Cuban Cuisine

The most common spices used in Cuban cuisine are garlic, cumin, oregano and bay or laurel leaves. Sofrito is also popular, and used in a wide range of dishes, from those of beans to those of meats to those that are made from a base of tomato sauce. A typical sofrito is made of green pepper, onion, garlic, oregano and black pepper fried in olive oil until the pepper, onion and garlic are soft and translucent and the flavors blend to perfection.

The most common spices used in Cuban cuisine

The dense, nutritious, energy producing vegetables commonly used belie the African and native peoples’ influence on the cuisine of Cuba. Yuca, malanga, boniato, and plantano are among these, and are often simmered together with complementary vegetables and served simply, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with chopped fresh onion – a satisfying, strengthening and simple dish for a hard working people.

Meats are often prepared using island flavored marinades of that use lime juice or the juice of a sour variety of the orange as a base. Then, the meats are roasted or simmered very slowly with spices, often for hours. Beans and rice are an essential part of most meals, with black beans being well known as a Cuban specialty.

Cuban cuisine is also notable for its baked goods, which include a variety of turnovers. Some are filled with spiced meats and other types feature a particularly Cuban blend of cream cheese and guava paste. Flan is among Cuba’s most beloved dessert items.

In Cuban cuisine, the subtle flavors of healthy foods are enhanced by cooking and spicing methods designed to bring out the best in each component of a dish. The culinary traditions of Cuba are a delight to the tongue, naturally, but they also offer a fascinating glimpse into a culture that has brought together many varied elements to create a cohesive whole.

 

The Cuban Cuisine History

Cuba is the Caribbean’s largest, most diverse and most beautiful island. So beautiful in fact, that Christopher Columbus thought that he had discovered the Garden of Eden when he first landed. What he found was a geographically diverse land of rich mountains, fertile valleys, flowing rivers and clear springs. Along with all its land resources, he found an ocean full of fish, and trade winds that caressed and protected the island's bounty.

Cuba's original settlers, the Taìno-Arawack Indians, introduced these Spanish explorers to what was to become the New World's two most important crops: corn and tobacco. The Taìno-Arawacks were so agriculturally advanced by the late 1400s that they had even developed aquacultural techniques. Taking advantage of the warm water species of the fertile Caribbean Ocean, they built corrals and fisheries to gather grouper, red snapper, tuna and shrimp. These fish were typically cooked on the “barbacoa”, or what we call today, barbecue grilling. Along with fish, they served other land cultivated items: boniatos (white fleshed sweet potatoes), malanga (a beige to pink colored type of yam), hot chilis, yucca, avocadoes, papaya, coconut, pineapple and guava. In return for their kindness and all the treasures that they shared with Columbus and the wave of Spaniards that came after him, the Taìno-Arawack Indians were mercilessly enslaved and slaughtered.

In the years that followed, Cuba became one of the most important African slave trade depots. It was here from the 1500s through the 1800s that hundreds of thousands of slaves from the African west coast were brought in to be traded for money, ships, guns and other treasures. Many considered themselves fortunate to have even made it that far as so many were lost in the voyage itself. Along with them, new labor intensive crops were introduced into Cuba’s fertile growing regions to take advantage of the new found slave labor. These included many crops which were to become integrated into Cuban cuisine: beans, rice, various citrus fruits, mangos, coffee and most importantly, sugarcane.

Today, in Cuba’s rich heartland, the sugarcane crops sway to the rhythm of the trade winds. Accounting for 70% of its export earnings, sugarcane has become its economic nemesis. Cuba's dependency on sugarcane has left it vulnerable to low production yields and fluctuating world market prices. In recent years, these factors have had near catastrophic effects on Cuba’s people. On the western part of the island however, in the province of Pinar del Rio and Viñales, they have perpetuated the Taìno-Arawack tradition of tobacco production and cultivated it to make the world’s most sought after cigars.

Cuba’s cuisine has been laterally influenced by its culture. From the Afro-Caribe influenced eastern region of Santiago de Cuba to the Spanish influenced western region of Havana, its people are as diverse as its food. A truly culturally and racially integrated society, its cuisine draws upon its regionally abundant crops and resources. It is a cuisine reflective of the Cubans themselves: simple and straightforward yet vibrant and diverse with the flavors of life.

 

Today's Paladares

Paladares are the independent, state sanctioned, family run restaurants of Cuba. Since the beginning of the Cuban government's quest to open up their country to democratic economic reforms, paladares were one of the first and only enterprises to fall under these reforms. Rules stipulate that they must have no more than 12 seats (though they many times do), be strictly family run and must cook rustic Cuban food (i.e. no lobster or chicken breast as they are reserved only for the tourist hotels). Within these and other strict guidelines, such as being one of the few taxed businesses in a Communist country, they have flourished. So much so, it is these paladares that tourists seek out over other state and hotel run restaurants. The food is authentic, wholesome and inexpensive.

Based on my personal experience and first hand travel experiences from other travelers to Cuba, it can be concluded that the number one problem for tourists there is finding a decent place to eat. Before the emergence of paladares, choices were limited to either expensive state run hotel restaurants and cafeterias or snack stands along the streets. The little 'bodegas', Cuban national eating places, were off limits for the most part to tourists as they accepted only Cuban pesos. With the Cuban government opening up its shores to international tourism in 1993, and allowing the privatization of paladares in 1995, things began to change. Today, paladares abound. The main problem with them is that the legal ones are taxed so high that many do not have the money to advertise. Many times they will hire a “tout”, or guide, to help bring in customers. Of course, the guides work on commission only, and therefore tend to favor only those paladares from which they can profit and push up the prices also. There are also illegal paladares, but they seem to close as fast as they open. This of course, is why there is a dilemma for tourists.