How Sweet It Is

Sugarcane is Cuba's main export, but it's not native to the island. Christopher Columbus introduced sugarcane cuttings to Cuba during his second voyage in 1493 [source: Cuba Made Easy].

Traditional Cuban Food

Cuban cuisine is simple but robust. One of its most popular home-cooking styles is called criollo in deference to its Spanish origins. The main ingredients in criollo are chicken, beef, pork, eggs, beans, rice and vegetables like tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers, cassava (yucca) and plantain (a starchy fruit similar to a banana). This is peasant food at its best when spiced with the king and queen of Cuban seasonings: ajo (garlic) and onion.

Criollo has a European influenced offshoot, too, thanks to the contributions made by international travelers visiting Havana, Cuba's capital. They collectively helped to develop Cuban-fusion cuisine back when blending food cultures was just called creative experimentation. Western criollo adds a few ingredients like flour, raisins, capers and olives, and uses them in new or expanded ways. There are also Asian influences in sweet and sour and rice dishes. In the 1800s, Cuba had a small influx of Chinese laborers whose descendants make up about one percent of the population [source: Live In Cuba].

For a relatively small country Cuba has lots of culinary abundance, even if the vagaries of rationing and state-run restaurants can obscure its dynamic potential. A good example is the cuisine of Eastern Cuba, which borrows generously from Caribbean and African culinary traditions in its use of coconut, chocolate, honey, annatto seeds and other spices.

Cuban food uses fresh ingredients prepared simply, often in stews, soups and sandwiches. Meats are slow roasted until they're falling-off-the-bone tender.

Beyond the ever-popular garlic and onions, other common spices used in Cuban cooking are bay laurel, oregano, coriander, cumin and pepper. Many sauces have a tomato base. Sofrito is one example. Think of it as a flavor roux made without flour. Instead it combines aromatic ingredients like tomatoes, garlic, green bell pepper, chorizo and onion with olive oil over low heat. Sofrito is often used to add depth and complexity to rice and bean dishes, soups and stews.

Here are some other traditional Cuban favorites:

  • Empanadas (empanadillas) and Pastelitos: meat-stuffed, fried or baked turnovers similar to Italian calzones.
  • Arroz con pollo - chicken and rice
  • Boliche - stuffed pot roast
  • Boniato con mojo - sweet potatoes in a garlic citrus sauce
  • Cocido de garbanzos - chickpea stew
  • Congri - red beans and rice
  • Dulce de leche - caramel sauce from sweet milk used to flavor cookies, cakes and candy
  • Flan - a pie or tart, often with a custard base, used as both a sweet and savory dish
  • Huevos habaneros - eggs Havana-style with tomatoes, peppers and cumin
  • La Caldosa - Chicken soup
  • Maduros - fried sweet plantains
  • Moros y cristianos - black beans and rice
  • Pan con bistec - a steak sandwich on pressed cuban bread
  • Pan con lechón - a roasted pork sandwich on pressed cuban bread
  • Pulpeta - meatloaf
  • Rabo encendido - oxtail stew
  • Ropa vieja - shredded flank steak or other meat in a rich sauce.