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Food and drink you need to try in Cuba

September 16, 2020

So much more than just rice and beans, Cuban cuisine holds a rich mix of culinary influences and flavours

A blend of Spanish, Native American, African and Caribbean cuisine, Cuba’s culinary offerings promise strong, often non-spicy flavours using the holy trinity of onion, garlic and green pepper.

While there’s a reliance on rice and beans, vianda (tubers like plantains, yuca and malaga), and marinated meats using fresh citrus fruits (orange, lime, lemon), Cubans also know their way around a sandwich – taste a good, freshly made Cuban sandwich and you’ll understand what we mean.

Food offerings will vary depending on where you are in the country but one dish you’ll always find is the comida criolla made of various ingredients: rice, beans, a choice of protein (poultry, seafood, beef, pork, fish), a fresh salad and fried plantains. Have them at paladares (private owned restaurants) or at state-owned eateries where prices will be lower. Either way, having a good meal in Cuba won’t burn a hole in your pocket, averaging US$3-10 per meal.

Here, the must-have dishes and drinks to try on your Cuban adventure.

Arroz con Pollo

Cubans consume a lot of rice but that’s not a reason not to give this simple dish of chicken and rice with veggies (spiced bell peppers) a try.

Try it at: Any local paladares

Arroz con pollo,  a rice dish with chicken and vegetables in a frying pan.
Arroz con pollo, a rice dish with chicken and vegetables in a frying pan.

Canchanchara

This cocktail is best had at its origin, in Trinidad on Cuba’s southern coast. Said to have been invented by guerilla fighters during the 10 Years War of Cuban independence (1868–1878), this rum-based drink with water, ice, lime and honey is commonly served in a round cup with a short straw to thin out the honey.

Try it at: La Canchanchara

Tourists drinking Canchanchara in La Canchanchara, in the Unesco World Heritage village of Trinidad, Cuba.
Tourists drinking Canchanchara in La Canchanchara, in the Unesco World Heritage village of Trinidad, Cuba.

Cafe con Leche

Coffee with warm milk may sound simple but in Cuba, it’s an art form. Using a stovetop espresso maker, Cafe Bustelo or Cafe Pilon coffee is combined with caramelised sugar, warmed milk and topped with a dollop of espuma for a strong, sweet start to one’s day.

Try it at: Cafe Presidente

Cafe con leche or Coffee with milk is a popular breakfast in Cuba.
Cafe con leche or Coffee with milk is a popular breakfast in Cuba.

Cuba Libre

Sometimes referred to as a Cubata (when prepared with dark rum), this combination of rum and Coke started when Coca-Cola started shipping its product to Cuba in 1900.

Try it at: El Dandy

Cuban Bread

Sandwiches taste better in Cuba thanks to its thin crust Cuban bread. Made with white flour, yeast and a bit of lard, it’s crispy to the bite but soft in the middle and best enjoyed grilled.

Try it at: Dona Neli, cnr Calle 41 & Av 62, Havana

Cuban Sandwich

You’ve likely had this before, the popular lunch choice of sliced roast pork, ham, Swiss cheese, dills and mustard comes is said to have originated from Cuban workers who worked in cigar factories.

Try it at: Sandwichería La Bien Paga

A Traditional Cuban Sandwich with Ham, pickles and cheese, said to have originated from Cuban cigar factory workers.
A Traditional Cuban Sandwich with Ham, pickles and cheese, said to have originated from Cuban cigar factory workers.

Daiquiri

Another Hemingway favoured drink invented near the village of Daiquiri in eastern Cuba by an American engineer. This frosty drink blends Havana Club rum with your choice of fruit (banana, strawberry, peach) with lime juice and simple syrup.

Try it at: La Flauta Magica

A strawberry daiquiri, with cherry and mint a drink popularised during Hemingways visit to Cuba.
A strawberry daiquiri, with cherry and mint a drink popularised during Hemingways visit to Cuba.

El Presidente

Not a drink you find as easily as you would a mojito, this cocktail was created in honour of former Cuban President Gerardo Machado. A rum-based drink with curacao, vermouth, a splash of grenadine and cracked ice, it has remained popular since its creation in the 1920s.

Try it at: El Museo del Ron Havana Club

The El Presidente, a delicious Cuban cocktail.
The El Presidente, a delicious Cuban cocktail.

Flan

A dessert often associated with Latin cuisine. The dense, creamy Cuban flan is made with the evaporated and condensed milk, eggs, sugar and cinnamon. Variations can include the addition of coconut, guava, or rum raisin (also known as Copa Lolita).

Try it at:La Taberna del Pescador

Frita or hamburger with fries on top is a favourite comfort food in Cuba
Frita or hamburger with fries on top is a favourite comfort food in Cuba

Frita

This is Cuban’s version of the hamburger, the difference though is the minced beef patty is mixed with chorizo and has a topping of french fries.

Frita or Hamburger with fries on top is a favourite comfort food in Cuba
Frita or Hamburger with fries on top is a favourite comfort food in Cuba

Lechon Asado

This classic Cuban meat dish is hard to pass up. A full piglet cooked over a spit till the skin is crisp, the meat is marinated in the classic Cuban mojo sauce, consisting of sour orange and garlic for a distinctive bite.

Try it at: Vista Gourmet, Callejón de Galdos, Trinidad

Medianoche sandwich

Don’t be surprised to find this served at Cuban nightclubs. The name actually stems from its popularity as a late-night snack: think of it as a Cuban sandwich served in an egg loaf, filled with ham, pork cheese and pickles.

The delicious medianoche sandwich.
The delicious medianoche sandwich.

Mojito

Wherever you’ve drunk this before, it’s a good bet the Cuban version will be better. This refreshing cocktail – and Hemingway favourite – combines Havana Club rum, sparkling water, lemon juice, and a spring of yerba buena or mint. Cuban bartenders are also known to add their own special touch so try it at a few bars to pick your favourite.

Try it at: Floridita

Havana Club, mojito cocktails on a bar counter.
Havana Club, mojito cocktails on a bar counter.

Moros y Cristianos

The Cuban version of rice and black beans is found virtually everywhere and every chef has their own secret recipe of seasonings (tomato paste, oregano, bay leaf, cumin, garlic) used.

Try it at: Any local paladares

Pan con lechón

A pressed sandwich usually made with leftover roast pork, onions and laced with a traditional mojo sauce.

Try it at: Restaurante San Jose

Pan con bistec

This Cuban-style pressed sandwich combines marinated sirloin steak, onion, lemon and potato sticks between freshly baked bread.

Try it at: Restaurante San Jose

Pastelitos

These Cuban puff pastries can be found in sweet (filled with cream cheese, guava, pineapple) or savoury (seasoned beef with olives, ham and cheese) variations. Commonly enjoyed as a mid-day snack, its sold in cafeterias and enjoyed with coffee.

Try it at: Pasteleria Almendrares, Calle J Entre/ 25 y 27, Plaza de la Revolucion, Havana

Pastelitos, is a delicious cheese puff pastry.
Pastelitos, is a delicious cheese puff pastry.

Pulpeta

The Cubans have their own version of meat loaf where seasoned minced meat is combined with hard-boiled eggs and ham, shaped in a cylindrical shape before being covered in bread crumbs and then fried.

Try it at: Any local paladares

Ropa Vieja

Considered the national dish of Cuba, for meat lovers this flavourful flank or skirt steak (lamb or pork versions can also be found) is served shredded in a slow-simmered spiced tomato sauce with white rice.

Try it at: Saborearte

The tasty Ropa Viejo in a restaurant.
The tasty Ropa Viejo in a restaurant.

Tostones

A snack you’ll likely see sold on the street. Plantains are sliced and double fried to resemble potato chips.

Tres Leches Cake

This Cuban favourite sees sponge cake soaked in three different types of milk (evaporated, condensed and heavy cream) for a simple but delicious dessert.

Try it at: Pasteleria Almendrares, Calle J Entre/ 25 y 27, Plaza de la Revolucion, Havana

Close up of the tres leches cake, a popular dessert.
Close up of the tres leches cake, a popular dessert.

Vaca Frita

With a name that translates as 'fried cow', beef is marinated in garlic, lime, salt and possibly other spices like cinnamon, parsley and cilantro. Seared till it’s super crisp, it comes served with lime-infused onion and peppers.

Yuca Fingers

Rich in vitamin C and antioxidants, this Cuban-style french fry is a semi guiltless treat and served with salt and sometimes with a dipping sauce.

Dipping yucca fries with parsley and garlic sauce alongside side dishes of guacamole and salsa.
Dipping yucca fries with parsley and garlic sauce alongside side dishes of guacamole and salsa.

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