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Vegetarians fare well in Cuba.

WHEN THE Spanish “discovered” us five hundred years ago, the estimated population on the Island was no more than 200,000 inhabitants who were living in harmony with nature. Their main sources of food came from the rivers, lakes and seas rich in protein; they were also carrying out a rudimentary form of agriculture that supplied them with calories, vitamins, mineral salts and fibre.In some regions of Cuba they still have the custom of making “casabe,” a kind of bread made from casaba. Certain fruits and small wild animals rounded off their diets. They used to concoct a beverage with fermented products and they brought to world culture the rather unhealthy habit of smoking.

Excerpted from a January 21, 2011 article by Fidel Castro titled “The Time Has Come To Do Something.”

A brief history of Cuban cooking

Cuban cuisine is the result of a mixture of Spanish, Aboriginal, African and Caribbean influences. It is unique in the world kitchen.

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Cuban food ain’t what it used to be! During the dark days of the special period when Cubans were cut off from the world and its rich neighbor to the north deprived islanders of its cornucopia of overabundance, Cubans (and their guests) were limited to a monotonous diet of rice and beans sometimes complemented with chicken, fish or pork.

TODAY’S ISLAND CHEFS, with access to a broader spectrum of ingredients experiment with native edibles, centuries-old traditions and foreign influences to arrive at culinary marvels that hold their own against the best dishes of Europe and North America. We delight in introducing our guests to the very best eateries on the island.

You’ll relish the subtle aromatic favors of well presented nearly all organic fare prepared to sate and romance your gullet.

You’ll return home raving about authentic and nuevo Cuban cuisine.


ABORIGINAL INFLUENCES still impact Cuban cuisine today, lending character and distinction to island dishes which have evolved over five hundred years. The richness of the Cuban menu is unique, indeed delectable.On 28 October 1492 when Columbus and his sailors set foot on Cuba, they were welcomed by native Cubans who prepared feasts in honor of these “exotic newcomers.”

For the first time this hungry crew from Spain tasted corn, cassava, peanuts, sweet potatoes, pumpkins, peppers, wild malanga, and other gifts of the flora and fauna unique to Cuba. They also ate jutía (a large rodent and the biggest indigenous mammal on the island), as well as turtles and crocodiles. They savoured new fruits including custard apples, soursops, pineapples, star apples, mammees, anonas, icaco plums, guavas and cashews. Notable among Aboriginal dishes are casabe bread and “ajiaco” soup, still island favorites.

It was a culinary delight then, and remains so.

Arroz amarillo

Saffron rice, basic recipe (arroz amarillo, receta básica).

Casquitos de guayava

Guava “helmets” in syrup (cascos de guayaba en almíbar).

Cuban tamales

Cuban tamales (tamales cubanos).

Cuban Indians fished and hunted. There was a variety of seafood in the lagoons and rivers. The climate didn’t allow people to store food. Everything was fresh, organic and tasty. Everything was found and consumed quickly, or it spoiled.

The Spaniards, in addition to using the sources of food they found on the island, brought poultry, cattle, pigs and horses, all of which developed colossally well.

Cuba became a livestock-producing giant and, in a few years, pork was the meat of choice for the Cuban slaveholders and colonists who also obtained fat for many industrial uses from it. To feed African and native slaves, yams, malangas, several kinds of bananas and plantains and the okra were acclimatized. Guinea fowl were also brought from the Old World.

Pork with red kidney beans (frijoles colorados con carne de puerco).

Pork with red kidney beans (frijoles colorados con carne de puerco).

Pickled fish (escabeche).

Pickled fish (escabeche).

Cassava fritters (buñuelos de yuca).

Cassava fritters (buñuelos de yuca).

From Africa, Cuba got the yam, malanga, banana and plantain, okra, guinea fowl and dishes such as fufú (mashed plantains bananas) and the tostones (green plantains smashed and twice-fried). African culture also contributed the practice of white rice served with all the other dishes, and fritters and sauces.

Spaniards from the southern Iberian peninsula (the ones that came to the island during the first centuries of the colony) also liked fried food. Andalusia is an area were fried foods are pervasive. The massive arrival of Catalonian Spaniards reinforced the intake of rice.

Malanga or yam fritters (frituras de malanga o ñame).

Malanga or yam fritters (frituras de malanga o ñame).

Baked breaded chicken (pollo empanizado al horno).

Baked breaded chicken (pollo empanizado al horno).

Rice pudding (arroz con leche).

Rice pudding (arroz con leche).

The east of Spain is a rice area among the culinary regions of that country. The Cuban cuisine had as its foundation the broad and varied Spanish dishes that are a summary of regional cuisines. This is a common phenomenon in the Hispanic Caribbean.

The deep links among Caribbean lands are reflected on the existence in the whole area of recipes from different regions. In spite of “congrí” (a classic bean and rice dish) being so Cuban, the name “congrí” is originally from Haiti. There, red kidney beans are called “kongo” and rice “ri.” So the name comes from the Haitian Creole, meaning red kidney beans with rice. “Congrí” is not the same as Moros y Cristianos as we often call black beans cooked with white rice in Cuba.

Minced meat (picadillo).

Minced meat (picadillo).

Fried chicken creole (pollo frito a la criolla).

Fried chicken creole (pollo frito a la criolla).

Boiled

Boiled cassava with oil, lemon and garlic sauce (yuca con mojito).

At the beginning of the 20th century, following heavy northern Spanish immigration, Cuban gastronomy and cuisine became even markedly Iberian. In the field of gastronomy, the Spaniards took up posts as cooks in restaurants and in family homes. The cuisine they introduced included chick-pea (garbanzo) stew, red and black bean stew (potaje), and sausages (chorizos). The Cubans on their part began to take fat, chorizo sausages, bacon and cabbages out of the bean stew and the Galician bouillon. The Cuban bean soups ended up just being made with brisket, potatoes and a sauce.

The most characteristic feature of Cuban cuisine is a mixture of tomato sauce with few sautéed spices. The Cuban sauce stands over the rest of the ingredients. The Cuban way of cooking is natural, with very specific ingredients, scarce spices (among the pillars are oregano and cumin), which limit the use of pepper and other hot spices. Cuban cooking employs a lot of frying. The food is sweet and its sauces and stews are used to flavor rice. We don’t like dry rice-based meals.

Pig roasted over a spit (puerco asado).

Pig roasted over a spit (puerco asado).

Okra rice (arroz con quimbombo).

Okra rice (arroz con quimbombo).

Fried plantains (tostones).

Fried plantains (tostones).