Regardless of how you prefer to travel, there is something we can all agree on: food is what makes a destination tick. Food gives an opportunity to explore a country’s personality and dive into local traditions and heritage. This is certainly the case with Cuba. When you can’t travel, cooking food at home can bring you into a destination. We love gathering recipes to try our hand at cooking our favourite dishes from abroad. Cuban food is easy to make, easy to find ingredients and instantly transports you to Havana.
Try any traditional Cuban cuisine and you will soon find yourself hooked not only to the local cuisine but to a culture closely linked to its popular dishes.
Traditional Cuban Food
Cuban food is so varied you could eat something completely different on any day of the week. A blend of Spanish, Caribbean, and African, the flavors are varied with spices that ignite the senses. From delicious shredded beef and sweet plantains to slow-cooked pork shoulder soaked in sour orange juice. Tourists often complain that Cuban food is not good, but that is simply because they never get off the resort.
When you make your way to the vibrant streets of Havana, you’ll find an array of delicious and affordable meals that will make your mouth water. It can make narrowing down your choices difficult, but that’s where we come in. To lend a helping hand and show you 20 traditional Cuban dishes you must try.
1. Ropa Vieja (Old Clothes)
When it comes to traditional Cuban food, Ropa Vieja or Old Clothes is the dish that immediately springs to mind.
This Cuban dish is created from boiled, tender shredded beef and cooked in a mouth-watering tomato sauce of bell peppers, bay leaf, cumin, and onion.
Ropa Vieja is a very popular food choice for locals and travelers. If you want to switch things up you can replace the beef with pork or even chicken. Get the recipe to try at home here.
2. Traditional Cuban Cuisine: Arroz y Frijoles Negros (Rice and Black Beans)
An essential part of Cuban cuisine is rice and beans. They are a common base for many Cuban dishes. You will likely have rice and black beans at a Cuban restaurant alongside your Lechon Asado or Ropa Vieja.
But creating the perfect rice and beans dish at home does take time. Wait until the rice first separates and falls apart, likewise for the black beans. The beans should be almost like a stew with a smooth and creamy taste. Get the full Arroz y Firjoles Negros recipe to make at home here.
Although a lot of Cuban food is very meat-heavy Cuban cuisine does offer some amazing deserts.
No doubt you have heard of Flan and even tried it for yourself. But it doesn’t get any better than the Flan at a local Cuban restaurant. Flan is a custard-textured cake topped with yummy caramel, although you can find them plain. It consists of egg whites, sugar, condensed milk, and the caramel can be switched with coconut or guayaba (guava). Make this traditional Cuban recipe at home.
4. Lechon Asado (Roast Suckling Pig)
When it comes to celebrating the holidays in Cuba, Lechon Asado is the national dish of choice. Roast suckling pig also remains a major part of everyday Cuban culture, particularly in the eastern countryside.
If you have tried Lechon Asado before, the next time may be different as many local families and establishments have their own traditional ways. The one thing that won’t change is the delicious mojo criollo sauce.
Made up of seasonings, vinegar, and garlic, the mojo sauce is the key additional to creating the perfect roast suckling pig. Get the recipe here.
5. Picadillo a la Habanera (Ground Beef)
Served alongside rice and beans, ground beef is a main dish in Cuban homes. It also comes with all the flavors.
Slow-cooked over low heat, it is prepared with traditional seasonings, potatoes, olives and soaked in a tomato-based sauce. On the side, you will often find white rice and fried plantains. If you are after Cuban recipes you can easily do at home, Picadillo a la Habanera is a great choice. Check out the recipe here.
6. Sandwich Cubano (Cuban Sandwich)
A major part of Cuban food is the Cuban Sandwich. Cubans love their sandwiches and this popular lunch item has become prevalent all over the world.
The hard-bread sandwich consists of thinly sliced ham, roast pork slices, dill pickles, yellow mustard, and Swiss cheese. Many choose to add in some mojo salsa to their Cuban Sandwich for a little extra oomph. The Cuban sandwich is often served with a side of Yuca fries. See how to make authentic Cuban bread here.
7. Masas de Cerdo Frita (Chunks of Fried Pork)
Even though Cuban food can be meat-centric, locals have an amazing knack for creating a variety of flavors. Fried pork chunks is one of the most genuine Cuban dishes and is tender on the inside with a flavorful crunchy exterior.
Made from diced pork, the meat is marinated in either lime juice or sour orange juice and prepared fried. When ordering other traditional food, Masas de Cerda Frita is a common side dish. Check out this easy recipe.
8. Arroz Con Pollo (Chicken with Rice)
Arroz Con Pollo is a one-pot recipe that is a must-try on your adventure to Cuba. But it is also an easy recipe to make on a busy work night. Check out how to make this Cuban dish with a fast recipe here.
This traditional Cuban food consists of chicken and yellow rice and can be found all over Latin America. But the Cuban version is delicious and very popular. It is similar to paella, albeit without the fish and the final taste comes down to personal choice. Solid or soupy?
9. Arroz con Huevo Frito (Rice and Fried Egg)
Sometimes keeping things simple is the best way to enjoy a delicious meal. Rice and eggs sound a little boring on paper but in truth, this tasty dish is a big part of traditional Cuban cuisine.
For the best outcome, the yolk in fried eggs must remain soft so it can mix in with the white rice. Add in some banana as a side dish and you’ll be living like a local.
10. Vaca Frita (Fried Beef)
This lemon-infused Cuban dish shares a lot of similarities with Ropa Vieja but without the tomato-based sauce. The fried beef is covered in fresh herbs and poached until tender. The smell stemming from the pot is sure to get the mouth watering. With some lemon juice, onions, bell peppers, and garlic added in, Vaca Frita will delight those that love a bit of zest to their meals. See how to make this Cuban food recipe at home here.
Guava Basted Ribs
If you are on the hunt to fill your belly then this is the traditional Cuban food for you. Chuck out the vegetables, they’re not needed. All that’s required is braised ribs and tastebuds ready for flavor.
Cuban food is known for being filling but these ribs take the cake. As you braise the ribs, try and keep them juicy. If they’re looking dry, keep adding on the tasty guava BBQ sauce.
11. Pernil Relleno De Moros Y Cristianos (Pork Shoulder)
If the standard Moors and Christian rice leaves you craving something more, take things up with some delicious pork shoulder. The pork is marinated to perfection in garlic, oregano, and orange juice. Pull it apart like butter and mix it in with the rice for a great evening meal.
12. Arroz Moros y Cristianos
For over 700 years the Moors and Christians fought and died in Spain. Moros y Cristianos is a dish that symbolizes two cultures, one represented by the rice and the other by the beans. Combined, they form a traditional Cuban food that will always leave you wanting more.
Expect this rice and beans dish to be elevated by hints of cumin, oregano, and sometimes thin roast pork. The vibrant flavors soak into the rice which combines perfectly with the more filling black beans. See what flavors to soak in the rice here at this recipe.
Cuban tamales, known simply as “tamales” in Cuba, are a traditional and beloved dish in Cuban cuisine. While they share the same name as tamales in many other Latin American countries, Cuban tamales have their own unique preparation and flavor profile.
They are a popular street food, as well as a staple at family gatherings, festivals, and special occasions. They are often enjoyed with a side of Cuban bread or served with a garlicky mojo sauce for added flavor.
The masa (dough) for Cuban tamales is typically made from cornmeal, often referred to as “harina de maíz” in Spanish. This cornmeal is mixed with various ingredients to create a soft and slightly sweet dough. Cuban tamales are usually filled with a flavorful mixture of seasoned ground pork, onions, garlic, bell peppers, tomatoes, and sometimes olives and raisins. They are flavoured with spices such as cumin, oregano, and paprika.
While Cuban tamales are a beloved classic, it’s worth noting that the preparation can be time-consuming, so they are often reserved for special occasions or enjoyed from local street vendors who have perfected the art of tamale-making.
14. Plátano Maduro Frito (Fried Sweet Plantains)
An important part of Cuban culture and local cuisine is fried plantains. Owing to Cuba’s African heritage you will often find your regular meal accompanied by this delicious add-on.
The name gives away the recipe and it is simple and easy to recreate back home. The plantains are sliced and fried. Salt can be added for a more savory taste to complement your lunch or dinner.
15. Tostones o Chatinos
Speaking of fried plantains, this traditional Cuban food takes matters a step forward. The plantains are cut into thin slices and fried. Once cooked the plantain cuts are then smashed. They are then refried in scorching olive oil until golden brown. Partner your tostones with plenty of seasoning to enjoy one of the best comfort foods on offer in Cuba.
16. Casquitos de Guayaba
Guava is the most recognized fruit stemming from Cuba. Guava is common in a lot of local treats and eats, with this being one of the most traditional Cuban desserts.
The inside section featuring the guava seeds is scooped out leaving the thick outer shell. The fruit is cut in half and cooked for a short period, so it can be served warm yet not too soft. For extra flavor, sweet syrup is added. Some recipes cool off the casquitos and serve them with cream cheese.
Medianoche, which means “midnight” in Spanish, is a popular Cuban sandwich that shares many similarities with the classic Cuban sandwich but has a few distinctive features that set it apart. Such as, Medianoche sandwiches are typically made with a slightly sweet, eggy bread that is similar to challah or brioche. This bread is what sets it apart from the classic Cuban sandwich, which is made with Cuban bread.
Like the Cuban sandwich, Medianoche includes slices of roast pork (often marinated and slow-cooked until tender) as the primary protein with Swiss cheese melted to add a creamy texture. Combine that with dill pickles to give it a crunchy contrast with some mustard and mayo and you have yourself a delicious snack.
18. Arroz con Leche (Rice Pudding)
Often found around the Cuban dinner table in the evening, rice pudding is a go-to dessert for locals. Follow this recipe to make your own at home.
If you are lucky enough to be invited into a home on your adventure you will be able to taste the real deal. It is made from only a few ingredients including milk, sugar, and cinnamon. Many restaurants around Cuba will have Arroz con Leche on their menus so be sure to give this dessert a try.
19. Tres Leches Cake
Tres Leches cake, which translates to “Three Milks” cake in Spanish, is a beloved and iconic dessert in Latin American cuisine, not only in Cuba but also in Mexico and Nicaragua. This cake is known for its moist and spongy texture, as it is soaked in a mixture of three different types of milk—evaporated milk, condensed milk, and heavy cream.
The cake itself is typically a simple sponge or butter cake. The cake is made from basic ingredients such as flour, sugar, eggs, and baking powder. After the cake is cooked and cooled, the three-milk mixture, which has been combined beforehand, is poured over the cake.
After soaking, the cake is refrigerated for several hours, often overnight. During this time, the cake absorbs the milk mixture, becoming incredibly moist and flavorful.
Ditch the usual donuts for Bunuelos, sweet, Cuban food made from yuca. These donuts are quite small and taste light and flaky. Making these Buneolos at home can be a tricky exercise so it is best to get your filling while your feet are on the ground in Cuba. Make sure to get a special anise dipping sauce to complement your new favorite donut. If you want to tackle them at home, check out this recipe.
21. Arroz Imperial (Imperial Rice)
Cuban food is often a combination of rice alongside one or two other items. Imperial rice takes things in a different direction combining multiple dishes in one. The rice is cooked with a traditional tomato paste that helps turn the rice yellow. But before it is served, the rice is combined with fried banana, bell peppers, and topped with cheese and shredded chicken.
Each aspect of the dish is prepared separately and combined at the very end to create something akin to a rice cake. See how to make Imperial Rice here.
22. Yuca con Mojo (Cassava with Garlic Sauce)
We have saved one of the most important dishes for last. Yuca con Mojo is one of the best foods to try on your Cuban adventure. Because of the strong concentration of glucose in the Yuca (similar to a potato or yam), it must be boiled prior to being fried. Once cooked it is lathered in a delicious garlic-tasting mojo criollo sauce similar to a french fry. Because of its ease and taste, this dish is one of the most popular foods during Cuban celebrations.
23. Cuban Coffee or Café Cubano
Café Cubano, also known as Cuban coffee or Cuban espresso, is a strong and highly caffeinated coffee preparation that is an integral part of Cuban culture. It’s renowned for its rich, bold flavor and is enjoyed throughout the day by locals and visitors alike. Made using a traditional espresso base. Cuban coffee is typically made using a stovetop espresso maker called a “cafetera” or “moka pot.” The espresso is brewed by forcing hot water through finely-ground coffee beans, resulting in a concentrated coffee shot.
What sets Café Cubano apart is the addition of sugar during the brewing process. As the espresso starts to flow into the cup, a couple of teaspoons of sugar are placed in the bottom of the cup. The hot coffee then mixes with the sugar, creating a sweet and strong coffee shot.
What to Know About Traditional Cuban Food
By now you know, Cuban food is as delicious as it is simple. Farm-to-table eating is such an ingrained part of traditional life that these basic yet flavorful dishes remain a huge aspect of Cuban culture.
However, it is important to know how and where you can try exceptional local foods. Unfortunately, the Cuban government has a large role in the island’s hospitality and dining scene, leading to a lot of inauthentic food.
The way around this is to find privately-owned restaurants that still maintain recipes that have been handed down through the generations. Private restaurants are called ‘paladares’ and are your ticket to enjoying the best food that Cuba has to offer.
Learn more about Cuba with 11 Fun Facts About Cuba You Never Knew.
In Havana you will find numerous paladares serving fresh and interesting meals, many of which feature in our top 20. One of the best private-owned restaurants in the city is Los Mercaderes. Located in the charming Old Havana, this restaurant serves traditional Cuban with its famous hot sauce made fresh every day.
Other options include La Guarida in Centro Havana, made famous as the backdrop in multiple films (you’ll need a reservation for this one), and Vistamar in Miramar Havana. Vistamar offers a stunning outdoor sunset along with fresh seafood.
One aspect of Cuban cuisine we are yet to touch on is breakfast. When you are strolling around Havana, Santiago de Cuba, or Cienfuegos, in the morning the smell of tostadas will be floating through the air.
Tostadas are a grilled Cuban bread that is often served alongside a café con leche. Eat like a local and break the bread into pieces and dip them into your morning coffee.
Vegetarian Food in Cuba
In such a meat-focused country steeped in traditional cooking, vegetarian food has come on slowly in Cuba. However, to the joy of many, there are a few creative vegetarian restaurants arriving in Cuba. For those traveling through the country a lot of your meals will consist of rice and beans, root vegetables, omelets, and plantains.
Beware that some places in Cuba classify jamonada, or spam, as not meat. So be sure to clarify, lest you wish your dish to be sprinkled with an unpleasant surprise.
Vegans will have a tricky time maneuvring the dining scene in Cuba. Dining at paladeres will allow you more opportunities to order off-menu.
The best foods in Cuba will give your tastebuds a workout and keep you well-fed on your travels around the country.
From sweet plantains to Ropa Vieja there is a great balance between sweet and savory. The beauty in so much of Cuban cuisine is that you can easily add-on to these dishes with your own style and personality.
So when you are back home, having tried many local foods and treats you can expand upon them and create great weekly dishes. Who knows, you may even ‘wow’ friends and family when you gather next.