If you are considering visiting Cuba, you may have discovered that it doesn’t take much research to learn the food does not have the best reputation. Why? Well, they can’t import the ingredients you want to make your meal great thanks to the big, bad USA (not getting into politics here, but COME ON!!!!) But I am here solely to discuss the food. You’ve read it’s bad, but is it? Now maybe you are wondering about my credentials and capability to judge whether the food is good or not. Well, aside from 29 years of eating experience, I tend to watch a lot of Food Network shows, and if you’ve ever seen me at a buffet, you may realize food is a passion of mine.
How to do this? I guess will break this down into categories:
Guys, I am only putting two items in this category. And they are both fruits in their original form. You can’t even blame Cuban cooking for this! Just throwin’ these two out there (like I literally did back in Cuba, yuck):
- Sapote: Imagine being hungover, eyeing a dark wedge of papaya (which is not even the best fruit in the first place) on your breakfast plate, tasting the strange denseness and grainy, sweet exterior. Let’s just say it was enough to get the ol’ gag reflex in motion. My issue here may have been more with bad timing, but I was not willing to give it another go
- Cashew Fruit: Where do cashews come from? I’m glad you asked. A tree! On an apple-like fruit! However, only one cashew is grown per fruit. No wonder they are so damn expensive. Well, you can eat this fruit (hopefully?) And in all fairness, the fruit tastes fine, but the texture of the interior of my mouth underwent a physiological change after eating it. I had a fuzzy, cotton mouth and I am not into fruits that cause a physical alteration to my person. Hmmph.
Omnipresent, but Weird and Not That Delicious
- Ham: Not a fancy Christmas ham…those deli slices that have been processed to smithereens. You will see this on every breakfast table and as the staple filling in 90% of sandwiches. The ham doesn’t taste bad, but it is quite fatty, and it grows a bit tired after consuming it multiple times per day for weeks.
- Pizza: Let me rephrase… “pizza.” You can purchase this item everywhere, from street stalls to restaurants and it can cost less than $1. The thing is, this pizza-like item doesn’t taste bad. The disappointment lies in calling it pizza. Savory donut would even be more fitting based on the sheer fluffiness of the dough. It’s fine, in fact I’d even recommend you try it, but rename it in your head before you do!
- Salad: If you’ve been in Cuba for any length of time, you are probably dying for a vegetable. Don’t get your hopes up when you see salad on the menu. Salads come with just about every meal and will typically consist of shredded cabbage, a slice of cucumber, and a slice of tomato. You can dress your salad yourself with canola oil and white vinegar. While it is no Strawberry Poppyseed and Chicken Salad from Panera, I do believe, by definition, it is still a salad. Again, simply shift your salad expectations and it is totally fine.
One Hit Wonders (pause, NOT)
- Pork Product Sandwich: Ok, I just don’t know what to call this…I had many a sandwich in Cuba, most of them from vendors on the street, most of them ham. This one had ham, but it also had half a hot dog wedged in there. Was it delicious? No. Was it terrible? On the contrary. Definitely tasted better than it looked.
- Pineapple chicken: I couldn’t resist when I saw this on the menu! Sounds delicious! Now all the chicken wasn’t like this, but it appears that someone pounded the shit out of the dark, gristly bits that people don’t really want to eat, in effort to create a large, thin fillet. They topped the chicken with a single ring of pineapple and paired it with some warm pineapple juice in a ramekin. It was served with rice and salad (very typical). Not delicious by any stretch of the imagination, but still completely edible.
Things I LOVED ?
This list is way longer than the previous ones and I am even keeping this list modest. While I recommend you continue reading, I have already answered the initial question. No! The food in Cuba doesn’t suck! I definitely had more meals that qualified as delicious than ones that didn’t. You may also notice there are many a fried food in Cuba…A culinary secret, but frying makes things taste better.
Let’s begin with the most important meal of the day:
- Breakfast: If you stay in a Casa Particular, breakfast will likely be included or can be added for about $5 (worth it!) I stayed in at least 10 different Casa Particulares while in Cuba and the breakfasts were always worth waking up for. There were slight variations from house to house, but there were some tried and true elements that appeared each morning like fresh eggs, fresh fruit, fresh (and occasionally not-so-fresh) bread, coffee, and juice (often fresh). The guava juice is my kryptonite. Fresh guava is blended with water and ice to make a slushy-like consistency. Mm mm good. Very occasionally we’d receive extra goodies like cheese or pastries or cookies or tomatoes. And like I previously mentioned, there was always ham.
- Fish Croquettes: Even though I had been served these at breakfast at one of my Casas, they deserved their own blurb. Fish at breakfast you may be thinking. Honestly, these things were so good that it didn’t matter the time of day.
- Fried Plantain Chips: You can find these anywhere. And you can’t mess them up. Fried plantain-y goodness.
- Corn Fritters: I was lucky enough to be in Baracoa (eastern most part of the island) during their Carnival celebration, which meant endless availability of street food! These smashed, fried corn bits did not disappoint!
- Chicken Plate: This was the biggest bargain of my entire trip. While you can order a chicken plate at any restaurant across Cuba, the value I felt I received at Carnival in Baracoa was incomparable. For just 25 CUP or 1 CUC (like ONE DOLLAR) I got a quarter of a chicken off the grill, rice, salad, fried plantain chips, and some cooked cabbage, all drizzled in chicken drippings (ok, this part was unnecessary, but it does taste good). With value like that, I had to go back and have the same thing the following night.
- Baracoan Coconut Tomato Sauce: This is a preparation/sauce local to Baracoa. I loved Baracoa so much and the delicious food is just the sauce on top of the fish. I highly recommend El Buen Sabor restaurant to try this sauce. You can order it on the fish of the day (dorado when I was there), shrimp, lobster, or some seafood combos. It is a complete meal with, you’ve guessed it, salad, rice and beans, soup, etc, served family style.
- Enchilado anything: No, this does not mean rolled in tortillas and smothered with cheese. This is a typical Cuban preparation of things like shrimp and lobster in a tomato based sauce with spices, peppers, and onions. One night I had probably three lobster tails worth of lobster enchilado. So good!
- Cake: I celebrated my birthday in Cuba. I am also extremely particular when it comes to birthday cake (cough Funfetti with buttercream frosting cough). Believe it or not, you can not find such a cake in many countries. My friends win a gold star for finding the MOST delicious non-funfetti cake in existence. The cake was frosted in meringue and then covered in chocolate and I could not stop eating it.
- Ropa Vieja: I have saved the best for last. This was my favorite thing to eat in Cuba. I was in Cuba for over three weeks and probably consumed Ropa Vieja over a dozen times and it was always tasty. You can find it in any restaurant. It is essentially pulled beef (or occasionally you will find it prepared with lamb. Also delicious!) I actually miss it now that I am home. And just a note for you Spanish whizzes out there…yes, ropa vieja does translate to “old clothes.” But I am here to tell you that it doesn’t taste like clothes at all, old or new, yay!
So there you have it! I had some incredible meals in Cuba. Surely you will have some flops along the way, but my biggest advice is to manage your expectations and don’t let one bad “pizza like object” ruin your trip.
And if all else fails, the rum is excellent!