Of the many miracles that Cuba offers to its guests, its food is one of the most interesting, unique and unforgettable. There are several options in Cuba, from gourmet meals prepared in independent restaurants known as paladares to authentic home-cooked meals cooked at casas particulares.
Cuba is a culinary gem with the possibility of satisfying every taste. Hundreds of new restaurants have opened thanks to the recent relaxation in politics on the island and they are waiting to share with you some of the most famous Cuban national dishes.
Although Cuba has a lot to offer to its visitors, keep in mind that Cuba is still a developing country.
Typical dishes of Cuban cuisine
Ropa Vieja is the most representative typical Cuban dish. Its name comes from its appearance. The exact origin of this dish is a mystery, some say it came to Cuba from the Canary Islands, although there are no historical references to this fact.
Tamales are made from freshly ground corn and spices. All this is wrapped in corn leaves, cooked and served for pleasure. You can find them all over Cuba and it is easily one of the best Cuban dishes. It’s a food you have to try.
It is one of the favorite dishes in Cuba. The rice for this dish is Valencian short grain rice, the same as for paella. In contrast, traditional saffron is not used, but instead uses Achiote Petróleo to provide a yellow color.
You can serve a Cuban sandwich in many ways, but only one is traditional. A real Cuban sandwich will not contain mayonnaise, tomatoes, lettuce, onions, peppers or jalapeños. The pork gives it an authentic taste.
Moros y Cristianos
No other typical Cuban dish is better represented than Moros y Cristianos. Black beans are served with fluffy white rice. Some Cubans serve rice with individual beans and others mix it. You can order it both ways.
Meals in restaurants
Only a few years ago, almost all restaurants in Cuba were owned by the government. As a result, Cuban food was often described by foreigners as food without the variety and quality of ingredients. But now things have changed and it’s hard to imagine a trip to Cuba without dinner at Paladar - one of Cuba’s private restaurants.
Paladares first appeared in Cuba in 1993, during a time in Cuban history called the Special Period. After the fall of the USSR, it was an economic crisis that hit the lives of all Cubans hard. During this period, the government was forced to legalize to some extent small private enterprises to help the country improve its economic situation and the quality of life of people in general. So the first Paladares came to the fore.
So what do Paladares offers? It’s hard to imagine a Cuban restaurant without typical Cuban dishes such as black beans, banana chips (known as mariquitas) or broken fried bananas (tostones), lobsters, shredded beef in tomato sauce (ropa vieja) and countless other special dishes. However, not all Paladares specialize in Cuban food. You will find restaurants offering international dishes, Italian, Chinese, Mexican and a number of other specialized restaurants. The vegan scene is also growing in Cuba!
Yet there is one thing about the Cuban paladar that sets them apart from restaurants in other countries, no matter how modern and elegant they may look. Owners of Cuban restaurants must work in conditions where even basic products are in constant deficit. Cubans never know what the next product will disappear from the shelves of shops, and very often the ingredients that are missing are as simple as butter, eggs, milk, potatoes, etc. This is why many Paladares instead print their menus, preferring they let them write on the board: they can change offers so easily, depending on what products are available.
Cuban street food is definitely not for everyone. First of all, in order to buy local street food, you will need their local CUP menu, because in most local shops you do not pay with the tourist currency CUC.
However, if you throw away prejudices (especially you won’t listen to your brain that tells you, it would definitely not pass hygienically in Europe, you better not even stop here) and you decide to visit such a local stand, you will definitely not regret it. You will find that the food is very tasty and also much cheaper than in tourist restaurants. Breakfast menus that contain sandwiches of your choice, eggs of your choice, a drink from fresh fruit can be bought at these stalls for 25CUP, which is 1CUC! You can’t even have breakfast at home for such a price. But again, to be able to order at these street stalls at all, you will need the basics of Spanish.
What to drink in Cuba
In general, you should avoid tap water in Cuba and stick to drinking bottled water. This includes mixed drinks made from tap water and drinks containing ice made from tap water.
Tip: When you drink water in Cuba at local restaurants, ask for your ice-free drinks.
What you definitely drink in Cuba is rum. Which is very high quality and cheap by our standards. Do not be afraid to order a “glass” for 1 CUC on your first visit to a bar in Havana right after landing, fearing that it will be only about 0.2dcl as in other European countries. During the next “round” they will not pour into new glasses, but for the amount they pour into that one “shot” you are about 1dcl to 1.5dcl, which probably depends on the mood of the operator and therefore do not be afraid to smile. And it will definitely help if you speak at least broken Spanish.
Traditional Cuban drinks usually still contain Cuban rum and most often Havana Club. When visiting Cuba, you will definitely order at least one Cuba Libre, but don’t be surprised that it doesn’t contain Coca-Cola. It does not exist as an American product in Cuba. So the traditional Cuba Libre drink is served with a cola drink, but not Coca-Cola and lime juice. Other drinks include Piña Colada, Daiquiri, Mojito, Havana Loco, Cuban beers such as Crystal and Buchanero and, of course, fresh coconut juice.
Food prices in Cuba
As we have mentioned several times in Cuba, it depends on what currency you pay and what facilities you eat.
- Egg breakfast at local stalls 1 CUC in tourist restaurants 3-5CUC
- Pizza in a local restaurant 3-4 CUC in tourist 5-7CUC
- Pasta 2CUC in tourist 6-15CUC
- Rice 2CUC in tourist 6-15CUC
- Soft drink: in local businesses, fresh juice is mostly already included or for 0.5CUC in restaurants 1-2CUC
Where to eat best in Cuba
Dining options in Cuba are plentiful and these mainly depend on your budget and preferences. If you want to experience authentic Cuba, be sure not to miss the local stalls and restaurants. Also, if you are staying in “Casa particular” then you have the opportunity to try home cooking. Tourist restaurants mainly in Havana and other tourist areas are also already in this period to choose from a large number. Therefore, do not be afraid to talk to local people to advise you which restaurant to visit or where to eat, depending on what you are looking for.