Traditional Cuban cuisine has been pleasing locals for generations, both at the dinner table and on the street. Here are some tips on places, plates, and even some recipes in order to enjoy this island and the tastes it has to offer.
Picture yourself seated at a trendy locale overlooking the Almendares River in the Miramar district of Havana. As you enjoy the view of the water and listen to the laughter and conversation of stylish young Cubans at nearby tables, you study the menu brought over on a large chalkboard on an easel by a friendly server. Choices might include grilled lobster, fresh ceviche, octopus, and lamb – plus a selection of fines wines, cocktails, and delicious desserts. And that’s just the beginning. In other words, if you’re expecting sandwiches with rice and beans, a trip to this very diverse Caribbean island will likely not only surprise and delight, but also will send your palate on a culinary adventure not soon to be forgotten.
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But remember that it’s not only in ‘paladares’ where the discriminating epicurean can find gastronomic treasures in Cuba. There are always the classics – for instance, the Santo Angel in the Plaza Vieja gets good buzz for its seafood, plus for its historic location and live Cuban music. And in the same neighborhood over on Calle Obispo, it’s a must to stop in Ernest Hemingway’s famous haunt, the fish restaurant and cocktail bar El Floridita, for a Papa Hemingway (a tasty and refreshing grapefruit daiquiri) and – yes – even a Cuban sandwich. For legendary Cuban coffee, there’s Café O’Reilly, a cozy little spot in Old Havana that boasts freshly ground coffee beans on the premises and a decent, no-frills breakfast.
In Cuba, the beaches not only offer sunshine, white sand, and a clear blue surf, they’re also the perfect place to find small eateries in tiki bars that, while appearing rustic, boast some of the most carefully prepared and presented seafood. You might even find yourself bringing your cell phone out to take photos of the succulent lobster tail, plump peel and eat shrimp, and juicy oysters on the half shell. Rent lounge chairs and let your servers set up your beach picnic for you, complete with an ice-cold cerveza or a mojito with Cuban rum, fresh lime, and muddled mint leaves.
Speaking of servers, how does the industry in Cuba measure up? You’ll be pleased to know that not only is the food in Cuba a delight, travelers to the island often remark on how good the waiters and waitresses are. When you see all the mint-condition cars from the 1950s on the road, you’ll feel you’ve stepped back in time; the same can be found when you’re out for a meal – there’s often an old-fashioned politeness and courtesy that’s a throwback to another time – service with a smile. And especially in the ‘paladares’, pleasant surprises await. Guests might notice beautiful antique china, silver, and crystal that’s proudly still used daily and taken care of lovingly, all indicative of the general attitude of treating the customer well.
Finally, the most important thing to remember for any food aficionado traveling to Cuba is to do plenty of research. To ensure the most of your Internet investigation, do all of your Googling before you get there. Speak with friends who have vacationed there and ask where they love to eat in Cuba. Once you get to the island, don’t be shy – talk to the locals, the cab drivers, and the concierges and find out which local spot is getting the best buzz lately. And most of all, be bold – try the squid, the Ropa Vieja, and to keep up with the energy of Cuba, down plenty of strong shots of Cuban coffee throughout the day as you go from one culinary adventure to the next. Read reviews, check out recipes you might want to try, and find out where your favorite dishes are served.
A lighter option is the famous Cuban sandwich, which comes in several variations and complexities. It’s a perfect quick lunch to make once you’re back home, and there’s no reason why you can’t make yours a thing of beauty. Find good, white Cuban bread, perfect for grilling Panini-style. With this humble street food, simplicity is the key, with sliced ham and roasted pork as the main fillers. Don’t skimp on pickles, and use dill (not the sweet kind), then add slices of emmental (or similar) cheese and a good slathering of mustard.
At one of your stops in Cuba, you are likely to find a version of 'Ropa Vieja', which means “old clothes” in Spanish, and yet another dish you can easily make at home. With an amusing name that reflects its modest roots, the highlight of this dish is strips of shredded flank steak. Market fresh ingredients are essential, like garlic, bell peppers, onions, jalapeños and tomatoes with their juices. To get that tenderness and flavor in the meat, slow roast all the veggies and meat together for about 8 hours. After, shred the flank steak with a fork, top with olives, capers and cilantro, and pour over a bed of yellow or white Cuban rice. This is authentic Cuban gastronomy at its best. And homemade, nonetheless.
If you have made your mouth water reading this article, then do not miss the opportunity and organize your trip. Iberostar Hotels & Resorts has a large number of hotels in Cuba. From the most well-known destinations, such as Varadero, to less touristy but equally attractive areas, such as Trinidad or the majestic capital of Havana.
STEPHANIE DAVIS I 29/08/2017
Photography by Cordon Press and Getty ImagesMAKE IT REAL NOW