Cuban Food – What Is It, Its History & 4 Traditional Dishes 

In his book, “The Joy of Eating: Food and Identity in Contemporary Cuba,” Christian Paponnet-Cantat describes how food is central to the Cuban way of life.

The socio-cultural events that arose due to the power and identity struggles have, to a large extent, shaped the Cuban cuisine as well.

It is important not just to know their recipes but also to understand its food history to better understand Cuban food.  

Cuban food is influenced by its history. The Spanish colonization, the arrival of African slaves, and the neighboring Caribbean countries have shaped the Cuban cuisine over the years. Arroz con pollo, Ropa vieja, and Picadillo are some of the famous traditional dishes of Cuba.  

The Spanish colonization and the African slaves brought in their spices and techniques, which soon began to be incorporated in the Cuban cuisine.

A little bit of Chinese influence is also seen in Cuban cooking in Havana, Cuba.

Keep on reading to find out more about how the world political order influenced Cuban cuisine.

Traditional Cuban Food Consists of Rice and Beans

Congri Cuban Rice and beans dish
Congri, Classic Cuban Rice & Beans Dish

Cuba is a relatively small country in terms of the area of land and the geographical regions it spans over.

The whole country enjoys a tropical climate throughout the year. 

Nevertheless, even for this relatively small country with a single climate, Cuba’s culinary variety is rich and abundant.

The country uses fresh ingredients for cooking, and primary among them is rice and beans.

There are a lot of Cuban dishes whose base is made of these two staples.

In the past, and some would say even today, Cuba has witnessed many socio-political changes that directly impacted its food. 

The rationing system and state-run socialistic eateries have only made Cubans more creative with their cuisine.

For instance, in the eastern part of Cuba, the use of honey, chocolate, and annatto seeds are heavily borrowed from the neighboring Caribbean countries and the African eating habits.

Cuban food mostly uses fresh ingredients as they grow in abundance in the tropical climate. Stews, soups, and sandwiches use a lot of these fresh ingredients.

Some of these foods also contain meat that is roasted until it is tender. Spices, too, are quite popular in Cuba. Apart from onions and garlic, other spices such as bay leaves, coriander, cumin, and pepper are also used.

Spanish Influence in Cuban Cuisine

Cuba was the first country in the Caribbean to be colonized and the last to gain its freedom from the Spanish colonization.

Due to this, Cuban food, along with many other Cuban traditions and lifestyle choices, have very deep-rooted ties with Spanish cuisine as more and more Spanish people and their eating habits got merged with that of Cuba.

During the colonial era, parts of Cuba also emerged as important trading ports. Spanish immigrants passed through Havana before they moved onto other cities within Cuba. 

Havana was, in fact, one of the most important trading ports in Cuba. As the Spanish began to immigrate into the country, they brought with them cattle and pigs and their own spices. Due to this, many Cuban dishes today have their origin in Andalucia.

African Influence in Cuban Cuisine

Many interesting food ingredients such as the Guinea chicken, malanga, and plantain came to Cuba when the African slaves were brought into the colony. This led to the introduction of many African influenced Cuban dishes like the fufú, funche, and tostones.

Cubans also adopted the practice of eating rice with other foods, including curries, sauce, and fries.

Rice gradually became a staple and began to be used as a common accompaniment to many other Cuban dishes as a direct influence of the arrival of African slaves to Cuba’s ports. 

Plantains, too, were the result of this same event, and today, these starchy bananas are cooked as a snack and served as a side dish in many Cuban dishes.

Castro’s Cuba

Fidel Castro was a Cuban revolutionary and politician who served as the Prime Minister of Cuba from 1959 to 1976. He also served as the President of Cuba from 1976 to 2008.

The Cuban revolution and the breakdown of U.S. relations are part of his tumultuous legacy, and its widely felt impact was seen in Cuban food as well.

The events during his oppressive tenure in office had a profound impact on Cuban cuisine.

After severing ties with other countries, Cuba’s import was impacted grossly, and Cubans had to find other sources to keep the economy running.

During the Cold War, as U.S. policies did not allow trade with Cuba, this Caribbean island nation morphed its diet to accommodate a food culture that had to make do with what was available.

As Cuba became a Communist country and strengthened its ties with the Soviet Union, new food products replaced the old.

Wheat and yogurt were brought into the country while pork replaced chicken, and beef completely disappeared. In Cuba, it would be rare to find American influence on their food. 

However, in American Cuban immigrant communities settled in Miami and other places, American influences in Cuban food is quite common.

Changing Food Customs in Cuban Diaspora

Food is often used to construct the national identities of nations. The impact that the Cuban diaspora has on its cuisine and food practices is huge.

Food customs and traditions are often shaped after an exodus or migration, and the food practices are reconfigured accordingly to accommodate the changing times.  

Diaspora is one such event that greatly reshapes the food culture and practices of a region.

Cubans, who became emigrants, dismissed previously learned Cuban food ideas and adopted a new food culture that reflected the food available in the new places. In many ways, Cuban food got reconfigured over time as the diaspora happened.

Food Security and Cuban Socialism

Agrarian reforms in the 1990s had a major impact on Cuba’s urban landscape.

The government granted land rights and sanctioned agricultural markets at the time leading to urban agriculture that helped with providing food and income for many urban residents.

Urban landscaping and agriculture quickly went on to become one of the largest employment sectors in that time.

New agriculture models in Cuba heavily rely on sustainable and organic methods. All spare land, both in urban and rural Cuba, is being used for agriculture, so that abandoned parking lots are also used for cultivation. 

It does not matter whether these shifts were made primarily by pure necessity or to bring in a new approach to farming itself in our urban worlds. It does help remove the dependency on fossil fuel for the transport of food.

Even though today, Cuba is still heavily dependent on imported food, a large part of this dependency is now eradicated due to the new and improved national food production.

With less than 2% of its population considered undernourished, Cuba has also met the Millennium Development and World Food Summit Goals for 2015.

Food Sovereignty

Today’s world is plagued with heavy price fluctuations and the constant threat of climate change that looms large over the world. Add to this the rising costs of fossil fuels and fertilizers. All these factors have caused a lot of volatility in crop prices. 

It has been made almost impossible for most of the world’s smallholder farmers to have a smallholding to continue managing their pieces of farming smallhold lands due to these reasons, and the agroecosystems are in dire need of an upgrade.

Rural social movements, such as the Food Sovereignty movement led by La Vía Campesina, provide an opportunity to acknowledge and address these agroecosystems’ vulnerability.

Today, Cuba is in a position to be one of those few countries that can implement food sovereignty so that it will, which will, in turn, help minimize the threats posed by global food price fluctuations and help the nation strive towards a more secure agrarian country.

Cuba has experienced in the span of just one year, in 2008, three devastating catastrophic hurricanes in the span of a single year in 2008.

These extreme climatic changes are not at all conducive for crops, and food sovereignty needs to be something that other nations, along with Cuba, need to commit to continuing to keep their food culture alive wholeheartedly.  

The researchers at the Universidad Central de Las Villas (UCLV) in Villa Clara Province, Cuba, are trying new methods in developing methods for a new and effective way for the practical implementation of food sovereignty by increasing awareness of smallholder farmers and designing and managing food security models at the national level.

The Food Staples of Cuba

Sliced Cuban style slow roasted pork shoulder in mojo marinade and sauce on wood board with limes
Sliced Cuban Roasted Pork

The tropical climate in Cuba encourages the growth of many fruits and root vegetables. Malanga, potatoes, bananas, yucca, and plantain are incorporated in many Cuban dishes today. Seafood is also abundant in this island nation.

A trace of Chinese influence is also seen in the amount of rice cultivation in Cuba today. Rice was first brought into Cuba by the Chinese and is a staple food of Cuba today.

Chinese immigrants also brought in the La Caja China (roughly translates to the Chinese box). It is a contraption that the Chinese used to cook their meals in.

They carried all their wares in a wooden box and made meals on these makeshift wooden boxes complete with fire source provision.

Today La Caja China is used in many Cuban festivals to make slow-roasted pork.

Some of the food staples such as Moros y Cristianos (black beans with rice) and the Pollo en salsa, chicken in sauce, are commonly used in the Cuban diet today.

Tostones is another common food staple in Cuba that is made of flattened green plantains that is deep-fried. This is a remnant of the African influence in Cuban cuisine.

Arroz Con Pollo: A One-Pot Cuban Dish

Arroz con pollo served in a dish with wooden spoon
Cuban Arroz con Pollo

The Arroz con pollo is a classic Cuban dish made with chicken and rice. It is a one-pot dish making it very easy to prepare and reduces the washing up later.

Many Cuban families prepare this as a Sunday meal. Fluffy yellow rice with chicken chunks and a tomato sauce base makes this the ideal comfort food for a lazy weekend. It is also peppered with vegetables making it a healthy dish.

This traditional dish has seen many variations across regions and time. Mostly the variances will be of technique and the specific spices and vegetables that go in it, mostly dependent on the place you are cooking in and the things available to you there.

Though with the world becoming increasingly accessible through online shopping websites, you can pre-order some of these key ingredients from a website in case it is not easily available where you live. 

Here is one such rendition of the dish inspired by Jamie Silva of A Sassy Spoon. To make this dish, you will need the following ingredients:

  • 500 gms (1.1 lb) chicken thighs
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon pepper
  • 1 tablespoon cumin
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 medium-sized onion chopped
  • 4 cloves of crushed garlic
  • 1 medium-sized red bell pepper chopped
  • 2 cups of rice
  • 6 cups chicken stock
  • 1 can of tomato sauce
  • 1 tablespoon annatto powder
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 teaspoon oregano
  • 1 tablespoon of chopped coriander
  • 1 cup of frozen peas

To prepare the dish, you will need to follow these simple and easy steps:

  1. Begin by seasoning the chicken thighs with salt, pepper, and cumin. Save some cumin from that one tablespoon for later use. Cover the seasoned chicken and let it rest for half an hour to an hour.
  2. Heat olive oil in a large pot and brown both sides of the marinated chicken thighs and keep aside.
  3. In the same pot now, add the crushed garlic and sauté it for a minute before adding in the onion and red bell pepper. Let it cook till the onion is translucent.
  4. Now add the rice and gently pour in the chicken stock along with the rest of the spices. The remaining cumin that you had saved up from the marination stage can be used up now. Pour it all in and stir the rice till it comes to a boil.
  5. Once the rice comes to a boil, add the chicken thighs and cover the pot with a lid and cook on reduced heat for 40-50 minutes.
  6. You will see that the rice has turned yellow and fluffy, and the vegetables are totally cooked through. Your arroz con pollo is now ready to be served.

If annatto powder is not readily available where you live, you can purchase Mama Sita’s Achuete Annatto Powder online. It is an all-natural food ingredient that is made from the extract of annatto seeds and corn starch.

Ropa Vieja: A Traditional Cuban Dish

Cuban National Dish Ropa Vieja served on top of white rice
Cuban National Dish, Ropa Vieja

The name of this dish typically translates into “old clothes.” It is made of steak that has been shredded to smaller pieces.

Perhaps this is how the name ropa vieja or old clothes stuck. It is a traditional dish that uses steak for its creation and made of meat that becomes tough even after being braised for a long time.

Traditionally it is served with fried plantains and black beans.

To make this, you will need:

  • 1.3 kg (3 lbs) flank steak
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 large onions, chopped
  • 3 large tomatoes chopped
  • 2 large red bell peppers, chopped
  • ¾ cup olives
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 8 cloves of crushed garlic
  • 4 teaspoons sweet paprika
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper powder
  • ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • ¼ cup chopped cilantro
  • 1 tablespoon oregano
  • 2 teaspoons cumin powder
  • 2 teaspoons distilled white vinegar
  • ½ cup dry white wine
  • 2 tablespoons salt

For preparing the recipe, we have broken down the instructions into the following steps:

  1. Heat olive oil in a large pot.
  2. Once the oil starts to sizzle, put in the flank steak and cook it until it browns by occasionally turning it. This should take 6-7 minutes. Set the browned flank steak aside.
  3. Preheat the oven to 250°F (121.1°C).
  4. Now in the same pot where you browned the flank steak, cook the onion and bell peppers with a little bit of salt till the onion browns.
  5. Next, add garlic and fry till you get the aromatic smell of slightly burnt garlic from the pan. Keep scraping the bottom of the pan till the bottom of the pan has turned brown. This should take another 5-7 minutes.
  6. Add the wine next and cook until the wine has evaporated. Stir the dish occasionally.
  7. Now you can add the remaining spices—paprika, oregano, black pepper, cumin, and cayenne. Stir it thoroughly until the vegetables are coated with the spice mix. The spices will become fragrant in about a minute.
  8. Add the chopped tomatoes, and after stirring it, you can coarsely break them up with a spoon. The tomatoes will become mushy and will begin to break down as you cook them further.
  9. Bring the pot to a boil till the water is reduced to half.
  10. Now place the flank steak into the tomato mixture. At this stage, you can place the bay leaves as well in the pot.
  11. Put the lid on the pot and transfer it to the preheated oven for 150-180 minutes till vegetables are thoroughly done, and the meat is tender.
  12. Take it out of the oven and let it cool for a quarter of an hour. Remove any excess fat from the sauce at this stage and discard the bay leaves.
  13. With the help of two forks, tear the meat from the flank steak until the meat is fully incorporated into the sauce.
  14. As a garnish, stir in the olives, cilantro, and vinegar.

This dish is best enjoyed with rice, fried plantains, and black beans. Check out this video to make another version of the Ropa Vieja with braised shredded beef brisket:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lMDf0FLwkzc

Classic Cuban Picadillo

Picadillo Cuban Dish
Picadillo Cuban Dish

Picadillo is a classic Cuban recipe made of ground beef that is often served with white rice and as filling in tacos and empanadas.

A side of fried plantains is also enjoyed with this dish. 

To make this dish, you will need the following ingredients:

  • 500 gms (roughly 1 pound) ground beef  
  • 1 green bell pepper, chopped
  • 6 pieces of olives, quartered
  • ½ cup of raisins
  • 1 can tomato sauce
  • 1 tablespoon capers
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon cumin powder
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 clove of crushed garlic
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 40 gms (1.4 oz) of Sazon seasoning
  • Salt to taste

Follow the directions listed here to make a quick Picadillo recipe for your mealtime:

  1. Heat oil in a skillet and stir in the garlic. Keep on stirring until it becomes aromatic.
  2. Then add in onion and green bell pepper until the onion becomes translucent. This should take somewhere around 5-7 minutes.
  3. Next, put in the ground beef into the pot and cook for 7-10 minutes until the meat is browned completely.
  4. Add the capers, olives, raisins, tomato sauce, cumin, sugar, salt, and Sazon seasoning to the beef mixture. The capers and olives add a bit of tang to the dish, which is balanced out with the sweetness of the raisins and sugar.
  5. Cover the skillet and reduce it to low heat and cook until the mixture is heated through. Ideally, this should take around 5-10 minutes.
  6. Once done, let it cool for about 15-20 minutes before serving it with hot white rice.

In case Sazon seasoning is not easy to come by where you live, the Goya Foods Sazon Con Azafran Seasoning is available for purchase online and comes in a pack of 3.5 oz (100 gms).

This seasoning adds loads of flavor and color to your dish, making it tasty and appetizing. The brand claims that even adding a single packet of the seasoning will make a world of difference to the dish.

Tostones: A Quick, Simple, and Authentic Cuban Dish

plate of tostones and green plantains in the background
Cuban Tostones

Tostones are nothing but twice-fried plantains that are enjoyed largely as a side dish and are a classic staple of Cuban cuisine.

This is very easy to make and made with unripe green plantains. This dish is served as an accompaniment to a lot of other Cuban dishes. And can be enjoyed as a snack on its own.

To make this dish, you will only need three simple ingredients:

  • 1 green plantain
  • 5 tablespoons olive oil
  • Salt

Though this dish may seem to be fairly easy to make, it packs quite a punch.

You can make them in advance to be served along with your main meal or make them fresh and have hot tostones as a snack at any time of the day. 

Follow these simple steps to make the easiest and most satisfying tostones for yourself and your family:

  1. Peel and chop the green plantains into two-inch thick slices.
  2. Heat oil in a non-stick pan over medium-high heat.
  3. Fry the plantain slices on all sides by turning over every other minute until it is golden and crisp. Remove the slices from the oil and keep aside.
  4. Let the plantains rest on paper towels so that any excess oil is drained off.
  5. Next, you will need to flatten the plantain. You can use any heavy flat-bottomed object to flatten the plantain. The LATDELDIS Puerto Rico Plantain Press can be useful in this regard. It is made of pinewood, which makes it durable and damage-resistant. Also, the press comes with two wells that will help expedite the flattening process.
  6. You may want to wrap a saran wrap on the surface and the press to avoid staining in case there is oil spillage when you are pressing the plantain. Alternatively, you could also use a paper towel, which will do a good job of absorbing excess oil.
  7. The aim of flattening the plantain is to have plantain slices that are no more than ½ and inch (1.25 cms) thick.
  8. Once you have the flattened plantain, you need to repeat the process of frying it once again. In the same skillet that you had used earlier, fry the plantains until it is crisp and golden on both sides.
  9. Once fried, you will need to remove and drain it on paper towels.
  10. As the last step, season these refried plantain slices with salt before you serve them. They are best enjoyed as an accompaniment with the main meal, but you can also make this to be enjoyed as a snack, especially on rainy days.

In this video, you can follow the same steps to make tostones using the three simple ingredients. The video is a step-by-step guide of these incredibly easy-to-make crispy tostones that are made with unripe green plantains by twice frying them in oil.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=722gwEzpqhI

Conclusion

It is a well-known fact that the best way to get into the heart of any culture is through its cuisine. Cuban cuisine evolved with each new chapter in its history.

The colonization of Cuba by Spain and the African slaves have all contributed to the way Cuban food has evolved. The tropical climate leads to an abundance of fruits and vegetables. 

While the cuisine mainly consists of rice and beans, Cuban cuisine has long since made its foray into other dishes, which have now become part of its culture and are largely considered traditional Cuban food.

And of course, at the heart of the Cuban culture is the famous Cuban coffee and its many delicious desserts!

Join the debate! What’s better, the Cuban Sandwich or the Medianoche? I guess first things first. Cuban Sandwich vs. Medianoche, What’s the Difference?

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