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Whilst Cuba is better known for rum and cigars than for its food, the days of state-run buffet restaurants are fortunately over, and Cuban cuisine is on the rise. What this communist island lacks in exotic herbs and spices, it makes up for in freshly grown tropical ingredients (malanga, plantain, boniatos, and yucca) as well as plenty of great seafood. With a mix of Spanish, African and Caribbean influences, Cuban food has much more to offer than many people might think. The key is to eat local, whether that’s in one of the casa particulares where you might be staying, or in one of the privately owned restaurants, or paladares, popping up all over the country.
Our favourite Cuban dishes
Moors and Christians
‘Moros y Christianos’ which literally translates to ‘Moors and Christians’ is a traditional Cuban dish of black beans and rice, which you’ll find comes with most meals. This dish has a cultural and historical significance, reflecting the time the Muslim Moors and Spanish Christians eventually came to live together in the Iberian Peninsula. There are several versions of the dish. On some occasions, rice and beans are mixed in, for example, and on other occasions, they are served separately. Traditionally, black beans represent the Muslim Moors while the white rice is used to represent the Spanish Christians.
This grilled sandwich has gained popularity throughout the USA. It is hard not to love the swiss cheese, boiled ham, roasted pork and dill pickles combination. Thought to have been introduced by the Taino tribe, over the years the unique blend of cultures in Cuba have all added their own slant to the makings of this sandwich. Europeans, mainly the Spanish, are known to have introduced pork and ham to the sandwich. Prior to this, the Taino tribe stuffed fish and bird meat inside the centre of two thin, crunchy slices of casaba (which tasted more like a cracker).
Our favourite Cuban food
Some of the best meals you’ll find are at the ‘casas particulares’ (guest houses) – they’ll usually ask you to order in the morning, or even the night before, but the pre-planning is worthwhile for a home-cooked feast.
If you’re after a quick bite to eat, try a pizza from one of the holes in the wall dotted around the main plazas in many of Cuba’s towns. The pizzas are made at someone’s home and sold out of the window, with a little cheese and a few onions for flavour.
Snacks can be difficult to come by in Cuba, as this communist country isn’t home to the same array of shops and supermarkets you’ll find elsewhere in the world. We’d recommend bringing a supply of crisps, nuts and sweets with you to snack on during your time in Cuba, especially if you’re vegetarian or vegan (see below).
Vegetarian, vegan, gluten free & coeliac advice
As with a lot of south and central American destinations, being a vegan or vegetarian can be challenging. We’ve got some pointers to help you along.
- Bring vegan spreads, cheese and milk with you, as you won’t be able to find these.
- Bring a cool-bag to keep in mini-fridges which most casa particulares and hotels will have (and some even have freezer compartments). This is particularly useful for self-drive trips so you can keep your food cool while you travel or snack en route.
- Sauces, spreads, nuts and crisps are also useful to take with you, as this kind of thing can be difficult to find.
- One of the benefits of staying in local casa particulares is you can explain to your host what you can’t eat, and they’ll do the best they can to cater to your needs.
- Buffets are your friend, if you happen to be staying somewhere that has one, you can pick and choose your favourite bits.
- You can use the Happycow app/website to find vegan & vegetarian-friendly restaurants.
Learn or write down this phrase to use if you’re struggling, “Soy vegetariano y no come el leche, la mantaquilla, el queso, la crema y el carne” – which means that you don’t eat milk, butter, cheese, cream or meat – sorted.
Vegan & vegetarian tip:
Las Terrazas is home to one of the few specialised vegan restaurants in Cuba called Eco-Restaurante “El Romero”.
How much can I expect to pay for food & drinks?
You can expect to pay between £5-10 for lunch or dinner per person.
Depending on your preferences, you can expect to spend in the region of about £20-30 per day on food, drinks and tips (per person).
Breakfast is often included at casa particulares, and on average you should expect to pay £5 for lunch, £10 for dinner and a nice cold beer, mojito or daiquiri are usually under £2.
Being a responsible tourist
As a communist country, continued rationing means food and ingredients in Cuba can be limited. Cuban dishes tend to be seasoned simply by garlic, salt and onions.
Some travellers complain about the blandness of Cuban cuisine and recommend bringing spices, pepper packets or sauces to liven up your food. Why not extend generosity to your hosts and offer them a bottle of hot sauce as a thank you gift?
Useful Spanish phrases for eating in Cuba
I am allergic to (peanuts): soy alergico/a (al mani)
For even more Cuba travel tips, head to our travel guide below.