To me, delving into the local cuisine and savouring unfamiliar dishes is a highlight of every trip. Unfortunately, from everything I had heard and read, I anticipated that Cuba would not wow me with its culinary prowess. Due to the economic situation and the US embargo, the supply of food and availability of ingredients is unreliable and people have long made due with the limited resources at hand. Combined with the fact that privately owned restaurants have only recently been legalised, Cuba’s gastronomy has had little incentive and opportunity to thrive and make a name for itself. I thus arrived in Cuba with very low expectations for its food scene. As a result, the treats I did come across were all the more pleasant and I have listed my favourite discoveries below.
If you are staying at casa particulares and opt to have their breakfast, one of the things you can look forward to every morning is a big assortment of fresh fruit. Guava, papaya and pineapple are most likely going to feature on the menu, as well as bananas and mangoes. While I was not the biggest fan of neither guava nor papaya, the mangoes we were served in Trinidad were deliciously sweet and juicy and some of the best I have ever tasted.
Thick, frothy fruit juices are equally common and tasty in Cuba but beware that Cubans tend to add a fair share of sugar to their drink so remember to ask for your fruit juice to be ‘sin azúcar’ if you’d like to stick to natural sweetness.
Another, less common, casa breakfast item that appealed to my sweet tooth were maduros, deep fried ripe plantains. The caramelised fruit is wonderfully indulgent treat that might be better placed on the dessert menu than your breakfast plate.
The main event
It is true that the main dishes we ate throughout our trip often lacked in sophistication and were simple in their preparation, but especially in Viñales, this shortcoming was offset by the freshness of the ingredients that were used. El Paraiso, an organic finca a few minutes outside the centre of Viñales, is a great example of this. Relying on the produce harvested from their own extensive farm, the restaurant does not provide a menu but you will be served a three-course spread made up of the ingredients they have available that day. The food was fresh and abundant, and the views from the wrap-around patio onto the valley were a feast for the eye.
Content with fairly simple dishes, I also really enjoyed the traditional Cuban combo of rice and black beans. The arroz con frijoles prepared by our casa owner in Viñales was rich in flavour and deep in colour and it perfectly hit the spot after a busy morning spent horseback riding through the valley.
We also sampled several ropa viejas, the shredded beef stew often referred to as the Cuban national dish. The best one we had was in Old Havana at Teniente Rey 360 our guide from the free walking tour took us to. The sauce was spicier and much more flavourful than some of the watery ropa viejas we had tried elsewhere.
As a lover of root vegetables, I enjoyed trying the different kinds used in Cuban cooking, malanga and yucca (both similar to yams in texture and flavour) being among my favourites.
In Cuba, plantains are likely to make their way on your lunch and dinner plate too. Made this time from green plantains, smashed and twice-fried, tostones are starchier and slightly less flavourful than their sweet counterparts but go well as a side dish for your main. Stuffed plantains are also common, and are often filled with seafood and topped with cheese.
Street food contenders
Among Cuba’s street food, there were two main contenders: deep-fried dumplings filled with guava jam, which we found at a stall right opposite the capitol building. The other snack we bought strolling through Havana’s old town: triangular, crispy, fried pastry dusted with sugar and cinnamon.
The one with the rum
Another delight was discovered after a long walk in the sweltering heat around the sights of Trinidad. The colonial city is home to the canchachara, a cocktail made of four simple ingredients: honey, lime juice, water and of course, rum. Served in round terracotta cups, this humble drink stood out among Cuba’s many cocktails due to its light, refreshing sweetness that is tempered by the tartness of the lime juice. Sipping this ice-cold concoction in the shaded courtyard of the Taberna la Canchanchara, reinvigorating the body and relaxing the mind, is one my fondest memories from Cuba trip.
No, Cuba is not the most exhilarating foodie destination out there and it would be silly to expect haute cuisine when touring the island (for now at least). Nonetheless, you will find that Cuba’s humble dishes are comforting and the portions plentiful – a perfect prelude to a doze in a rocking chair or an evening of drinking one too many canchancharas.