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Discovering Cuban Food in Cuba

By: Sarah Cherres

Monday January 13th, 2020

Cubans enjoy the experience of cooking and sharing with others. It is ingrained in their culture that where two can eat, so can three. Food and cooking are at the center of a lot of their interactions, whether it is about spending time with family, friends, and even in more professional settings. Cuba is generous to share its cuisine with the world. It hosts various large-scale events throughout the year that range from workshops such as the Taller Culinario Cuba Sabe to festivals such as Culinaria.

Cuba is a bona fide destination for foodies and those who just want to learn how to make Cuban dishes in its authentic Cuban setting. Eateries abound in the Cuban capital of Havana. Across the various offerings, one can appreciate the blends of styles and influences that played a role in developing what is known today as Cuban Cuisine. In this blog, we will explore the origins of popular Cuban staples, what they are today, and how anyone can take part in the joys of learning more about Cuban Cuisine.

A Brief History of Food Arrivals in Cuba

Just as it is with culture, Cuba has Spanish, African, Taino, and Caribbean cuisine influences. Although Spanish and African were the biggest influences in Cuban, it also had influences from the Chinese, Portuguese, Arabic, Italian, and French cuisine. We must remember that Havana was a trading port during the colonial era. Many immigrants passed through the island, starting with the discovery of Cuba in 1492. The largest groups were the Spanish, the African, and later the Chinese. All brought with them a variety of plants, animals, spices, cooking techniques, and more, which contributed to what is known as Cuban food today.

Early Cuban inhabitants were Taino natives. They had an organic style of living and sourced their food by hunting, gathering, and fishing. Their crops included maize, black beans, cassava, and yams. Upon the arrival of the Spanish, a vast majority succumbed to new diseases and forced labor. The Spanish brought with them their ingredients too. Citrus fruits, such as lemons and oranges, arrived in Cuba during this time, as did Spanish rice. Amongst the animals to enter during colonial times were pigs and cattle. You will find that both sources are still palpably present across Cuban cuisine today!

African groups were then brought to Cuba as slaves to perform hard labor in mines and plantations. Although they were not able to bring much with them to Cuba, they did bring their ingenuity and cooking styles, using ingredients like okra, plantains, and cassava. After the abolishment of slavery during the late 1800s, there was an influx of Chinese laborers on the island. At the time, Chinese immigrants took on the work that was formerly done by African slaves. Amongst the elements brought by the Chinese were rice and soy sauce. Since then, rice has been a staple in Cuban cuisine.

Around the time of the Cuban revolution in the 1960s, Cubans changed the way they ate once again. Many chefs and restaurant owners also fled the island, giving way to more simple foods and methods of preparing them. As relationships grew closer with the Soviet Union, products like yogurt and wheat came into the Cuban diet, giving way to foods like pasta and pizza. The time during the Cold War also played a role in the availability of goods for Cubans, since they could not import from the U.S. It is the reason why today there is very little U.S. influence on Cuban food.

Popular Cuban Staples & Dishes

Cuba’s climate and soil have played a role in what we have come to know as the Cuban staples. Tropical fruits, such as pineapples, and root vegetables, such as yucca, boniato, and malanga, are widely used in the Cuban diet. Anyone who knows a real Cuban has likely heard that malanga – whether boiled, creamed, or mashed – helps relieve many ailments! Rice and bananas are other popular staples.

Combinations of root vegetables and fruits such as yucca, pumpkin, plantain, and boniato are sometimes called viandas and used together in soups and stews. The traditional Ajiaco Cubano has such a combination of viandas. This dish is said to have been around since before the Spanish arrived in Cuba. The combination of ingredients, including the viandas, have changed throughout history to what it is today — a hearty dish served with corn in a generous bowl.

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A ubiquitous dish for Cubans is Arroz congrí, also known as Moros y Cristianos. It consists of mixed black beans and rice. This dish is a combination of the rice that came from the Spanish and African cooking techniques. Congrí is often a side dish. Other popular sides include cut and fried plantains, plain white rice, and a simple salad with olive oil. One popular Cuban side dish, tostones, are made with plantains that are flattened and fried. Tostones resulted from the African influence in Cuba.

Chicken is a popular base for many Cuban dishes. One typical chicken-based dish in Cuba for gatherings is Arroz con Pollo. Most families have their way of making this creamy chicken and rice dish. The essential ingredients are chicken thighs, peas, and red peppers, with salt, garlic, and pepper to taste. The chicken comes out very tender. The dish often gets its yellow coloring from an annatto-based food powder. Do not ask me why, but I tend to add ketchup to mine! The well-known Fricasé de Pollo is popular too. The ingredients may vary from place to place, but the essential checklist for the Fricasé includes chicken, potatoes, tomato puré, white wine, oil, and other spices to taste.

Another prevalent dish in Cuban cuisine is the traditional Ropa Vieja, which translates to old clothes. This dish combines shredded beef and a sauce consisting of natural meat juices, onions, and garlic. Another famous meat-based dish is Picadillo. It often consists of ground meat with olives, peppers, and raisins. Note that all recipes may vary by the cook or chef, who tends to add their flavor to every recipe.

Some of you may have also heard about the famous Caja China, which translates to the Chinese Box. This style of cooking inside a box was influenced by the Chinese, as they used to cook inside wooden boxes. Cubans then adopted the Caja China. It is still widely used today to cook pork, as it leaves the skin crispy and the meat tender.

Although Cuban food does not generally employ a lot of spices or spicy condiments, Cubans do enjoy their sauces and bases, such as the sofrito. It consists of chopped peppers, onions, and tomatoes, or tomato paste, all lightly fried in olive oil. Cubans also make a sauce called Mojo. Mojo (p. moho) is a combination of olive oil, lemon juice, and garlic. Sometimes the garlic is lightly fried first. The sauce is poured over root vegetables like boiled yucca or to dip fried yuca bits. To learn more about traditional Cuban dishes, visit the Essential Guide to Eat Food Like a Cuban.

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Cooking Classes in Cuba

If you would like to learn how to make a Cuban Mojito and Ajiaco, there is a great excursion you can take! Out in the fishing town of Cojímar, in the outskirts of Havana, rests Café Ajiaco. It is a rustic place, with wooden chairs and ceilings, clay bowls, and authentic Cuban flavor. The staff at this establishment is very attentive and welcoming. During a visit to Café Ajiaco, travelers can put on their aprons and learn how to make authentic dishes such as Ajiaco Cubano, Ropa Vieja, Enchilado de Langosta y Camarones, Black Beans, and White Rice. This chef guided cooking exploration will also leave participants with a background of Cuban Cuisine, ingredients used, and how food became such an essential part of the Cuban culture.

The experience also includes a welcome beverage and a demonstration on how to prepare a Mojito Ajiaco, the house signature drink. This traditional Cuban cocktail combines the right amounts of honey, aged rum, mint, and soda water. It is then garnished with ají chai. Participants also receive an apron as a souvenir to remember the experience.

If your main goal is to sample delicious cuisine in Cuba, you can also try a Farm-to-table experience. A restaurant paladar called Mediterráneo Habana was the first to introduce the farm-to-table experience in Havana. This style of cooking fosters to use of organic and locally sourced ingredients. The restaurant’s ambiance resembles an al-fresco dining experience. The menu excels in flavorful meats and cheeses, delicious sauces, and superb desserts. To learn more about culinary adventures in Cuba, contact the knowledgeable team at OnCuba Travel to find the right gastronomic match for your palate.

Preparing A Custom Trip to Cuba

Cooking is just one of many exciting activities you can do while visiting Cuba and an often-overlooked one! Cuban food is very flavorful. If you would like to learn more about how to plan a custom trip to Cuba around your interests, contact the knowledgeable team at OnCuba Travel. They can assist you with planning and agenda full of activities like Havana vintage car tours across Old Havana and the historic Malecón de la Habana.

Another daylong or half-day excursion could be about discovering Havana Highlights. Over 3.5 hours, you could explore el Cristo de la Habana and its scenic hilltop views, the historic Cementerio de Cristobal Colón in Havana and its famous marble sculptures, tour the landmark Malecón, view the city and the bay from the Tres Reyes del Morro Castle, and more. Travelers may also enjoy visiting the best of Cuban rum, cigars, and art with a carefully curated 4-hour excursion. There is something for everyone.

The knowledgeable team at OnCuba Travel can help you select the best itinerary for your schedule and budget. They can also help you plan legal travel from the U.S. and Cuba. The team can facilitate getting your visa to travel to Cuba, selecting your reason for travel, booking roundtrip flights to Cuba from Miami and other cities, renting a car for pickup at the airport in Havana, and so much more. OnCuba Travel also takes great care in educating travelers before a trip with informational materials based on their selected excursions or all-inclusive programs in Cuba. They go the distance to give travelers exceptional customer service and enjoyable overall travel experience. Learn more about OnCuba Travel to start planning your first or next trip to Cuba.