Food in Cuba
Cuban food benefits from a rich and diverse multiethnic heritage as well as from an abundance of the tropical fruits and vegetables found throughout the Caribbean and the rich harvest that comes from the sea. The biggest influences on the cuisine come from Africa and mainland Spain, including the Spanish Canary Islands, which have their own unique twists to Spanish food. Other cultures that have influenced the cuisine include French, Arabic, Chinese, and Portuguese. While the primary food staples of most Cubans are beans and rice, you can find wonderful varieties of meals in many of the restaurants in Cuba and sumptuous home-cooked meals in just about any casa particular (a private home that rents out rooms). Homecooked meals can include all sorts of delicious dishes, including lobster, plantains, shrimp, and even sweet potatoes.
In addition to the rice and beans staples, traditional Cuban food is "peasant" cuisine, emphasizing sautéing, stewing, and other slow cooking methods. You will seldom find deep fried foods or rich creamy sauces. With Spain featured prominently in the country's history, you will find sofrito is a base ingredient for many dishes, as it is in Spain. Sofrito is a combination of aromatic ingredients, always including garlic, onions, and tomatoes, and often freshly ground pepper and green pepper. These are diced very fine and slowly sautéed in cooking oil. Typically, the Spanish use olive oil, but any good cooking oil will do. Sofrito flavors the food, and other spices used regularly are cumin, bay leaf, and oregano. The fresh food and quality spices make even the simplest meal delicious and memorable.
Meats are also slow cooked, usually roasting over an open fire, after marinating in orange, lime, or other citrus. Finer restaurants in Cuba will often roast an entire pig, which local families will do on holidays and for special events. But, at any time, you should be able to find a succulent pork roast that has been slow cooked until the meat is falling off the bone. Typical Cuban food to accompany meat and fish dishes includes congri, a mixture of black beans and white rice that is called Christians and Moors. Root vegetables are also common, including boniato, yucca, sweet potatoes, and malanga. Vegetables are marinated in a mixture called mojo, made with hot olive oil, raw onions, garlic, cumin, lemon juice, and a bit of water. Plantains come in many forms and are cooked in many ways, with a favorite being over an open fire. Plantain chips are also popular and are often provided as finger food in bars.
Cuban Street Food
For lunch, a quick meal is usually a popular way to go. you can try empanadas (meat or chicken turnovers), or you might try a sandwich called a media noche (meaning “midnight”) made with a slice of ham, a slice of roast pork, and cheese topped with a piccalilli mustard. For seafood, look for lobsters, Spanish-style paella, and large whole fish. You may as well try the Cuban national drink while you're at. This, of course is rum and the signature rum cocktail that originated in Cuba are Cuba libres, daiquiris, and Ernest Hemingway's favorite cocktail: mojitos. Like the lunch menus, late-night usually consist of simple and straightforward, and often homemade meals, such as sandwiches.
Dining in Cuba
If you're most interested in local food and an intimate atmosphere, look for restaurants in Cuba called paladares. A paladar is a small, family-run restaurant—privately owned unlike larger restaurants. They are limited to only a dozen or so seats and are required to cook local food like seafood and the ubiquitous pork, rice, and beans. Don't be surprised if you are approached on the streets of Havana or any other tourist center by locals telling you about and leading you to an off the beaten path paladar. These people receive "commissions" from the restaurant owner. They were technically illegal until the economic reforms of 1993 caused by the collapse of the Soviet bloc countries and consequent economic crisis.
Street Food in Cuba
If you are strolling the streets in the evening, it is even possible to purchase a meal from a family that doesn't run a paladar. If you see them cooking outside, simply ask. You’ll often see posted menus with prices for these basic home-cooked meals, which can include pizza, rice, and sandwiches, among other goodies.