Cuban cuisine is a blend of Spanish, African, and Caribbean (Tainos Indian) cuisines and includes recipes, spices and cooking derived from all three cultures. This results in an interesting blend which tends to be simple, with fresh vegetables, fruits, cassava, beans, barbecued meats and fish. In Cuba, rice and beans are a staple, along with chicken, pork and beef, as in more traditional Spanish and Mexican foods, but combinations and cooking methods vary.
Legendary author Ernest Hemingway spent years in Cuba, writing and enjoying the local cuisine, prior to dictator Fidel Castro’s overthrow of the country’s government in 1959, shutting down one of America’s favorite vacation spots. But Cuban cuisine thrives in south Florida, and venturing into a Cuban restaurant looking for fish tacos, chicken enchiladas or shrimp burritos is an exercise in futility. You won’t find them, unless it’s greatly Americanized. What you will find is authentic Cuban food, laced with spices, a foundation of rice and black beans and some wonderful dishes featuring plantains and other tropical fruits.Regardless of what Fidel Castro may have flown in from the States for his private dinners, here is a sampling of what tops the natives’ hit parade:
National dish of Cuba: Ropa Vieja (shredded flank steak in a tomato sauce base), black beans, yellow rice,fried yucca and plantains, washed down with cold local beer;
Coming in at second place most definitely is Arroz Con Pollo (rice with chicken), as basic as it gets;
Moors and Christians: black beans and rice;
Fried Plantains: a frequent side dish; (ripe plantains have peels that are almost black, so don’t let that throw you);
Tuna in spicy tomato sauce; tuna (bonito) is plentiful in Cuba;
Yucca plant: (Cassava) a starchy substitute for potatoes;
Sofrito: a basic tomato sauce added to meat or rice dishes;
Flan: (baked custard) a popular dessert, as in Mexico;
Helado de Mango: tropical mango sherbet;
Aceitunas Alinadas: marinated olives;
Ensalada Cubana Tipica: (Cuban salad) your basic raw lettuce and tomato;
Their most popular and basic spices are available almost everywhere in the U.S. and include bay laurel, oregano, coriander, cumin and pepper. Many sauces have a tomato base.
In Cuba, plantains and bananas comprise 47% and 24%, respectively, of the local production and grown only for domestic consumption. Other tropical fruits produced in Cuba are mango, papaya, pineapple, avocado, and guava. Plantains have never caught on the U.S. as we prefer our bananas, and plantains have a sweeter taste, usually used in cooking rather than just eating raw. They are an acquired taste to be sure, which most Americans have never acquired.
Cuban cuisine can be vegetarian friendly, due to its liberal use of beans, rice, vegetables and fruits, but don’t expect to be ordering tofu or any other protein substitute. The majority of Cuban people are poor, so native food can be quite limited without the addition of some type of meat, fish or fowl. However, don’t let that stop you from enjoying some of their spicy sauces, salads and rice dishes. Yucca is a popular starch as is corn, but not in the typical form of tortillas as in Mexican food. (And guaranteed you won’t be finding any cornbread with butter or hush puppies, also made with corn.)
Although many countries may speak the same Spanish language, that does not in any way ensure they eat similar foods. So venture out and expand your repertoire by exploring Cuban cuisine should the opportunity arise, and don’t go comparing it to our Mexican favorites. Havana boasts no fast-food restaurants, but if it did, you can be darn sure Taco Bell would not be among them.