Cuban food has a mixed reputation internationally whereby some people say it’s delicious, and some people say it’s not that great. A recurring adjective used by the unimpressed to describe it is bland. Whoever says that, most likely stayed in a resort. Then, there’s the disappointed: folks who traveled to the island with the naïve idea that Cuban food was spicy, only to encounter the opposite reality that Cubans have zero tolerance for spicy food! In this article, I’ll explain what traditional Cuban food is like, why it’s delicious and what you should do to eat well in Cuba.
Let me start by acknowledging that I was fortunate enough to be raised by a mother who inherited from her mom an appreciation for everything edible that grew in Cuban land, or lived in its nearby seas. Thanks to my mom, I learned to appreciate a wide variety of locally produced foods. It also helped that I grew up in relatively prosperous economic times, hence being able to access the products that I’ll describe in detail below. At the end of this article, to seal my point, I will commit an act of infinite generosity by sharing with you my mom’s epic lamb fricasé recipe.
Traditionally, the Cuban diet consists of grains, tubers, vegetables, dairy products and meats. You probably already know that a typical Cuban dish consists of rice, black beans, pork and salad, but what you probably didn’t know is the variety of other grains and beans that are part of our cuisine. For example, the list of beans also include pinto, yellow, kidney, white, green, lentils, black-eyed peas and garbanzo. We’re also big on complex-carb roots like sweet potatoes, yams, taro, potatoes and cassava. Corn, plantain and squash are very popular, too. The list of vegetables regularly cultivated includes tomatoes, lettuce, eggplant, cucumber, okra, peppers, radish, carrots, chayote, green beans, and cabbage. I won’t event enumerate the variety of delicious tropical fruit that grows in the island!
As you can see, no vegetarian should complain about not eating well while in Cuba, but despite the vast agricultural variety, four factors can make it difficult for you to access all the above:
1) Seasonality of produce. Especially when it comes to fruit, you might have to just consume whatever’s available at the moment because a lot of produce is seasonal. The mango season is from May to August. Avocadoes arrive in August-September. Large yams are an end-of-the-year type of food. Lettuce leaves taste nicer in the winter, etc.
2) Supply. This is a big problem affecting Cuban markets, in large part due to transportation and infrastructure limitations that keep farm products from reaching the cities at affordable prices, or reaching the cities at all. Also, not all of the above is grown everywhere, all the time, which connects with the next point:
3) Cultural limitations. Not everything I listed above is appreciated and consumed by the general population due to cultural eating habits whereby certain foods are priority. Markedly in the bigger cities, you will find that many Cubans don’t like to eat things like eggplant, okra, radish, chard... In a culture that oftentimes treats vegetables as a decorative accompaniment and not a culinary priority, it’s therefore quite possible you didn’t have a delicious eggplant dish at the Casa Particular where you stayed, because they simply didn’t like the vegetable. It’s also quite possible the hotel manager at your resort didn’t think okra was worthy of being part of the menu.
4) Limitations in supply of imported foods. One common feature in affluent and emerging economies is markets featuring food imported from other countries. In Canada, for example, you can get bananas from Ecuador, mangoes from the Philippines, tomatoes from California, avocados from Mexico, etc. Imported non-processed foods allow you to access a wider variety of edibles and also by-pass the obstacle presented by seasonal crops, allowing you to enjoy strawberries in February when they are usually in by summer season. Well, in Cuba you don’t see that. Not that much. You’ll nowadays find imported apples, and a wider selection of imported prepared foods, but you won’t be able to access in a regular grocery store imported vegetables like mushrooms, broccoli, asparagus, or cauliflower, to name a few, that normally don’t grow in the hot, tropical weather of Cuba.
By now, the question of how to eat well in Cuba is imminent, but the answer is exactly in the subject of this article: you just have to find it. There’s no certain guide or firm advice I can offer on how to access all the culinary goodness Cuba can offer. All I can say is that if you want to increase your chances of enjoying delicious meals, you should stay in Casas Particulares. Hotels have access to steady food supplies and even imported vegetables, but their limitations are exposed when it comes to flavouring the food.
The secrets to the exquisiteness of traditional Cuban cuisine reside on the combination of three things: flavourful condiments, fresh ingredients and cooking techniques. Our flavouring condiments consist of a combination of certain fresh-grown aromatic herbs like garlic, green onions, cilantro, parsley, shallots, etc, and dry spices like bay leaves, cumin, and the almighty allspice, a condiment little known in non-Caribbean cooking culture. The Casas Particulares have the advantage over the hotels in this respect, because large-scale supply of these flavourful condiments is friggin’ hard. A Casa Particular owner can walk up to the nearest farmer market and get enough of these to cook at home, since the amount of people they need to feed won’t be large. Maybe just the couple of tourists they’re hosting.
This is when you’ll have the chance to experience Cuban cuisine in its palatal splendour. Take, for example, my mom’s Eastern-Cuba-style lamb fricasé dish. The meat itself will come from a sheep that ate nothing but grass as it walked and ran all over the place, enjoying a fairly normal uncaged life and who probably even got to make lots of friend-sheeps (pun intended), have lovers, join a ruminant club, procreate, etc… the thing also known as organic meat. That lovely piece of ovine flesh, seasoned and patiently cooked with garlic, onions, peppers, allspice, cumin, sofrito sauce and cooking wine, will certainly make it to your list of top 3 favourite lamb meals ever. If you’re vegan or vegetarian, I’ve got tons of equally mouth-watering descriptions of bean soups and okra stews to share, but I realize this article is getting too long.
In conclusion, traditional Cuban food is rooted in the mix of Spanish, African and regional traditions that make it absolutely delicious, but can be hard to access primarily due to the difficult economic situation, which is getting worse and worse by the day, due to a negligent government, stubbornly fixated in the past. To find great Cuban food with certainty, you’d have to visit an expensive restaurant like the ones in affluent neighbourhoods and the outskirts of Havana, for example, or simple luck out. Our culinary treats have become an incredible privilege nowadays, reserved to those with much more purchasing power than an ordinary Cuban.
If you wish to find traditional Cuban food in Vancouver, you can follow the Cuban Street Food truck or simply come to the next One Night in Cuba event that I host, where tasty dishes are offered.