Cuba’s culinary offerings have never been valued in the same esteem as, say, Italian and Thai cuisine. Nonetheless, to avoid Cuban food is to miss out on some lovely gastronomical experiences. Cuba is an island full of homegrown organic fruit and vegetables, and a wide range of historical influence. Find a great cafe, restaurant or make friends with a good home cook, and you can dine like a king. In fact, in recent years it has become particularly exciting to eat in Cuba as more and more private restaurants are springing up, some of which have been kick started by Cuban chefs who have worked abroad and come back to make their stamp on the island. And whilst rationing and shortages can still be an issue on the island, the situation is much better than it has been during crises of the past and is unlikely to affect your stay.
The following five delicious dishes are ubiquitous across Cuba. Note, the first two contain lots of meat. if you are a vegan, read here.
This dish literally means ‘old clothes’, originating from Spain and according to folklore was given the name because a man was once so poor that he shredded and cooked his own clothes to feed his family, but after closing his eyes and praying discovered that it had turned into a meat stew. True or not, the dish served today in Cuba is a hearty meat stew that is not made from clothes but from stewed beef (which is then shredded or pulled) combined with tomatoes, bell peppers, onions and garlic. As one of Cuba’s national dishes, it can be found in both low end and high end restaurants, and made at home on special occasions. At some cafes and restaurants it might be made from pork instead of beef, and in times of shortages other meats may also be used. If you have a big appetite, it is invariably a hearty meal that will fill you up.
Picadillo a la criolla
A meat hash dish, consisting of some kind of minced meat stewed with tomatoes, onions and garlic. It is therefore fairly similar to Ropa Vieja, though more popularly cooked at home. This is partly because it can be made by minced up offcuts of meat, or equally from the tubes of frozen meat that are sold in some of the state supermarkets. Picadillo usually has a tangy flavour, often due to the heavy use of vinegar. Restaurant versions add olives and raisins, though this is less commonly done at home. Every household makes picadillo their own way, based on what is available or what their tastebuds prefer. For example, you might find it made with ‘aji cachucha’, a mild chilli pepper. Cuban food is very rarely spicy, but this chilli pepper adds a lovely background flavour to the dish, without any heat.
Croquetas (‘croquettes’ in English), are very popular across Cuba. Originating from France, and probably making their way to Cuba via Spain, croquetas can be found much more ubiquitously in Cuba than in Europe. They can be bought very cheaply as street food, yet also feature on upmarket restaurant menus as a side dish or starter. They are also cooked at home too, and as with picadillo, each household seems to have their own version. In essence, all the croquetas you come across will invariably include mashed potato, onions and breadcrumbs, and will be fried in lots of oil. The rest of the ingredients all depend on where you are eating it and what’s available. Ham and cheese are particularly popular flavours.
Yuca con mojo
This signature Cuban dish tends to be served as a starter or a side dish. Yuca (‘cassava’, ‘manioc’ or ‘yucca’ in English) is a popular starchy root vegetable that’s grown in abundance in Cuba. The yuca is brought to life by the Cuban ‘mojo’ sauce that’s added to it. This consists of oil, chopped garlic, salt and a freshly squeezed citrus fruit, usually lime or bitter orange. This citrus zing is what gives vibrance to the dish, and linguistically is how it connects with the famous Cuban ‘mojito’, which also relies heavily on fresh lime. This in turn is thought to be linguistically linked with the English word ‘mojo’, as in ‘losing your mojo’ or ‘getting your mojo back’. Indeed, after eating this dish, one can feel revitalised.
Note, you’ll often see ‘vianda’ mentioned on Cuban menus, which normally means a starchy root vegetable such as cassava, malanga or Cuban sweet potato (‘boniato’). Whereas yuca con mojo is usually a generous portion, “vianda” is usually just a small portion served to enhance and diversify a dish.
Rice and Beans
This dish is the most commonly served of them all. Rice and beans are ubiquitous across the Caribbean, and Cuba is no exception. There are two main terms for rice and beans in Cuban Spanish. These are:
Congrí: this is linguistically derived from the old Haitian French word for red beans and rice.
Moros y Cristianos: meaning ‘Moors and Christians’, alluding to the colour differences between black beans and white rice as being the colour differences between the Moors and Christians in southern Spain.
Note, technically congrí is made from red beans, whereas moros y cristianos is made from black beans. However, often these terms are used interchangeably for rice and any type of beans mixed together.
Throughout Cuban history this has often been served as a dish in itself, a staple of the island. Rice and beans are still two products given out for free on the libreta (ration book), so it is served very regularly in most houses. Nowadays, if you are eating out in cafes and restaurants then it will be available as an accompaniment to the dishes mentioned above.
There is a sister dish, known as ‘arroz con frijoles’, meaning literally ‘rice with beans’. This is different to congrí and moros y cristianos in that the beans have been cooked separately to the rice. When ordering you may be asked if you want the rice and beans already mixed, or separate from each other. Both options should be satisfying. Just remember to use the correctly terminology!
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