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What's on the Menu in Cuba?
Why read about Cuban cuisine? Here are three good reasons: 1) Now you can legally visit Cuba if you go with a U.S. licensed tour company and a specific mission. 2) If you like ethnic dining, you may want to know what's on the menu at your local Cuban restaurant. 3) You may even want to try some Cuban recipes at home--a cocktail with lime juice (we'll list many), a rum-spiked sauce, or a guava and cream cheese dessert.
On our recent (perfectly legal and quite interesting) vacation in Cuba, my husband, daughter, and I also ate a huge amount of "Moors and Christians" and some "old clothes." I kid you not. Translated into Spanish, the first is "Moros y Cristianos;" which means black beans and rice, included in almost every meal we ate. "Old clothes" ("ropa vieja" in Spanish) were quite tasty; the dish is actually shredded (pulled) flank steak that's been slow-cooked in a sofrito sauce made of onions, tomatoes, and peppers. This dish was the only edible beef we encountered in Cuba. Neither of these two dishes was new to us, but some foods we were served in Cuba we had never tasted before. What follows is a brief report on what you're likely to find when you dine in Cuba or at a Cuban restaurant in the United States.
State-run dining versus paladars (or paladares)
"Is Cuban food good?" a friend asked. Well, as is true everywhere, that depends upon where you eat. But in Cuba this takes on an odd twist. Most restaurants are operated by government-controlled agencies. However, in this Communist country, there are also privately-owned restaurants (called paladars) which are generally family-run businesses in people's homes (or backyard gardens. These restaurants are likely to serve better meals that cost more. Paladars need to charge more because they are very heavily taxed. However, by American standards, in general, paladar prices are not out of bounds.
The most famous paladar is La Guarida. It was used as a movie set for the film "Fresa y Chocolate," ("Strawberry and Chocolate"). To reach it, customers have to climb some steep marble steps, but it's worth the climb. Other recommended paladars (in Plaza Cuba's "Guide to Restaurants and Bars") are Doctor Café and La Fontana. Add to that list Le Chansonnier. One palador our tour took us to and we loved was Restaurante DiVino. The home is lovely, the food tasty, and the hosts exceptionally gracious. We were served some produce the owners had grown in their own garden. Now that's fresh!
Other restaurants often given a thumbs up in reviews are Roof Garden, El Templete, and El Aljibe (which specializes in roast chicken that we found tasty though not unusual). Los Nardos is a good moderately-priced spot that's popular with Cubans as well as tourists, so, for dinner, there are often long lines; go for lunch. Tien Tan has the best Chinese food in town.
What's so pleasant about dining in Cuba (especially when one has come from snowy Chicago) is that many places are open-air (roofs but no walls). Everything is palatable when you're dining al fresco. Moreover, there seems to be music in almost every Havana restaurant, even at lunchtime. A lively Cuban band makes conversation difficult, which is a blessing if you happen to share a table with an aggressive tour-mate whose political views are in complete opposition to yours.
"Is Cuban food like Mexican cuisine?" another friend asked. There are many similarities (for example, beans, rice, and plantains). Still, my answer is "No." Cuban cuisine is a mixture of many ingredients and flavors from around the world. Wikipedia calls it "a fusion of Spanish, African, and Caribbean cuisine" having much in common with the cooking styles of neighboring Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, along with some Chinese influence, especially in Havana. Furthermore, the diet is greatly influenced by what grows on this tropical island and what swims in the surrounding waters.
Cubans generally have a small, simple breakfast of toast and coffee--usually expresso or café con leche, better known in the U.S. by its French name, café au lait; it's coffee with steamed milk. But in Cuban hotels and resorts, breakfast is positively massive. It contains everything you'd expect--orange juice, scrambled eggs, French toast, bacon, dry cereal, bread, pastries, tropical fruit (guava, passion fruit, papaya, and white pineapple). But then there's likely to be much more you wouldn't expect to be offered for breakfast--sometimes hot dogs, ham croquettes, spring rolls, dates, yellow rice, and chunks of cooked pumpkin in mojo sauce (to be discussed later).
However, the oatmeal that many health-conscious Americans customarily eat each morning is missing. Furthermore, in my eight-day Cuban travels, I saw nary a bagel and only one plate of croissants.
Coffee variations included café con leche and expresso but not, to my dismay, decaf coffee. (Though I asked repeatedly, I found decaf in no restaurants and only once, in a hotel room packet.) I drank café con leche for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, so I didn't sleep much.
In Cuba, breakfast was by far my favorite meal of the day. I liked the blend of new and familiar foods.
Lunch and dinner
Sandwiches are a quite popular lunchtime choice for Cubans. Cuban sandwiches are mostly made in a panini-style grill, giving them a satisfying crunch. The most well-known Cubana sandwich is appropriately called the Cubana. It includes (all in one sandwich!) roast pork, thinly-sliced ham, Swiss cheese, dill pickles, and yellow mustard. Chicken with a slew of other ingredients is also a common sandwich choice.
The lunches served to our tour group tended to be quite similar to our dinners: a small salad of lettuce and tomatoes, an entrée of black beans and rice with some chicken or pork, and dessert, usually ice cream (sometimes guava ice cream) or guava with a side dish of cream cheese. Coffee was served after the dessert.
Some dinners included delicious shrimp, lobster, and squid. Rabbit was also on some menus. Twice we were served chunks of beef (steak) that were so dry that neither a knife nor teeth could penetrate them. One lunch was paella (at an Old Havana restaurant of the same name); we had to go digging through the huge mound of rice to locate the few small shrimp it contained. This was not the paella we remembered from Peruvian or other restaurants. In general, my recommendation to Cuban tourists is to order seafood or chicken; though the chicken is sometimes more bone than meat, it's always tasty.
A word about the rice dishes: We were served black beans and rice at almost every lunch and dinner we consumed in Cuba. In most cases, the ingredients were mixed before appearing on our table, giving the dish an unappetizing, muddy appearance. However, at El Aljibe, the rice and beans were served separately, the rice put on our plates by the waiter and the beans in sauce set on the table for us to help ourselves. I much prefer this method, which enables the diner to determine the ratio of rice to beans to sauce.
Our tour took us to Havana, western Cuba (the Viñales Valley), and the Villa Clara area, so we had no exposure to eastern Cuban cuisine, which, I understand, is more influenced by Chinese, Haitian, and Caribbean cooking styles. The rice served there is usually mixed with red (kidney) beans.
Root vegetables and tubers are also popular side dishes--for example, potatoes, malanga, and yuca. In my opinion, malanga tastes like a potato, but others say it has a distinctive nutty flavor. We had it boiled, but, according to specialtyproduce.com, it can be fried as chips, pureed, made into a creamy hot or cold soup, or used to thicken stew. Yuca (which could use a more appetizing name) is generally boiled or fried. As are many other foods, yuca is often served in or with a mojo sauce. What's that? It varies from one restaurant to another, but here's what TasteofCuba.com lists as the ingredients: olive oil, garlic, orange or lime juice, cumin, salt, and pepper. In my local Cuban restaurant near Chicago, mojo sauce is simply garlic and vinegar.
Another side dish that can appear at breakfast, lunch, or dinner is cooked plantain in a sweet (probably rum) sauce. Plantains resemble bananas but they taste less sweet. Unlike bananas, they're best eaten after the peel turns black and when sliced (vertically or horizontally) and cooked. Being an ignorant tourist, I ate them raw and not yet blackened for breakfast every morning, and nothing dire happened to me. However, they weren't as tasty as a banana. No plantains in your neighborhood? Try cooking a banana plantain-style. (Find a recipe online.) It will be good, though perhaps a bit mushy. Plantains hold up to cooking better.
What's for dessert? It might be flan, rice pudding, guava or coconut ice cream, or guava with a side of cream cheese. Planning a Cuban dinner party? You can combine ice cream, guava, and cheese if you follow this recipe entitled "Cream Cheese and Guava Swirl Ice Cream" on seriouseats.com. You don't even need a fresh guava, just canned guava paste. And you can make the whole thing in your blender.
Cubans and rum
The most popular cocktails in Cuba are made with rum, as are many of the sauces. Bacardi rum is no longer produced or sold there. (Bacardi left Cuba soon after the 1959 revolution; you can find out why by reading Wikipedia's Bacardi article.) The brand sold in Cuba now is Havana Club. Visitors can tour the Havana factory and taste a sample.
Here are some popular rum drinks that tourists are urged to try. Note the prevalence of lime juice and mint. (Lime juice, a nurse told me, is an effective killer of bacteria. The internet seems to agree.)
Piña colada (light rum, coconut cream--or coconut milk plus condensed milk--and crushed pineapple): It's often served at tourist rest stops. It may also contain honey and a sugar cane stick for stirring. The rum is optional. Commonly, the bottle is left out for customers to pour in as little or as much as they want. Even without the rum, the drink is delicious.
Mojito (mint leaves, lime juice, powdered sugar, white rum, club soda, a sprig of mint for garnish, and crushed ice): This drink was born in Cuba, so it may be considered the national drink. We were served it with many meals. Sometimes it tasted good, other times horrible. I guess it depends on the ratio of the ingredients.
Cuba libre aka rum and Coca-Cola (rum, Coca-Cola, sugar, and lime)
Havana cooler (rum, mint, and Sprite or ginger ale)
Daiquiri (rum, lime and a sweetener): About.com says this recipe is "simple beyond belief...if your drink is a bit too tart, add more sugar. If it's too sweet, add more lime." The article also says that the Daiquiri is thought to have been developed in Cuba in the late 1800's as a medicinal treatment or a local alternative when whiskey and gin were not available.
Hemingway Daiquiri (rum, maraschino liqueur, grapefruit juice, lime juice, simple syrup, and shaved ice): Ernest Hemingway, the famous American author, lived in Havana from 1939 until 1960, shortly after the revolution. His gift to Cuba: the recipe for his favorite drink, which he downed frequently in his favorite restaurant/bar, Floridita. Here's how Hemingway described the frozen double daiquiri (known in Havana as the "Papa Doble") that he invented: "...like the sea where the wave falls away from the bow of a ship when she is doing thirty knots." One evening, he drank 15 of them!
Floridita, in Old Havana, has a life-size statue of Hemingway at the bar. Tourists can link arms with him and take a photo. The restaurant is government-run, so the food isn't memorable, but it's fun to have a daiquiri with Ernie (but not 15).
Gazpacho: Here's the Spanish influence again. No rum, just wine and fruit juice. In Madrid, it has pieces of fruit floating in it, but the Cuban gazpacho we were served was pure liquid.
In Cuba, you can also eat your way through a lot of rum. Many foods are cooked in a rum sauce, for example, shrimp with citrus rum sauce, chicken with pineapple rum sauce, Cuban pork roasts with rum caramel, and fried plantain in butter rum sauce. Recipes for most of these drinks and foods can be found online.
The easiest, cheapest way to taste Cuban cuisine without traveling is to 1) find a Cuban restaurant; or 2) do some Cuban cooking yourself. Do some online research for Cuban recipes (start with the sources listed below), and then whip up a batch of black beans and rice, some yuca, and a pork roast. Precede the meal with mojitos and end it with expresso. Turn up the heat, put on a pair of shorts, and you'll feel like your dining room is in Cuba.
How, when, and why to visit Cuba
If you are determined to dine on Cuban food in Cuba, you may need to do some online research to find a licensed tour. Here's one site to try:
Note that Smithsonian and National Geographic are listed there. Also, you can google the Art Encounter website; that organization runs Cuban trips. Other names to check online: insightcuba.com, cubaexplorer.com, and worldpassageltd. Check out Frommer's Guide to Tours for more possibilities. We went with a company called YMT and were generally pleased with the hotel and resort we stayed at and the activities on our itinerary. Tours are arranged around various missions or purposes, such as learning about Cuba's culture and arts (our tour), a particular religion, or nature studies.
When to go? See Trip Advisor's comments in "Best time of year to visit Cuba?" You'll discover that no time of year guarantees ideal weather. The peak season runs December through March, before the rainy season (May-October) and before it gets hotter. Also, remember that June-November is hurricane season. We went in February (in the dry season) and still had two rainy days. Other days, it was beautiful (70s to low 80s daytime and about 65 at night). For more comments on when to go, especially to attend particular festivals, consult Frommer's.
Of course, Cuba has much more to offer in addition to novel food. (To be truthful, some visitors who have been dragged from one mediocre state-run restaurant to another have come home and complained about the food.) Havana's 300+ year-old buildings are of great interest to architecture and history buffs. The Cuban scenery is beautiful, especially in the agricultural Viñales Valley, where there are limestone hills and caves that spelunkers can boat ride through. Havana has a spectacular national art museum, and, indeed, in Havana, one is surrounded by art in the form of murals and sculptures. Cubans are also musical, so the nightlife in Havana is lively. If you want to be reminded of the 1950s, you can see a cabaret show (at the Tropicana Club or the Hotel Nacional de Cuba) highlighting Latin music and dancing chorus girls attired in incredibly tall hats and very little else.
Cuba is just 90 miles (a 45-minute plane ride) from Miami. Despite the embargo, the people are cordial to Americans, and Cuba has a reputation for being quite safe. Think about it. You won't starve there.
seriouseats.com "Scooped: Cream Cheese and Guava Swirl Ice Cream"
tasteofcuba.com "Cuban Mojo Sauce recipe"
wsj.com "Hemingway's Daiquiri"
inmamaskitchen.com "Cuban Food"
gocaribbean.about.com "Caribbean Travel: Licensed Cuba Travel Providers"
plazacuba.com "Guide to Havana--Restaurants and Bars"
Wikipedia (See articles on Cuba, Bacardi, and Hemingway.)
frommers.com/destinations/cuba "Complete Guide to Cuba"