Flavors of Cuba
Food conversations in Cuba turn repeatedly to the vicissitudes of supply. The combination of food shortages and state-run restaurants has produced some remarkably undistinguished cooking over the past 50 years. If you’re familiar with the Cuban-American food of South Florida, you may be surprised at the food’s bland counterpart back home. Still, the sanctioning in the 1990s of privately owned restaurants called paladares have sparked a renaissance of authentic cocina criollo, traditional Cuban home cooking that does its level best to make the flavorful most of what’s at hand.
Pollo (chicken), puerco (pork) and to a lesser degree res (beef) and cordero (lamb) rank as Cuba’s meat staples—too cripplingly expensive to show up often in home kitchens but filling ample space on Cuban tourist-class restaurant menus. Cuts of meat tend to be of lesser quality than most Western restaurants, frequently a bit overcooked.
Any meat may be served estofado (stewed). La caldosa, a universal favorite, combines chicken, onions, garlic, plantains, and a variety of vegetables in a rich broth left to simmer slowly. Another favorite is cordero estofado con vegetales, lamb stew made with sweet potato, yam, carrots and other veggies. Ropa vieja combines shredded beef with a salsa criolla. Spanish for "old clothes," ropa vieja, as folkloric legend has it, was named when a desperately poor man cooked old clothes to stand-in for meat to feed his children, and it was magically transformed into a delicious stew from all the love he poured into it. Other common meat dishes include chicharrones de puerco (pork crisps), and masas de cerdo (morsels of pork), often served in a mojo criollo.
Sauces and spices are not common in Cuba—they veer into the realm of unnecessary luxury. The most commonly found are salsa criolla (onion, tomato, pepper, garlic, salt, and oil), ajiaco (the hot red pepper aji combined with yuca, sweet potato, turnips and herbs) and mojo (garlic, tomato, and pepper).
On Cuba’s eastern end, dishes are more Caribbean in style, with less of the Spanish influence found elsewhere on the island. Expect more spices and a preparation that involves cooking in coconut oil and lechita (coconut milk). Eastern dishes include congrí oriental (rice prepared with red kidney beans), bacón (a plantain tortilla filled with spicy pork), and tetí (a small, orange river fish in season between August and December).
Rice and Beans
Rice and beans, whether cooked together or served separately, are the most commonplace of sides in Cuba. They're inexpensive and have the distinct advantage of a long shelf life. Cooked slowly and often flavored with a bit of lard, they rank as savory, stick-to-your-ribs fare across the country.
Frijoles negros (black beans) and arroz (white or yellow rice) frequently accompany meat dishes. Variations on those themes include moros y cristianos (Moors and Christians), a delicious combination of black beans and white rice ubiquitous in Cuba. Arroz congrí is white rice with frijoles negros dormidos (literally “put to sleep,” or cooked and allowed to stand overnight). Yellow rice takes its color not from saffron but from annatto seeds, also used to color butter.
Traditionally, seafood isn't of primary importance in Cuban dishes; however, pescado (fish) staples can serve a welcome substitute for non-meat eaters at tourist-class restaurants across Cuba. Look for corvina (sea bass), pargo (red snapper), and filet de emperador (swordfish) with camarones (shrimp) and langosta (lobster) showing up less often.
Fruits and Vegetables
Whether it’s the perishability of fresh produce or the decision to dedicate Cuba’s farmland to its cash crops of sugarcane, tobacco, and coffee, you’ll find little in the way of fresh vegetables or fruits. This may be just as well, as Cuba’s impure water makes it inadvisable to dig into uncooked vegetables or fruits that cannot be peeled.
You will, however, see a lot of plantain, a fruit that sees 101 preparations in the Cuban kitchen. When ripe, the plantain may be cut diagonally and fried. When green, it can be sliced into lascas (thin wafers), fried, and salted to create mariquitas, or chopped into thick wedges, pounded and fried as plátanos a puñetazos (punched plantains). Green or mature, plantains may be boiled, mashed with a fork, dressed with olive oil and crisped pork rinds to create fufu or mashed and mixed with picadillo (ground meat) and melted cheese for a pastel de plátano (plantain pudding), a sort of tropical shepherd's pie.
Not surprisingly, the denizens of the land of sugarcane love their sweets. Desserts include sweet sponge cakes called kek or ke. Specialties such as guayaba (guava paste) and mermelada de mango (mango jelly) may both be served con queso (with cheese). The eastern treat cucurucho is made of coconut, sweet orange, papaya, and honey. Cubans are big fans of ice cream. In bigger cities such as Havana and Santa Clara, the ice-cream shop Coppelia is extraordinarily popular, often identified by the long line of patrons queuing up to enter.
Rum and Cocktails
Cuba’s long history of sugarcane cultivation led to its renowned ron (rum) industry. You’ll find rum served throughout the country. Young rum, which is the least expensive version, is characterized by its colorless appearance. Artificial and caramel colorings are forbidden in Cuban rum, so the darker in tone an amber rum appears, the longer you can be assured that it has aged in oak. These are the most prized of Cuban rums, the smoothest and most caramel in flavor, and the most expensive.
If you'd like the sugar experience without the kick, have a guarapo (pure cane juice, thought to be an aphrodisiac) or skip the juice and get a stalk of sugar cane to chew on, a garnish often included with cocktails or Cuban coffee. Cuba also has several fine beers ranging from light lagers such as Cristal to darker varieties like Bucanero.
Fruit drinks are often served to restaurant patrons as soon as they arrive, a sort of sangria with or without alcohol. Alternates are the mojito, a cocktail comprised of rum, sugar, mint, and soda. Cuba’s classic daiquiri is made of blended light rum, lime, and ice.