In the cuisine of Cuba, spices and techniques from Spain and Africa mingle with Caribbean sensibilities and flavor. Not unlike the island itself, Cuban food exists at the intersection of cultural influences, distilled into an altogether unique national style. The island itself also shapes the cuisine, offering seafood, tropical fruit, and root vegetables.
Rice and beans, either cooked together or apart, are a staple in Cuban meals. Cooked separately, this is simply referred to as “Arroz con Fijoles” and is typically found on the Western side of the island. When the two are cooked together the dish is called either, “Congrí” (red beans and rice), or “Moros” (black beans and rice). Congrí, sometimes called Congrí oriental, is primarily found on the Eastern half of the island (the Oriente province until 1976). The origins of this dish are likely the close proximity to the other Spanish-speaking islands, where red beans dominate black beans.
A second Cuban staple is some type of “Vianda”. This term is used to refer to several types of tubers, including yuca, malanga, and potato, as well as plantains, unripe bananas and sometimes even corn.
One type of food well recognized abroad is the Cuban sandwich. The popularity of this item stems from the once free flow of the cigar trade between Cuba and Florida, especially in Ybor City, Tampa and Key West during the late 1800s. The traditional Cuban sandwich bread is made with lard rather than oil, giving it a distinctive texture and high moisture content. The influence of Ybor City’s Italian and Spanish immigrants can be seen in the popular topping of Genoa salami, layered in with other meats like Serrano ham, as well as Swiss cheese, pickles and mustard. The sandwich is typically compressed in a grill called “la plancha” or with some kind of weight (such as a cast iron pan) and heated panini style.
Though it is an important part of Cuban cuisine, the availability of meat can be limited by ration books. When eaten, it is typically served in some kind of light sauce. Among the most popular, used frequently on roast pork as well as with the viandas, is called “Mojo” or “Mojito”. Not to be confused with the Mojito cocktail we all know and love, mojo sauce combines oil, garlic, onion, bitter orange or lime juice, and several spices, which often includes oregano. Cuban mojo is likely derived from the mojo sauces of the Canary Islands, utilizing different ingredients but many of the same techniques. “Ropa vieja”, a Spanish name meaning “old clothes”, is a popular shredded beef dish whose origins are also believed to be the Canary Islands. Usually shank, the beef is simmered in a tomato-based criollo sauce until it begins to fall apart, resembling “old clothes”.
One of the indigenous Cuban dishes that remains in modern Cuban cuisine is the tamale. Another is black bean soup. Stews and soups are common, usually eaten with white rice or “gofio” (a type of corn flour). A few popular varieties are “guiso” (corn soup), “caldosa” (a soup made with an assortment of tubers and meats), white bean Spanish stews such as “caldo gallego”, and cocido de garbanzos (chickpea stew).
One of the greatest distinguishing factors of Cuban cuisine is region. For example, thought Western Cuba’s food is technically criollo (a term denoting the existence of Spanish roots), its style can differ from mainstream criollo, particularly in Havana. While many European influences exist, the most unique aspect of food in and near Havana is a distinct Chinese influence, arising from the importation of Chinese laborers during the early 1900s. This influence is apparent in dishes like “sopa china” (an egg and onion soup) and “arroz salteado” (sauteed, or fried rice). Much of Western Cuban cuisine, and especially in Havana, is characterized by a distinct sweet-and-sour flavor, often due to the use of “alcaparrado”, a combination of olives, capers and raisins. Alcaparrado is used in sauces to accompany meats, and is cooked with ground beef to create the filling for a variety of Cuban pastries. Eaten as finger food, these pastries are immensely popular and also come with a sweet, fruit pulp filling, such as guava.
Western cuisine is also characterized by a wider use of eggs, which are often served as “tortilla de papa” (a variety of omelette) or as “huevos à la habanera” (fried eggs served over rice and fried plantain). Fish dishes are popular, especially along the coast. However, much like Cuba’s lobster fishing industry, they are enjoyed sparingly.
Unlike the heavily European influences of the Western half, Eastern Cuban food demonstrates the influence of African and Caribbean cuisines. Several dishes from both the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico can be found at Eastern Cuban tables, adapted only slightly. An example of this is the Puerto Rican dish “mofongo”, which in Cuba is called fufú de plátano (the word “fufu” comes from Western Africa, referring to a variety of pastes or mashes). In both nations, this dish consists of mashed plantains stuffed with pork, chicken, or seafood.