beer, and rum, you’ve got a party.
In Havana, one of the best restaurants to order Lechón Asado is Al Carbón by Chef Iván Justo. They often sell-out, so pre-order when making your reservation. Or better still, travel to Cuba with Cosmopolitours, and leave everything to us!
The Heart of Cuban Cuisine, Frijoles Negros
Cuban cuisine has a very endearing characteristic, which is that it’s made mainly for the family, to celebrate with loved ones, and to make everyone enjoy the moment together. In a Cuban kitchen there always has to be a bag or two of frijoles negros (black beans), which are actually the basis of the also very famous Arroz Congri or Moros y Cristianos (a delightful mix of white rice and black beans, also key in traditional Cuban food, I must say, Chef Kiss!).
Why am I saying that Frijoles Negros are the heart of Cuban cuisine? Let me explain myself. Black beans are a constant when speaking about Cuban food. Almost every Cuban dish is served with Frijoles Negros. It is an essential dish for families in the country and one of the first dishes you learn how to cook here. It is one of the foundations of traditional Cuban cuisine and Cuban meals. A common citizen in Cuba probably wont eat Lechon Asado or Ropa Vieja as often as Frijoles Negros, as it is a more affordable dish and as delicious as these two. You can eat Potaje, as we call it, with white rice, fried eggs and sweet plantains (a common lunch). You can eat them alone as a dense soup, the exquisite Frijoles Dormidos, or as the perfect side dish for all types of Cuban dishes.
Making a good casserole of Frijoles Negros takes time and a little bit of soul into it too, as for all Cuban food, we could say. First you need to soften the beans, which takes around half an hour in more modern cooking devices. In Cuba, most people still have the old fashioned three valve pressure cookers, ones that will take around an hour and a half to finish the same process. After this you need to add a sofrito, which is an aromatic blend, slowly cooked, of stirred fried vegetables, followed by elemental spices commonly found in Cuban dishes, such as cumin and oregano. After a few more minutes cooking over a slow fire, the beans should have the consistency of a soup with a soft creamy taste.
Our black beans, our Potaje, is a nutritious and powerful magic potion. You’ll fall in love.
So, What Does Cuban Food Taste Like?
Cuban food can be described with the following expressions: passion inspiring and life filling. It doesn’t matter what traditional cuban dish you try, from Ropa Vieja to Lechon Asado to Frijoles Negros, from root vegetables to arroz con pollo or a small cuban coffee, Cuban food will make you feel alive.
Mastering our recipes requires the cook to have a will to have fun, determination, enthusiasm and a bit of ardor in the heart. And as we know you have it all, the Cosmopolitours team invites you to join our Cooking Classes. In Cuba, we won’t take you to a chef with a show kitchen. A Cuban Mom who speaks English will take you to the Marketplace where you’ll buy the ingredients, then to her home kitchen to cook everything up. It’s a total non-tourist travel experience that lets you live a bit of Cuban daily life. In Havana that’s with Lídice, in her house. What better teacher than that?