Cuban Cuisine, A Beginner’s Guide

While Cuba’s restaurant scene is improving, no trip to Cuba is a gourmet tour. Formerly, all restaurants were owned and run by the state. However, slowly, private restaurants are beginning to emerge.

It is definitely worth trying some excellent home-style cooking at one of the country’s few family-run restaurants, called paladares. In Havana, some of the paladares are so sophisticated that they could actually compete with a top international establishment’s cuisine.

Outside of Havana, chefs have to work with a substantially limited range of ingredients and the cuisine has very little foreign influence so meals in Cuba can sometimes be rather bland. Be prepared that the staples of all Cuban meals are rice and beans – sometimes combined together to make congri and sometimes cooked separately and served as white rice and black bean soup (potaje). Cubans eat these staples every single day.

On the menu, you’ll notice that fish, chicken and pork are the most common meat options, with rice, beans and plantain also featuring quite heavily.

Vegetarians beware… Fresh vegetables are limited in Cuba and in Cuban cuisine. However, fresh cabbage, tomatoes or cucumbers will usually accompany your meal. Vegetarianism is a relatively new concept in this part of the world, and vegetarian cuisine is therefore rather basic. Gluten-free and dairy-free products are also very limited.

If you will be traveling around the country for a few days, pack plenty of snacks to avoid overloading on biscuits. Granola bars and protein bars are not available in Cuba. So, pack these from home.

Desserts are quite common in Cuba, with popular choices being ice cream (of varying flavors), sponge cakes, flan (a caramel custard), and marmalade and cheese.

Coffee lovers will delight while in Cuba as Cubans absolutely love their coffee, thought it is quite strong. It is typically served at the end of each meal, espresso style. Local beers are also quite good, particularly Cristal or Bucanero, and beware that imported brands are available but at a premium price. However, a trip to Cuba should include at least a sip of its most famous local alcoholic beverage, rum. National cocktails include the Mojito, made with white rum, sugar, lime juice, ice and a sprig of mint. The Cuba Libre and the Daiquiri are other popular options.

Bottled mineral water and soft drinks are readily available. Fruit juices and batidos, fruit drinks blended with milk and ice, are commonly available. However, avoid drinking local water or local drinks blended with ice.

Vegetarian restaurant options in Havana:

Al Medina
El Bambu
La Lluvia de Oro
El Rapido
La Dominica

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