In December of 2014, President Obama announced that the US and Cuba would restore diplomatic relations and reopen their embassies. American travel goers were excited for the opportunity to visit a country that had been closed off to tourist for decades (although there are still some restrictions). In the last year and a half, that excitement has transformed into a renewed interested in everything about Cuban culture, including the cuisine.
When it comes to food, there is far more to Cuba that just the eponymous sandwich. Because of its history as a trade port, Cuban food pulls many flavor profiles from Spain, African, and the various islands of the Caribbean — yet the results are something unique to the island. While some Cuban cuisine has made its way to the United States thanks to immigrants carrying their heritage to their new homes, there’s a bounty of flavors from Cuba that many of us have never experienced for ourselves.
Whether you’re planning a trip to Cuba, or simply want to explore the Cuban delicacies found in the US, these six Cuban dishes are just a few of the must-tries.
While the name is Spanish for “old clothes” (names for the ragged look of the shredded beef), the actual flavors of Ropa Vieja are far more pleasant. Skirt or flank steak is slowly stewed with mirepoix (that’s onion, carrot, and celery), green peppers, and tomatoes, with flavor profiles of cinnamon, cloves, and annatto oil. This melt-in-your-mouth tender stew is served over Arroz Amarillo (saffron yellow rice) and topped with capers.
Moros y Cristianos
Literally translated to “the Moors and Christians,” this dish of stewed black beans with white rice is a staple of the cuisine, served in basically every Cuban restaurant you’ll find. Traditionally, Moros y Cristianos is made by preparing the rice and beans separate, only combining them when ready to serve. Many recipes will also include a slow cooked sofrito of onions, bell pepper, bay leaf, oregano, and garlic added as a sauce.
For when you just want to sit back and relax, this homey, feel good sandwich of roasted turkey, jam, and cream cheese can hit the spot. The sandwich is named after the young debutante Elena Ruz. The story goes that Elena came into a Havana restaurant after a night of dancing years and years ago and asked the chef for this snack. After that, she’d ask for it every time she came into the restaurant and the name stuck. The Elena Ruz makes a great treat no matter what time it is.
The twice fried plantains known as tostones are a popular snack and side dish throughout Cuba. It’s a part of street food cuisine and made by families at home, but also found in Cuban restaurants as an appetizer.
For tostones, green plantains are cut crosswise and pan-fried until crispy. After they are cooled enough to handle, the fried plantains are then smashed (using either a tortilla/tostones press, the bottom of a jar, or paper bag and the palm of your hand) so they look like mini pancakes before being fried again. Once their second trip in the frying pane is done, the tostones are given a little pinch of sprinkled salt and served with side of a mojo sauce, made with garlic, olive oil, and sour orange juice. When done right, tostones are crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside, and just a little bit sweet.
On the look out for a fun Cuban dessert? You have to try Capuchinos. While their name can get confused with that Italian coffee house drink Americans love, Capuchinos are actually rich, small yellow cakes eaten in one or two bites. They come in the shape of a cone and are named after the hoods that Capuchin monks would wear. You can find Capuchinos in just about every bakery in Cuba, so any traveler with a major sweet tooth should definitely give them a try.
These Cuban puff pastries aren’t just delicious – they’re also extremely versatile. Yes, they’re often made sweet, filled with a sweet cream cheese and guava or marmalade mixture. However, pastelitos can also have a savory flavor when made with a meat filling! No matter what’s put in them, Cuban Pastelitos are a flakey, buttery treat that’s perfect to take on the go.
Looking for a few hotspots to try some of these fantastic dishes? Rewards Network has you covered all across the country:
- Cuban Bistro Bar (New York, NY)
- Cuban Revolution (Durham, NC)
- Siboney Cafe (Chicago, IL)
- Latin Restaurant (Sweetwater, FL)
- Carmen’s Cuban Cafe & Lounge (Morrisville, NC)
- El Floridita (Los Angeles, CA)
- Papi’s Cuban & Caribbean Grill (Atlanta, GA)
- Capri Restaurant & Bakery (West Palm Beach, FL)
Want to broaden your horizons into some other cuisines that might seem unfamiliar? We have four more for you: