Despite the difficulty of booking a direct flight to Cuba, American travelers can easily enjoy the island’s cuisine. Cuban food reflects the country’s diverse history, incorporating influences from Spanish, African, Caribbean, indigenous, and Chinese cuisine. According to The Spruce Eats, this makes for a unique and delicious culinary experience.
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Latin American cuisine is reflective of the region’s agricultural and geographical features. Many of the dishes include starchy root vegetables, tropical fruits, and seafood from the surrounding coastlines. As for rice — a staple across Latin America — its prevalence in Cuban cuisine can be attributed to the influx of Chinese immigrants in the mid-19th century.
Rough Guides believes that Cuban food can be lackluster and unexciting, however, classic local dishes are very flavorful and satisfying. They advise travelers to Cuba to enjoy the local produce, which is used in traditional dishes. Whether you choose to cook these dishes at home or find them in a restaurant, you can expect simple and tasty flavors.
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The Cubano, or Cuban sandwich, has a disputed history. Though it carries the name of a country, it is possible that the modern version of this sandwich actually originated in Southern Florida. According to Thrillist, the dish has changed over time, starting as a fish-based meal among the indigenous Taino tribe around 500 years ago. The sandwich’s external influences have transformed it into a pork-centric meal.
Thrillist spoke to food chemist Jorge Astorquiza to get to the bottom of the matter. He explains that Cuban immigrants were making a slightly different version of the sandwich in Florida and decided to name it after their country to distinguish it from the original. Basically, with the ingredients they had available, it became the Americanized version of a dish from their homeland.
There are a few elements that set the Cuban sandwich apart from just any meat and bread combination. Food Fun Travel notes that, first and foremost, you’ll need Cuban bread. The wheat bread is made with yeast and a bit of lard, producing a crispy exterior and a light interior.
The Cuban sandwich is an important part of Tampa and Miami’s food culture. It is made with a palmetto leaf (or cabbage leaf), dough, smoked ham, roast pork, Swiss cheese, mustard, and pickles. The sandwich can be served as is or pressed between two griddles like a panini.
The medianoche sandwich is aptly named, as it is meant to be eaten at midnight. It’s a great choice for an evening out, as it will help you to stay energized and absorb any alcohol you may have consumed. This sandwich is similar to the Cuban sandwich, but there are some important distinctions.
Epicurious notes that the Cuban sandwich is made with a bread that is crunchy on the outside and lard-based. It is also made with pan suave, which is a softer bread.
This combination of ingredients results in a sandwich that is subtly sweet and has a pleasant texture.Taste Atlas reports that the medianoche was created in Havana, Cuba in the early 1900s. This sandwich, which is similar to a Cubano, is made with smoked ham, roast pork, Swiss cheese, and pickles. It is often pressed on a griddle for melted cheese.
If you’re not interested in the English translation of “old clothes” — which is ropa vieja — you should focus on the delicious flavors of this dish instead. This dish has a variety of origins, with the Cuban version being the most popular. There is a legend that tells the story of a poor man who cooked his clothes to feed his family.
When he was running low on supplies, a guardian angel helped him out by turning the clothes he had into meat and vegetables. The Culture Trip explains that the nourishing dish is composed of shredded beef, cooked with bell peppers and onion in a tomato-based sauce, served with rice.
Long before the dish arrived in Cuba in the mid-1800s, it was a staple in the Canary Islands. The dish is commonly served with rice, beans, or fried plantains, whereas in the Canary Islands, boiled potatoes are the main side item.
Lechon asado is considered an ode to pork. It is commonly served at large celebrations in Cuba, such as Christmas Eve. The dish can be eaten any day of the year, but the long preparation time typically warrants a special occasion.
The dish is cooked in a charcoal-fueled closed grill (aka a Chinese box), another hint at the Chinese influence in Cuban cuisine. However, before any meat is to be grilled, it must first be marinated in an adobo sauce packed with citrus, garlic, cumin, and oregano (via Huff Post). Eventually, a pork shoulder or loin is slow-roasted for hours.
When you cook pork ribs in the oven, they’ll come out tender and fall off the bone. Serve them with mojo sauce for extra citrus, garlic, cumin, and oregano flavors. As a side dish, Cubans usually like rice. Bean Train notes that black beans and rice are a popular accompaniment, as well as boiled cassava drizzled with more mojo sauce.
Ajiaco, a traditional Colombian dish, is believed to date back to the pre-Columbian period. The dish gets its name from aji, a chili pepper that provides plenty of depth of flavor. The slow-cooked stew has certainly gone through its own evolution of everchanging meats, but root vegetables are a constant in the preparation.
Parts Unknown provides a more detailed description of the dish, claiming that it contains stewed meats, vegetables, and spices with American, European, and African influences. In essence, it is a complete one-pot meal that is both filling and flavorful.
Ajiaco, a hearty soup found in Latin America, varies based on location. Usually comprising of onions, garlic, peppers, and spices, Cuba’s sofrito is the basis of the dish.
The stew can be tailored to fit whatever ingredients you have on hand. It’s perfect for those moments when you want a hearty, comforting meal but doesn’t have time to run to the grocery store. The dish can incorporate dried meat, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, tomatoes, and even plantains- making it a versatile option for any palate.
Fricasé de Pollo
Chicken is a popular protein in Cuba and has many different ways of being prepared. According to 196 Flavors, a Cuban website that documents recipes from around the world, fricasé de Pollo is inspired by the French chicken stew, fricassée. This dish is said to have various origins, with each culture putting its own spin on it.
The fricassée is a dish that is made with both sautéed and stewed ingredients, in order to maximize flavor. The French version of this dish features creamy sauce and white chicken meat, while the Cuban version uses brown meat that is cooked in a tomato-based sauce.
The chicken is first marinated in a citrusy, garlicy mojo sauce, which gives it lots of flavors. Aside from tomatoes, chicken thighs and legs are stewed in a combination of garlic, onions, bell peppers, potatoes, olives, stock, and spices like cumin and coriander. Once the potatoes and chicken are fully cooked, the saucy dish can be served with rice or warm Cuban bread.
Vaca frita is a traditional Cuban dish that is made up of fried beef. The beef is boiled until it is soft, then shredded and marinated in garlic, lime juice, and salt. Finally, the beef is pan-fried until it is crispy.
The author cites that flank or skirt steak is the most commonly used cut of meat for fajitas as they are lean and dry out quickly. bell peppers, onions, and seasonings are generally fried together with the meat to add flavor.
The dish is simple but flavorful and goes well with classic Cuban sides: white rice, black beans, fried plantains, and plenty of lime juice. The contrast between the crunchy shredded beef and softer sides is a winning combination. The shredded beef dish differs from ropa vieja in its preparation and final result, but both are tasty dishes.
Meatloaf is considered comfort food by many, and in Cuba, the dish goes by the name pulpeta. This Cuban version of meatloaf is made with ground beef, pork, and ham, plus eggs (for binding as well as a whole hard-boiled egg stuffed in the center), onions, vinegar, cheese, breadcrumbs, tomato, wine, and herbs.
The meatloaf is formed, then coated in breadcrumbs and fried. This creates a crispy outer shell. Finally, the meatloaf is stewed in a Creole tomato and bell pepper sauce. This will give it layers of flavor.
Hispanic Food Network has observed that many versions of this dish contain a smoky undertone, similar to BBQ sauce. They note that fresh parsley is often used as a garnish to provide a herbal balance to the sweetness of the dish. Fried plantains and rice are traditional sides often served with this entrée.
Pulpeta is regularly enjoyed alongside another comfort food that is popular internationally: mashed potatoes. If you can imagine the delicious sauce as gravy, you’ll realize why this combination is so great.
Arroz con pollo
Arroz con pollo is a simple, yet delicious dish that is popular in Latin American countries. The dish is made with rice and chicken and is easy to prepare.
The dish in question is thought to have originated with the Moors – Muslim inhabitants who invaded Spain in the medieval period. It can easily be customized, and once you taste it, you’ll quickly understand why it is a staple in so many countries.
The Durango Herald provides a detailed description of the flavors that make this dish so delicious. First, the rice is boiled in chicken fat that is leftover from frying chicken thighs. The rice is combined with stock, beer, tomato sauce, and saffron which gives it a unique earthy aroma. A classic sauté of onions, bell peppers, and garlic creates a rich foundation that infuses plenty of aromas into the dish. Once the rice is cooked, the crispy chicken thigh is
Congrí is also named arroz con moros y cristianos, which has a culturally significant meaning regarding the various ethnicities present in Cuba historically. According to Food52, the dish highlights a battle centuries ago between Spanish Christians and Muslim Moors.
Interestingly, the word “moros” in Moros y Cristianos refers to both the dark-skinned Moors and the black beans in the dish. The dish’s name may be of African origin, as similar renditions exist in surrounding countries.
The dish known as congrí is made with cooked rice and beans, flavored with a classic sofrito mix of onions, garlic, bell peppers, cumin, and bay leaves. When the rice and beans are cooked together, the rice takes on a grayish color. This is where the name congrí comes from – “con gris” in Spanish meaning “with gray”. Some people add chopped bacon or chorizo for extra flavor and protein.
This dish can be served as a main course on a budget, or as a side dish with a meat-centric main course like ropa vieja or lechon asado.
Arroz imperial is a Cuban dish that prominently features rice. The dish contains many ingredients, including chicken, bacon, sofrito (a clove of garlic, bell pepper, and onion sauté), green peas, mayonnaise, and cheese.
Imagine a layered rice dish crossed with a cheesy lasagna, plus plenty of extra mayo and sauce to make it especially creamy. Much like a baked casserole, the top layer is browned during cooking time.
The World Food Guide notes that arroz con pollo is a popular dish, though it may not be as ubiquitous as some others. This preparation is made up of layers, making it a particularly eye-catching main dish or side dish. Unlike some Cuban dishes with straightforward origins, the influences that led to the creation of Arroz imperial are harder to place (via Taste Atlas).
Picadillo is a dish that originates from Spain, where it is known as “picar.” The word comes from the Spanish verb “picar,” meaning to chop. This is an essential step in the preparation of the dish. While there is no definitive meat that is used in picadillo, a traditional Cuban version is made with ground beef. That said, this is a dish that can be made with whatever ingredients are available.
The traditional Cuban dish, ropa vieja, consists of shredded beef that is cooked with vegetables and spices. Depending on the region, additional ingredients may be used, such as raisins, olives, or capers. The New York Times has labeled this dish “the ultimate Cuban comfort food”.
Picadillo is a popular dish in Cuba, as it can be used as a filling for an empanada or served with rice and potatoes. This dish is made with versatile ingredients and is easy to prepare, making it a common meal in many Cuban homes.
Enchilado de camarones
Filtering through the numerous meat-centered recipes essential to Cuban cuisine, it’s easy to forget that the country is an island. Seafood is an important part of coastal cuisine, so it makes sense that enchilado de Camarones is a shrimp stew. This dish is identified as coming from neighboring Haiti on 196 Flavors.
The enchilada sauce is tomato and pepper-based, and typically flavored with spices. Interestingly, although enchiladas usually involve a spicy chili component, this website indicates that the sauce is mild and free of chilies.
Similar to many Cuban recipes, shrimp is marinated in a citrus sauce prior to cooking (196 Flavors). Shrimp are pan-fried first and then added to the enchilada sauce, where they will absorb all the additional flavors. Plain white rice or a pilaf make an easy accompaniment that will soak up the sauce, and fresh cilantro provides contrast. This preparation can be made with other seafood, such as crab or white fish.
Platanos maduros are a popular side dish and snack in Latin America, West Africa, and India. The dish is made by frying ripe plantains, which are related to bananas. The source of this information is Amigo Foods, which indicates that the Spanish brought plantains to the Caribbean.
The food has become so integral to Cuban culture that Fine Cooking describes how the term “aplatanado” (basically “plantainized”) is used when a foreigner becomes fully immersed in the local culture and customs.
The starchy fruit must be cooked and the dish takes advantage of the extra sugars that build up as the fruit ripens. Amigo Foods offers a recipe that uses oil, butter, and salt as the main ingredients.
Fried plantains are a popular side dish for many rice and meat dishes. They can also be eaten as a snack, with lime juice and avocado. For a crunchier version, the plantains can be flattened into discs and deep-fried.
Tamales have been popular across Latin America for many years. There is regional variation, but the dish usually consists of corn dough wrapped in a corn husk and then steamed. The dough doesn’t dry out and can absorb extra flavors from other ingredients. The preparation process and fillings vary depending on the country and cook.
The Cuban style of cornmeal preparation differs from the more popular Tex-Mex variety. Taos News explains that fresh corn kernels are used in Cuban dishes, whereas a finer flour-like mass is used in Tex-Mex cuisine. Pork is a common add-in to Cuban dishes, while bananas are used to wrap up the masa in areas where this fruit grows.
Tamales have been around for millennia, as evidenced by the various homemade versions that exist. They were consumed in Pre-Columbian times by the Aztecs and Mayans and were commonly served at festivals. The convenience of the wrapped format is likely part of why they became so popular.
The tamale, a corn-based snack, is often sold as street food. It is easy to transport and can be unwrapped when it’s time to eat. If you’ve never tried a tamale, the husk is merely used for cooking and to infuse flavor — you don’t want to try eating it!
Every cuisine benefits from a crispy, bite-sized snack and in Cuba they can be found in the form of croquetas. According to The New Tropic, this culinary creation originated in France as a way to use up leftovers by forming them into a mass within a breadcrumb shell and frying it.
Croquetas are a common dish in Cuba and Miami. They are made of a creamy bechamel sauce and filled with meat or potatoes. They are usually tubular or round and come with a pile of them. The snack is savory and goes down well.
If you are visiting Cuba, please be mindful that there have been reports of facial burns as a result of exploding croquetas. The Cuban croqueta company Prodal has issued a statement warning tourists to heat the oil only to 180 F, avoid overcrowding their pans, and watch out for one of the varieties in particular which has a thicker filling.
Cubans are unlikely to stop eating croquetas because they are both cheap and filling. However, it is important to take greater care to prevent any further injuries.
Arroz con leche
Arroz con leche, a dish made with sweetened rice and milk, is a common Cuban cuisine staple. This dessert likely came to Spain during the reign of the Moors and was eventually shared throughout Latin America, including Cuba.
There is no one definitive recipe for Rice Pudding; different cultures around the world have their own versions. Nevertheless, the dish typically consists of cooked long-grain rice slowly simmered in milk with other ingredients added for flavors, such as sugar and cinnamon.
The Cuban version of arroz con leche is thought to include sweet condensed milk and cinnamon, as well as vanilla and a hint of lemon zest to add contrast. While some regions produce a dish with well-separated grains of rice, the Cuban version tends to be especially creamy. As with many classic worldwide dishes, each household has its own specific preparation, and there is plenty of room for experimentation.
There are many variations of the creamy flan dessert, but according to Eater, the Cuban version is unique in that it uses sweetened condensed and evaporated milk. In other parts of the world, fresh milk is used to make the custard, but on the island of Cuba, this is not the case.
The substitution of cornstarch for eggs actually makes the texture more decadent and prevents separation. Megan Fawn Schlow, author of the book “Paladares: Recipes Inspired by the Private Restaurants of Cuba,” tells Eater that Cuban flans are regularly made in a bain-marie on the stovetop since ovens were once far harder to come by in the region.
Since Cuban agriculture centers around sugarcane, sugar is certainly a necessary ingredient in this recipe. Eggs provide the custard texture to the dessert, and if accessible, vanilla is added to infuse fragrance. Insight Cuba remarks that cinnamon is sometimes also included for a soft spicy kick. Finally, the dessert is topped with dark caramel which balances out the rich eggy sweetness of the flan.
Delicious recipes that can be made with basic ingredients are always a hit, and that certainly includes buñuelos. The popular dessert is made from sweetened fried dough, and《The New York Times》 indicates that they are sold as street food primarily close to Christmas time. The dish appears to come from Spain, but countries across Latin America have fine-tuned the preparation based on preferences and ingredient availability.
These days, it is possible to find buñuelos mixed in grocery stores and Latin markets. Buñuelos are a delicious dessert that can be made in large batches and frozen for later. They can be served as a snack or with coffee after dinner. They are usually enjoyed straight out of the oven while still warm. To make your own buñuelos, follow these simple steps:
Pastelitos de guayaba y queso
Pastelitos de guayaba y queso is a delicious change from all of the sugary desserts out there. A pastelito is a flaky puff pastry pocket that can contain various fillings, sweet or savory. The sweet ones are often covered in syrup and that means you’ll be licking your sticky fingers as you enjoy these treats.
Pastelitos de guayaba y queso is guava and cream cheese pastries, though they can also be found with either ingredient alone.
The guava fruit is abundant in Cuba and has a sweet and sour flavor that contrasts well with rich cream cheese. In fact, The Epoch Times remarks that fresh cheese with guava paste has long been a common snack in Cuba and throughout Latin America. Although the pastelito version was created in Miami, it is based on a traditional snack found throughout Latin America.
The iconic Cuban dish, ropa vieja, is a perfect example of Cuba’s cultural influence. The dish is made up of various cultural elements that have been combined with modern-day Cuban culture in the United States.