What to Eat
Cuban food is mostly peasant fare, usually lacking in sauces and spices. Cerdo (pork) and pollo (chicken) are the two main protein staples, usually served with frijoles negros (rice and black beans) and plátanos (fried banana or plantain). Cerdo asado (succulent roast pork), moros y cristianos (Moors and Christians—rice and black beans), and arroz congrí (rice with red beans) are the most popular dishes. Congrí oriental is rice and red beans cooked together. Frijoles negros dormidos are black beans cooked and allowed to stand till the next day. Another national dish is ajiaco (hotchpotch), a stew of meats and vegetables.
Cubans love pollo frito (fried chicken) and pollo asado (grilled chicken), but above all love roast pork—with ham, pork is the most ubiquitous dish. Beef is virtually unknown outside the tourist restaurants, where filet mignon and prime rib are often on the menu, alongside ropa vieja (a braised shredded beef dish). Most steaks tend to be far below Western standards—often overcooked and fatty.
Meat finds its way into snacks such as empanadas de carne, pies or flat pancakes enclosing meat morsels; and picadillo, a snack of spiced beef, onion, and tomato. Crumbled pork rinds find their way into fufu, mixed with cooked plantain, a popular dish in Oriente. And ham and cheese find their way into fish and stuffed inside steaks as bistec uruguayo.
Corvina (sea bass), filet de emperador (swordfish), and pargo (red snapper) are the most common fish. Fish dishes are often zealously overcooked, often with lots of bones for good measure. State restaurants charge CUC10–35 for lobster dishes.
Few Cubans understand the concept of vegetarianism. Since colonial days meat has been at the very center of Cuban cooking. Cubans disdain greens, preferring a sugar and starch-heavy diet. At last visit, Cuba had only one true vegetarian restaurant! Only a few restaurants serve vegetarian dishes, and servers in restaurants may tell you that a particular dish is vegetarian, even though it contains chunks of meat. Most beans are cooked in pork fat, and most congrí (rice with red beans) dishes contain meat. “Protein vegetal” translates as “soy product.”
Fresh vegetables rarely find their way onto menus, other than in salads. Ensaladas mixtas (mixed salads) usually consist of a plate of lettuce or pepinos (cucumbers) and tomatoes (often served green, yet sweet) with oil and vinaigrette dressing. Palmito, the succulent heart of palm, is also common. Often you’ll receive canned vegetables. Sometimes you’ll receive shredded col (cabbage), often alone.
Plátano (plantain), a relative of the banana, is the main staple and almost always served fried, including as tostones, fried green plantains eaten as a snack. Yucca is also popular: it resembles a stringy potato in look, taste, and texture and is prepared and served like a potato in any number of ways. Boniato (sweet potato) and malanga, a bland root crop rich in starch, are used in many dishes.
Elsewhere in the Caribbean, you can’t drive around a bend without having someone selling a bunch of ripe bananas or handfuls of papayas, mangoes, or coconuts. Not so in Cuba. You’ll pass fields of pineapples, melons, oranges, and grapefruits, but you won’t have easy access to any outside of hotel restaurant buffets or farmers markets. Virtually the entire fruit harvest goes to produce fruit juice.
Local mercado agropecuarios sell well-known fruits such as papayas (which should be referred to as fruta bomba; in Cuba, “papaya” is a slang term for vagina), plus such lesser-known types as the furry mamey colorado, an oval, chocolate-brown fruit with a custardy texture and taste; the cylindrical, orange-colored marañon, or cashew-apple; the oval, coarse-skinned zapote, a sweet granular fruit most commonly found in Oriente; and the large, irregular-shaped guanábana, whose pulp is sweet and “soupy,” with a hint of vanilla.
Coconuts are rare, except in sweets and around Baracoa, where coconut forms a base for the nation’s only real regional cuisine.
Cubans have a sweet tooth, as befits the land of sugar. They’re especially fond of sickly sweet sponge cakes (kek or ke) covered in soft “shaving-foam” icing and sold for a few centavos at panaderías (bakeries).
Flan, a caramel custard, is also popular (a variant is a delicious pudding called natilla), as is marmalade and cheese. Also try tatianoff, chocolate cake smothered with cream; chu, bite-size puff pastries stuffed with an almost-bitter cheesy meringue; and churrizo, deep-fried doughnut rings sold at every bakery and streetside stalls, where you can also buy galletas, sweet biscuits sold loose.
Coconut-based desserts include coco quemado (coconut pudding), coco rallado y queso (grated coconut with cheese in syrup), and the cucurucho, a regional specialty of Baracoa made of pressed coconut and sugar or honey.
Cubans are lovers of ice cream, sold at heladerías (ice-cream stores) and street stalls. Cubans use specific terms for different kinds of scoops. Helado, which means “ice cream,” also means a single large scoop; two large scoops are called jimagua; several small scoops is an ensalada; and sundae is ice cream served with fruit.
© Christopher P. Baker from Moon Cuba, 5th Edition