Cuban cuisine has come a long way in the last decade. Until the late 2000s, shortages were a way of life, and the nation’s default snack was a sandwich stuffed with tinned ham and rubbery cheese (the real Cuban sandwich is an invention of Cuban Americans in the US).
Reforms in the early 2010s widened the goalposts for private entrepreneurs, and innovative restaurants quickly began to proliferate. Today, with professionally minded chefs sharpening their creative knives, the country – despite the recent blip caused by the COVID-19 pandemic – is rediscovering its culinary roots.
Here are some of the best Cuban dishes and where you can taste them.
Cuba’s national dish – slow-cooked shredded beef in a tomato sauce – was hard to procure during the Special Period, the era of economic austerity that lasted from the early 1990s until the late 2000s. Problems with the food supply meant private restaurants were prohibited from serving beef – killing a cow or illegally selling its meat could mean jail time. Fortunately, restrictions were relaxed in the 2010s and old clothes has subsequently leapt back into vogue.
The dish, whose name translates as “old clothes,” has Spanish roots. It’s said to have originated with Spain’s Sephardic Jewish community about 500 years ago, minus the tomatoes which weren’t common in Europe until the 18th century. Traditionally the meat was slow-cooked the night before the sabbath (when cooking was forbidden) to lend it an intense but nuanced flavor.
Spanish versions of the dish usually contain chickpeas, while the Cuban rendition combines shredded steak (flank, brisket or skirt) with peppers and onions in a rich tomato sauce. It might look like old clothes, but it certainly doesn’t taste like them!
The recipe probably arrived in Cuba from the Canary Islands, along with many of the country’s early European colonizers, and first established itself in Havana. Today, any Cuban restaurant worth its salt will serve old clothes, and the meal is often held up as a litmus test of a place’s general food quality. Havana’s Rum Rum in Old Havana does a superb version.
A close cousin of old clothes, Hash of Havana is a spicy melange of ground beef, olives and raisins slow-stewed until it achieves a deep, satisfying and subtly sweet flavor. Herbs and spices, including cumin, oregano and garlic, are also thrown into the mix.
The dish was originally considered a meal of the poor, and mincemeat or hash was used to hide cheaper, less desirable cuts of meat. these days, Hash has a distinctly richer reputation. The olives testify to Spanish roots while the sides – Tostones (pan-fried plantain), rice, beans and root vegetables – reflect more Caribbean influences.
For the best Hash in Havana, proceed to Callejón del Chorro, a narrow cul-de-sac near Havana’s cathedral. Tucked away at the end of the street is Doña Eutimia, a private restaurant that excels in traditional Cuban cuisine cooked in a no-nonsense, unfancy way. Frankly, you could plump for any of the restaurant’s myriad dishes, but their Hash is the best of the best.
You can’t get more Cuban than an ajiaco, a broth-like stew with antecedents in the pre-Columbian era. Fernando Ortiz, the famous Cuban anthropologist, once liked the country’s culture to an ajiacoa combination of heritage from Africa, Spain, France, China and the indigenous Taínos.
The stew contains a potpourri of various meats, vegetables, fruits, corn and flavorings. The Taíno people used to make it in large clay cauldrons using gamey meats (the resident jutía or tree rat was popular), root vegetables such as yucca and squash, and the sweet aji peppers from which the dish gets its name. Hot peppers are little used in Cuba, whose residents don’t have much taste for strong spices.
The Spanish introduced new meats such as beef and pork, although ajiaco‘s proteins were wall down during the lean years of the 1990s and 2000s. It is still mostly considered a rustic “soup” made up of scraps and leftovers, but it’s creeping into fashion in places like Ajiaco Café, an eco-restaurant in the Havana suburb of Cojímar.
Spit-roasted suckling pig comes a close second to old clothes as Cuba’s national dish and is a popular communal meal at Christmas and New Year. It’s most authentic when cooked alfresco in the countryside over an open charcoal fire pit. The roasting process can take up to seven hours and is extremely labor intensive.
The bucolic region in and around the tobacco-growing town of Viñales in Pinar del Río province is the spiritual home of roast pig. In the last decade or so, a plethora of rustic eco-farms has sprung up presenting the feast in an idyllic rural setting. Finca Agroecologica El Paraíso is a leading light.
The roast pork usually comes with a smorgasbord of typical Cuban trimmings, including Moors and Christians (rice and beans cooked and seasoned in the same pot), plantains prepared in a variety of ways and vegetables. At El Paraíso, almost everything is grown and made on site.
Other restaurants where you’re likely to get good renderings of roast pork are Balcón del Valle just outside Viñales, and Casa Mía Paladar in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood, which offers pork (pork) done Pinar del Río style.
fish with milk
When it comes to food, Baracoa in Cuba’s far eastern corner inhabits a separate universe from the rest of the country. Geographic isolation and a wet, fickle climate have ensured different crops prosper here: coconuts and cocoa grow abundantly, and a tiny freshwater fish called teti thrives in the local rivers. All of this bounty (and more) finds its way onto the local dinner plates.
Arguably the most delicious Baracoan specialty is a coconut sauce called milk commonly served over fish. Milk is made using coconut milk, tomatoes, and garlic and adorns most of the local river- and seafood, including swordfish, prawns or the teti drawn from the nearby Toa River between July and December during a waning moon.
Legendary in Baracoa is the private restaurant La Colonial, which has been knocking out the local favorites doused in milk for more than 20 years.
Cornet is a unique Cuban dessert found only in and around the city of Baracoa in the eastern province of Guantánamo. It is made from sweet local ingredients that include coconut, guava, pineapple, almonds and honey – no two recipes are exactly alike. Heated and cooked in a pan to make a sticky paste, the concoction is subsequently cooled and wrapped in a cone-shaped palm frond. Local people sell it roadside on the steep, winding Farola (lighthouse road), the only decent road connection between Baracoa and the outside world.
Roast chicken “El Aljibe”
Bitter orange (bitter orange) is a key but subtle ingredient in many Cuban dishes, but its distinctive flavor dominates the menu at one particular restaurant in Havana’s diplomatic quarter.
First opened in 1993, El Aljibe is a direct descendent of a rustic farm restaurant called Rancho Luna, founded by two brothers, Pepe and Sergio García, in 1946. Rancho Luna was located in the town of Guanajay, 50km (31 miles) west of Havana, and built a formidable reputation on the power of one dish, tinguaro chickenor barbecued chicken glazed in a “secret” bitter orange sauce.
The restaurant prospered in the 1950s, but it was nationalized and forced to close after the revolution. Thirty years later, the brothers decided to relaunch the place as a state-run enterprise called El Aljibe in Havana’s Miramar district.
To recreate the rustic idyll, El Aljibe is housed beneath an open-sided thatched canopy where the vast majority of its clientele revel in ordering the erstwhile barbecued chicken (renamed Roast chicken “El Aljibe” after the restaurant) served with ample all-you-can-eat sides of rice, beans, Tostones and salad. Combining large portions with sharp service, it’s arguably the best state-run restaurant in Cuba.
On the largest island in the Caribbean, it’s not uncommon to find abundant and succulent seafood. Lobster (lobster) has long been an affordable option for tourists paying in convertible currency, and in recent years, it has become permissible for private restaurants to sell it. Portions of the rich crustacean are large, and the flavoring is simple yet subtle. It’s served in the shell with little more than butter and some light seasoning. Varadero 60 in the eponymous resort town offers lobster as a surf-and-turf option with steak.
Many open-sided beach restaurants, called ranchones, in resort zones, serve fresh lobster. Named after a beloved Canadian tourist, Lenny’s Lobster Shack abutting Playa Prohibida in Cayo Coco is famed for its lobster, prawns and fish medley.