Cuban food is delicious. This is apparent because many of the simple foods that define the region have crossed the ocean and reached international diners. That being said, lack of access to exceptional ingredients can be problematic in Cuba, meaning it’s often challenging for travelers to find the tantalizing, tropically infused dishes of their dreams. Constant food shortages make finding or ordering certain foods nearly impossible, and economic hardship is another significant reason for poor food conditions. Cuba often trades its fresh produce, such as cassava, internationally, and this leaves a shortage of the traded produce and goods in Cuba itself.
Cuban food is similar to the food in other countries in the Caribbean zone, such as Colombia, Venezuela, Haiti, Puerto Rico and Dominican Republic. All these cuisines blend many diverse influences, including native Taíno, African, Spanish and Caribbean foods. Spanish colonists brought citrus fruits, such as oranges and lemons, to Cuba, as well as rice and vegetables. The Spanish also grew sugarcane, a major Cuban crop. Outside the large cities, farm-to-table eating is so ingrained in the island’s rich agricultural heritage that locals don’t even realize it’s a “thing.” Simple, fresh, from-the-fields and straight-to-the-table ingredients are grounded with rice and beans, and fresh salads and proteins, such as chicken, pork, fish and seafood, pop up as well.
Cuban cuisine drastically changed after the Cuban Revolution in 1959, when Fidel Castro overthrew the government. Cubans who opposed Castro began to flee the island, including chefs and restaurant owners. As a result, food shortages became frequent, and still-available food was of poor quality. Cuba still suffers from such shortages, and the Cuban government still controls the restaurant industry, which has led to some disappointing and inconsistent dining experiences. A culture, however, cannot survive for long without delicious food to gather around—no matter how simple. So, if you aim to eat like a Cuban and opt for relatively inexpensive fare that doesn’t need pomp or circumstance, you’re in for a delicious visit to this vibrant, developing country, where the food scene (particularly in Havana) is on the verge of exploding with its unique blend of internationally inspired and traditionally rooted delights
The Dining Experience in Cuba
Cuba’s government controls the restaurant industry, and this can lend itself to some inauthentic-feeling dining experiences. Family-run paladares (privately owned restaurants) are the exception, and the food is noticeably fresher and more interesting than in their government-run counterparts. Paladares aren’t allowed to sell shrimp or lobster, and they’re only allowed to serve up to twelve people at one table. However, most paladares serve these dishes anyway. To ensure the best experience, make sure you know where you’re dining; government-owned restaurants often try to disguise themselves as privately owned to attract more customers. In Cuban restaurants, it’s common to have several menu items unavailable due to food shortages, but dining out, especially in the places locals frequent, is wildly inexpensive compared to Continental USA prices.
Fast food establishments exist in Cuba, but popular US chains, such as McDonald's or Burger King, have not yet set up restaurants on the island. However, a chain similar to KFC, called El Rápido, opened in 1995. Burgui, a chain similar to McDonald's, has restaurants throughout major Cuban cities and is open 24 hours
Backroads Pro Tip
In Havana, many restaurants offer cajitas. They're the plain cardboard boxes you find at any Cuban celebration, and are frequently used to take home leftovers (or a piece of cake if attending a party). Whenever you leave one of these parties, you'll invariably hear, "¿Cojiste cajita?" ("Did you get your box?").
Typical Cuban Dishes
Normally served between 7:00 a.m. and 10:00 a.m., a typical Cuban breakfast might include a tostada (grilled Cuban bread) and café con leche (espresso coffee with warm milk). To eat like a local, break the tostada into pieces and dip them into the coffee. Lunch often consists of empanadas - a half-moon shaped pastry, typically baked or fried, containing various fillings, depending on sweet or savory preferences. Also popular and common is Pan con bistec, a thin slice of steak served on Cuban bread with lettuce, tomatoes and fried potato sticks. Another common snack is the pastelito, a small, flaky turnover (in various shapes) filled with meat, cheese or fruit, such as guava. Because meat is ubiquitous in Cuba, chicken or fish will normally be the main dish at dinner. It’s almost always served with white rice, black beans and fried plantains. A small salad of sliced tomatoes and lettuce might also be served.
No matter where you are in Cuba, make sure to enjoy these quintessential Cuban delicacies:
Similar to the Mexican tamale, the Cuban tamale mixes the meat with the dough rather than use it as a filling.
Literally meaning “midnight,” this sandwich is usually served in Havana nightclubs. It consists of sweet egg bread filled with ham, pork, cheese and pickles.
● Pernil Relleno de Moros y Cristianos
This dish is especially interesting because it’s filled with another Cuban dish! A pork shoulder is marinated in orange juice, garlic, oregano and pepper; filled with rice and beans and cooked in the oven.
The Cuban version of a hamburger, a frita is a bun topped with a patty of minced beef, which is occasionally mixed with chorizo. The dish is then topped with french fries.
● Arroz con Pollo
A simple dish of rice and chicken, this is the Cuban version of paella—but without the seafood.
● Tamal en Cazuela
This dish is made of ground corn cooked with meat and spices, and it’s served directly from the pot. It’s called “tamales” when it’s served in the husk.
● Ropa Vieja
A national dish of Cuba, ropa vieja can actually be difficult to find in local Cuban haunts because much of the beef goes to the resorts and tourist restaurants. Ropa vieja (old clothes) is a stew made with tomatoes, onions and beef chunks slowly cooked till they shred.
This stew contains a little bit of everything: potatoes, pumpkin, malanga (a vegetable similar to topinambur), plantain, corn, meat, tomato paste, spices, beans, lemon juice and pretty much any other ingredient available!
Go ahead. Indulge in these crispy fried pork rinds.
Delicious and irresistible, these are battered and fried cheese balls stuffed with bits of ham.
These ripe plantains are slowly cooked in oil until they become caramelized. They’re soft, sticky, juicy and delicious.
The perfect example of street food, a churro is dough that’s fried until it’s crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. It’s then sprinkled with sugar.
Cuban Dining Terms: Glossary
Words to Know on the Menu
● Aporreado de Ternera: Ternera is veal, and aporreado is a dish typically prepared with beef or cod that’s been boiled; marinated; seasoned with tomato, garlic and onions and then fried in a little butter or oil.
● Colorados: This is a common abbreviation for frijoles colorados, or red beans.
● Moros: In this context, moros is an abbreviation for the dish called Moros y Cristianos, white rice cooked with black beans. The white and black color combination lend the dish its name, which means “Moors and Christians” in English. This is a reference to Spanish history.
Words to Know When Dining Out
Knowing a few Spanish phrases is helpful when traveling in Cuba. English is becoming increasingly widespread, but this is less true in small towns and villages.
● Could I have the bill, please?: La cuenta, por favor?
● I’m a vegetarian.: Soy vegetariano.
● Can I see a menu, please?: ¿Puedo ver un menú, por favor?
● I’d like a…, please.: Me gustaria un/una…, por favor.
● Water: Agua
● Where is the bathroom?: ¿Dónde está el baño?
A standard gratuity at a restaurant in Cuba is 10–15 percent of the total bill. Of course, feel free to leave a larger tip if you felt the service was excellent. Always be friendly with your servers, and talk with them as much as you can. This will be appreciated, and it’ll make your visit more enjoyable as well.
Even though Cuba is still certainly a developing nation, dining etiquette here is similar to what you’d find in many Western countries. When dining in Cuba, the service staff will likely be friendly and will want to earn your mutual respect. Speaking even a few Spanish phrases when you arrive will be much appreciated, and don’t forget to smile!