Government-run restaurants can be found all over Cuba, but to get to the heart and soul of Cuban cuisine, you go to the paladares. These small, family-owned restaurants sprout from home kitchens, especially in bigger cities like Havana. Break your travel routine and follow your curiosity (and your nose) to a nearby paladar to fill up on traditional flavours and new friendships.
Top 10 Things to Eat and Drink in Cuba
Odds are, you’re already familiar with one of Cuba’s gastronomic exports, the Cubano sandwich. By all means, this savoury grilled sandwich should be on the menu at least once during your trip. But why stop there when there’s so much of Cuban food and drink to sample?
1. Arroz con Pollo
This vibrant dish of chicken and fluffy rice with vegetables is a must-try to get a sense of the essence of Cuban cuisine. It’s a family favourite with many variations, and a comfort food if we ever saw one.
Expert Traveller Tip: “Rio Mar is a scene for the hip Havana crowd. Located in a swanky neighbourhood on the Alendares River’s edge, about a 20-minute classic car drive from downtown Havana. Request an outside table on the deck with great views across the river!”
Dean Smith, president of Flight Centre Travel Group for the Americas
Frying fat in oil is a beautiful thing. Chicharrónes, the irresistible fried cubes of pork belly or pork rinds are a little too rich, crispy, and flavourful for their own good. You’ve been warned.
3. Lechon Asado
If you haven’t clued in by now, meat dishes play a central role in Cuban cuisine. Among the most impressive is lechon asado, a whole roast pig which often serves as the primary ingredient for a great get-together. Try your pork plate with a side of tangy, garlicky mojo sauce for the full experience.
4. Café con Leche
Locally sourced Cuban coffee most often comes from plants dotting the Sierra Maestra Mountains. To sip like the locals do, order a rich cup of café con leche or a shot of espresso, which is traditionally sweetened with brown sugar.
Otherwise known as cassava root, yuca is the too-starchy-to-pass-up vegetable, that, along with plantain, makes regular appearances at the dinner table. A little mojo sauce can really make yuca pop!
Expert Traveller Tip: “I recommend Waco’s Club in Varadero. They have great seafood and great portions! Try to snatch a spot in the air-conditioned dining room if you can.”
Nova Parker of Toronto
6. Ropa Vieja
Shred a generous helping of beef that’s been stewed in a tomato-based sauce, then serve on a bed of vegetables, rice, plantain, or yuca. The result is ropa vieja (literally “old clothes”), a mouthwatering national dish.
Made of white rum, coconut water, and a splash of lime, the saoco is an underrated cocktail with troubled beginnings. As the story goes, the simple recipe was born out of the early populations of Africans brought to Cuba during the 18th and 19th century slave trade.
Light and sweet is the way to go while visiting a sunny island. Popular throughout Latin America, the European-based dessert is featured on my Cuban menus. So whatever you do, leave room for dessert!
Expert Traveller Tip: “Le Chansonnier a lovely elegant dinner spot with yummy food! I particularly loved their fresh juices that they blended right there and their vanilla flan dessert.”
Cassandra Londono of NJ
Biting into this corn-based classic is to taste a recipe that’s been passed down for literally thousands of years. Unlike Mexican tamales, Cuban tamales aren’t stuffed with meat. (Sorry vegetarians, that’s because the meat is mixed into the dough rather than used as a filling.)
If you hear someone raving about Cuban milkshakes, they probably mean batidos. These tropical fruit smoothies are as diverse as they are refreshing. Stop by a local vendor to try flavours like papaya, mango, passionfruit, blackberry, and more!
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