Cigars, vintage cars, and music come to mind when people think of Cuba – not the food. On the biggest island in the Caribbean, food shortages and a lack of spices have created a reputation for bland, boring dishes. But the proliferation of privately owned restaurants, known as paladares, and a growing organic farming movement are revolutionizing the way people, especially visitors, eat in Cuba. It may not yet be a culinary destination in its own right, but you can leave the hot sauce at home.
A smart way to eat in Cuba is to stick with Cuban staples. Chefs who experiment with other cuisines – like French, Italian or Indian – often don’t have authentic ingredients stocked. At the very least, eating local food means you’ll never go hungry. From sweet street snacks like churros to the national dish ropa vieja, Cuban cuisine is nothing if not filling. And if you want a Cuban sandwich, they’re easy to find. Just know that like many popular Cuban dishes, it’s not a Cuban invention; restaurants serve them because tourists started asking.
Here are six foods and drinks you should ask for in Cuba:
Drinking strong, sweetened coffee – often grown in the country’s mountainous east and prepared in a stovetop espresso maker – is a daily ritual in Cuba. Skip it, and you’ll definitely stand out. “When you’re invited to someone’s home, they don’t ask if you want coffee. They say, ‘I’ll go make the coffee,’” says Ana Fuentes, a tour guide with Food Tours Havana. “Everyone drinks it, even kids – for them, we just add more milk.”
To start the day Cuban-style, order a café con leche (coffee with milk). The milk is always added hot or warm, never cold, Fuentes says. While breakfast at a hotel or casa particular usually involves multiple courses – including fresh fruit, bread, ham, eggs and cheese – the typical breakfast for a Cuban is a lot simpler: just milky coffee and toast with butter. If you really want to fit in, dip the buttered toast into the coffee. For an afternoon pick-me-up, go for a café Cubano (also referred to as a cafecito). Sugar is vigorously stirred into a small amount of espresso to make a creamy paste before the rest of the espresso is added.
Frituras de malanga
These bite-sized nuggets of fried malanga are the perfect snack food. Malanga is a root vegetable similar to taro. The malangas are peeled, grated down into a paste and added to a batter of egg, garlic and spices before hitting the frying pan or deep fryer. They’re served as an appetizer or side dish, often with honey for dipping, with the sweetness complementing the savory fried flavor. You might also see the fritters placed on the table with a small bowl of fruit syrup instead of honey.
There’s a familiar legend about ropa vieja, which means old clothes: the dish was first made by a father who didn’t have enough money to buy food for his family. He shredded his clothes and cooked them, praying for a miracle, and the torn cloth turned into a meaty stew.
The dish of stewed shredded meat is similar to brisket, but drenched in a sauce of tomatoes, bell peppers, onions and spices. “Ropa vieja is considered the national dish of Cuba. The recipe is over 500 years old,” Fuentes says. “It can be prepared with lamb or pork, but the original is made with beef.” Ropa vieja isn’t unique to Cuba, but it’s ubiquitous – just try to find a restaurant that doesn’t list it on the menu. It’s usually served with a hearty portion of that other Cuban staple, rice and beans.
Touts who stroll alongside tourists on the street, chatting away about local attractions before attempting to steer them to a particular restaurant, will usually mention lobster somewhere in their sales pitch. The crustacean isn’t budget-priced here, but it’s cheaper than in many other countries and, judging by how often it’s written in big letters on menus and signs, it’s a tourist favorite.
The preparation lobster enchilado is a lightly spicy dish with a garlicky, tomato-based sauce. The lobster is usually served in its shell, but you might see it in chunks. Either way, there’s sure to be a small mound of rice on the plate. If there are plantain chips too, use them to scoop up a mouthful of the sauce and eat both together. The plantain chips make for a satisfying bite, but don’t leave Cuba without also tasting maduros, fried over-ripe plantains that are firm on the outside but sweet and chewy inside, and a perfect companion to a salty or spicy dish.
The carts selling fresh fruit, coconut water and ice cream are all worth stopping at, especially on a steamy day, but the real street food treat in Cuba is churros, sticks of deep-fried dough coated in cinnamon sugar and served in paper cones. “They used to be made with chocolate, but that didn’t work here because it’s too hot,” Fuentes explains. “So now it’s cinnamon and sugar.”
Churros are easy to find; just follow the scent to the nearest cart, where you can watch the dough squeezed out like thick pasta into a vat of bubbling oil. It’s fried in a long coil before being pulled out with a pair of tongs, placed on the cart and cut up into pieces with scissors. In the last step, the churro maker scoops up several of the pieces into the paper cone and shakes a generous amount of cinnamon sugar on top. They taste best hot, so don’t let them cool too much before eating.
Cuba is the land of rum, or ron in Spanish. You’ll spot bottles of Havana Club everywhere, lined up and ready to be mixed in seemingly endless variations – cuba libres (light rum and cola), cubatas (dark rum and cola), mojitos, Mary Pickfords, ron collins, and on and on. To drink rum surrounded by tourists, stop into Ernest Hemingway’s old hangout Floridita in Old Havana, snag an inch of bar, and sip a (weak) daiquiri. For one of the creamiest piña coladas on the planet served with a side of ocean views, take a taxi to Vistamar in Havana’s Miramar neighborhood.
But if you want to try something you’re not likely to see anywhere else, order a canchancara. The cocktail, a specialty of the city of Trinidad on Cuba’s southern coast, combines rum (of course), water, ice, lime and more honey than you’d think should go into a beverage. It’s often served in a short, round earthenware cup with a short straw. Use the straw to stir the concoction and thin out the honey – otherwise, the honey will coat the straw and good luck getting a sip up.