The best foods in Cuba and where to eat them

Cuban cuisine has come a long way in the past decade. Until the late 2000s, shortages were a way of life, and the nation’s default snack was a sandwich stuffed with canned ham and chewy cheese (the real Cuban sandwich is an invention of Cuban Americans in the US).

Reforms in the early 2010s broadened the goals of private entrepreneurs, and innovative restaurants began to proliferate rapidly. Today, with professional-minded chefs sharpening their creative knives, the country — despite the recent pandemic caused by the COVID-19 pandemic — is rediscovering its culinary roots.

Here are some of the best Cuban dishes and where you can taste them.

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madre rupa

The Cuban national dish – braised shredded beef in a tomato sauce – was hard to buy during the special period, the era of economic austerity that lasted from the early 1990s through the late 2000s. Food supply problems have prevented private restaurants from serving beef – killing a cow or selling its meat illegally could mean imprisonment. Fortunately, restrictions were relaxed in 2010 and madre rupa Later it jumped back into vogue.

The dish, whose name translates to “old clothes”, has Spanish roots. It is said to have originated with the Sephardic Jewish community in Spain about 500 years ago, with the exception of tomatoes, which were not popular in Europe until the 18th century. Traditionally, the meat was slow-cooked the night before the Sabbath (when cooking was forbidden) to impart an intense but subtle flavour.

Spanish versions of the dish typically contain chickpeas, while the Cuban dish combines shredded steaks (loin, brisket, or skirt) with peppers and onions in a rich tomato sauce. It may look like old clothes, but it’s definitely not like it!

The recipe probably reached Cuba from the Canary Islands, along with many of the country’s first European colonizers, having first settled in Havana. Today, any Cuban restaurant worth its salt will serve madre rupaThe meal is often taken as a basic test of the general food quality of a place. El Rum Rum de la Habana in Old Havana does a great copy.

Sweet and comforting picadillo a la Habanera is one of the most satisfying soups in Cuba © Magrig / Getty Images

Picadillo a la Habanera

close cousin of madre rupaAnd the Minced meat de la habanera A spicy blend of ground beef, olives and raisins slow-cooked until it achieves a deep, satisfying and sweet flavour. Herbs and spices, including cumin, oregano, and garlic are also added to the mix.

The dish was originally considered a meal for the poor, and ground meat or hashish was used to disguise cheaper and less desirable cuts of meat. These days, Minced meat It clearly enjoys a rich reputation. The olives testify to the Spanish roots while the sides – stones (fried plantain), rice, beans, and root vegetables – more reflective of Caribbean influences.

for the better Minced meat In Havana, go to Callejon del Choro, a narrow road near Havana Cathedral. Tucked away at the end of the street, Doña Eutimia is a specialty restaurant that excels in traditional Cuban cuisine cooked in a stale and casual way. Honestly, you can have any of the restaurant’s countless dishes, but they Minced meat It is the best of the best.

Agiaco

You can’t get more Cubans than Agiaco, a broth-like stew with pre-Columbian antecedents. Fernando Ortiz, the famous Cuban anthropologist, once likened the country’s culture to AgiacoIt is a mixture of the heritage of Africa, Spain, France, China and indigenous Tainos.

The soup contains potpourri of different types of meat, vegetables, fruits, corn and flavors. The Taino people used to make it in large clay cauldrons using bushmeat (resident gutia or tree rat was common), root vegetables such as yucca and zucchini, and sweet aji pepper from which the dish derives its name. Chili is not used much in Cuba, as its inhabitants do not taste much of the strong spice.

The Spaniards introduced new meats such as beef and pork AgiacoProteins were scaled back during the lean years of the 1990s and 2000s. It’s still mostly considered a rustic “soup” made up of scraps and leftovers, but it’s infiltrating fashion at places like Ajiaco Café, an eco-friendly restaurant in the Havana suburb of Cojimar.

Classic car passing a man on a horse in Vinales, Cuba
You can’t visit Vinales without indulging in some cochinillo asado that has been slowly roasted for hours © mrtom-uk / Getty Images

Cochinillo Asado

Spit-roasted suckling pig comes in second madre rupa As the national dish of Cuba, it is a popular communal meal at Christmas and New Year. It’s even more authentic when cooked outdoors in the country over an open charcoal fire pit. The roasting process can take up to seven hours and is a very intense process.

The rural area in and around the tobacco-growing town of Vinales in the province of Pinar del Río is the spiritual home of Cochinillo Asado. In the past decade or so, a large number of rural eco farms have sprung up to offer the feast in an idyllic rural setting. Finca Agroecológica El Paraíso is a pioneering light.

Roast pork usually comes with a variety of typical Cuban trimmings, including moros y cristianos (rice and beans cooked and seasoned in the same pot), bananas prepared in a variety of ways and vegetables. At El Paraíso, almost everything is grown and made on site.

Other restaurants likely to get good offerings of roast pork are Balcón del Valle just outside Viñales, and Casa Mía Paladar in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood, which serves srd (Pork) Pinar del Rio style.

Pescado con lechita

When it comes to food, Baracoa in the far eastern corner of Cuba lives in a universe separate from the rest of the country. Geographical isolation and a humid, volatile climate have ensured the flourishing of various crops here: coconuts and cocoa grow in abundance, and a small freshwater fish called teti thrives in local rivers. All of this bonus (and more) finds its way into local dinner dishes.

Arguably the most delicious type of paraquan is the coconut sauce called lechita It is commonly served over fish. lechita It’s made using coconut milk, tomatoes, and garlic and adorns most local seafood and rivers, including swordfish, prawns or titi that are pulled from the nearby Toa River between July and December during the waning moon.

Legendary in Baracoa is the La Colonial specialty restaurant, which has been throwing out local favorites drenched in lechita For more than 20 years.

Three friends driving around Havana in an old car
Hop in a car and head to Baracoa to sample its unique dishes like cucurucho and pescado con lechita © lisegagne / Getty Images

kokorocho

kokorocho It is a unique Cuban dessert found only in and around the city of Baracoa in the eastern province of Guantanamo. It’s made with sweet, local ingredients including coconut, guava, pineapple, almonds, and honey—no two recipes are exactly alike. It is heated and cooked in a frying pan to make a sticky dough, then the mixture is cooled and rolled into a cone-shaped palm frond. Locals sell it on the side of the road on the steep, winding Farola (Lighthouse Road), the only decent road between Baracoa and the outside world.

Polo Asado “The Pocket”

naranja agria (Bitter orange) is an essential but subtle ingredient in many Cuban dishes, but its distinct flavor dominates the menu at a particular restaurant in Havana’s diplomatic quarter.

First opened in 1993, El Aljibe is a direct descendant of a rustic farm restaurant called Rancho Luna, founded by two brothers, Pepe and Sergio García, in 1946. Rancho Luna is located in the city of Guanajay, 50 km (31 miles) west of Havana, and built a formidable reputation on the strength of one plate, Pollo a lo tinguaroOr grilled chicken glazed in a “secret” bitter orange sauce.

The restaurant flourished in the 1950s, but was nationalized and closed after the revolution. Thirty years later, the brothers decided to relaunch the place as a state-run institution called El Aljibe in the Miramar district of Havana.

To recreate the rustic rustic vibe, El Aljibe sits beneath an open-sided thatched canopy where the vast majority of its customers enjoy ordering their previously grilled chicken (renamed Polo Asado “The Pocket” after the restaurant) served with all you can eat sides of rice and beans, stones and authority. Combined with large portions and sharp service, it is arguably the best state run restaurant in Cuba.

Langosta

On the largest island in the Caribbean, it is not uncommon to find abundant and succulent seafood. Langosta Lobsters have always been an affordable option for tourists paying with convertible currency, and in recent years, private restaurants have been allowed to sell them. Portions of the rich crustacean are large, and the flavor is simple yet subtle. It is served in the crust with a little butter and some light seasoning. Varadero 60 in the resort town of the same name serves lobster as an option for surfing and turf with steak.

Called many open beach restaurants ranshonsIn the resort areas, fresh lobsters are served. Named after a beloved Canadian tourist, Lenny’s Lobster Shack adjacent to Playa Prohibida on Cayo Coco is famous for its lobster, prawns, and fish mix.

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