20 Types Of Cuban Food You Need To Try At Least Once

Although booking a direct flight to Cuba remains a hassle for American travelers, a culinary trip to the island is easily within reach. Cuban food tells the story of the country's history, which is built on influences from a wide range of origins. Spanish, African, Caribbean, indigenous, and Chinese cuisine all play a role in modern-day Cuban food, according to The Spruce Eats. The dishes reflect the agricultural and geographical features of Cuba, and include many starchy root vegetables, tropical fruits, and seafood from the surrounding coast. As for rice — a staple across Latin America — it owes its arrival on the island to Chinese immigrants .

Rough Guides opines that Cuban food can be lacking in piquant and exciting novel flavors, however, classic local dishes are heartwarming in a way that no gourmet cuisine can be. A focus on local produce means that the dishes are made with freshness in mind. Whether you choose to head to the kitchen and recreate your own version of these Cuban (and Cuban American) specialties, find them in a restaurant, or travel to Cuba itself, expect simple and satisfying flavors. 

Cuban sandwich

Despite its name, the modern version of the Cubano or Cuban sandwich may have actually originated in Southern Florida, Thrillist reports. The source explains that the sandwich has evolved since its first, fish-based rendition by the indigenous Taino tribe around 500 years ago. Centuries of external influence transformed the dish into a pork-centric creation. Food chemist Jorge Astorquiza explains to Thrillist that Cuban immigrants were making a slightly different version in Florida and decided to name the sandwich after their country to distinguish it from the original. Basically, with the ingredients they had available, it became the Americanized version of a dish from their homeland.

A few elements set the sandwich apart from just any meat and bread combination. Food Fun Travel notes that, first and foremost, you'll need Cuban bread. The wheat bread is made with yeast and a bit of lard, producing a crispy exterior and a light interior. More importantly, a palmetto leaf (aka cabbage leaf) is wrapped around the dough as it rises, providing extra flavor. As for the fillings, the cities of Tampa and Miami engage in a salami debate (the addition is preferred in Tampa but eschewed in Miami, per NPR) but we'll stick to the basics: smoked ham, roast marinated pork, Swiss cheese, mustard, and, specifically, three pickles. The sandwich can be served as is or pressed between two hot griddles like a panini.

Medianoche

Medianoche means "midnight" in Spanish, and that is exactly the time at which you'd want to gobble up this sandwich to fuel your night of dancing and soak up excess alcohol. All the same, it's a perfectly viable option any time of the day. A medianoche is certainly similar to a Cuban sandwich as far as the fillings go, but a fundamental distinction should be noted. Epicurious explains that the Cuban sandwich is made with a lard-based bread that has a crunchy exterior, whereas a medianoche is made with pan suave, which translates to "soft bread." Plus, the bread is made with eggs, which add a subtly sweet flavor and a pleasant texture, not unlike Jewish challah bread.

Taste Atlas notes that the first medianoche is thought to have originated in Havana in the early 1900s. It wasn't late-night partiers but workers who came up with the satisfying creation. As with a Cubano, the fillings consist of smoked ham, roast marinated pork, Swiss cheese, and pickles. For the ultimate experience of gooey melted cheese, it's often pressed in a griddle.

Ropa vieja

You might want to ignore the English translation — "old clothes" — and instead focus on the delicious flavors of the dish. The origin is not limited to Cuba and versions of ropa vieja are popular around the Caribbean. According to Latin Post, an old legend tells the story of a poor man who cooked his clothes to feed his family. During the process, a guardian angel helped him out by turning the clothes into meat and vegetables. The Culture Trip explains the nourishing dish is composed of shredded beef, cooked with bell peppers and onion in a tomato-based sauce, served with rice.

Far before the dish had arrived in Cuba sometime in the mid-1800s, it was a dining staple in the Canary Islands. Besides rice, the dish is commonly served with beans or fried plantains, whereas in the Canary Islands, boiled potatoes are the main go-to pairing.

Lechon asado

Lechon asado could be viewed as an ode to pork, and Cuba Journal points out that the dish is found at any large celebration. In particular, HuffPost indicates that lechon asado is traditionally served on Christmas Eve. Although you can eat this any day of the year, the long preparation tends to warrant a special occasion. The dish is cooked in a charcoal-fueled closed grill (aka a Chinese box), another hint at the Chinese influence in Cuban cuisine. However, before any meat is to be grilled, it must first be marinated in an adobo sauce packed with citrus, garlic, cumin, and oregano (via Huff Post). Eventually, a suckling pig (or a pork shoulder or loin if you can't find a whole hog) is slow-roasted for hours.

You'll end up with fall-off-the-bone meat and crispy skin. Serve the meat with mojo sauce for more citrus, garlic, cumin, and oregano flavors. As for a side dish, when in doubt Cubans are always fond of rice. Bean Train notes that black beans and rice are a popular accompaniment, as well as boiled cassava drizzled with more mojo sauce.

Ajiaco Cubano

As far as old recipes go, ajiaco dates back to the pre-Columbian period according to Smithsonian Magazine. The dish gets its name from aji, a chili pepper that provides plenty of depth of flavor. The slow-cooked stew has certainly gone through its own evolution of everchanging meats, but root vegetables are a constant in the preparation. Parts Unknown describes the dish further as comprised of stewed meats, vegetables, and spices with American, European, and African influences. Think of it as the ultimate one-pot meal — nourishing and packed with flavor.

Versions of ajiaco can be found across Latin America, and the specific ingredients vary based on availability and regional styles. In Cuba, a sauté of onions, garlic, peppers, and spices, known as sofrito, makes up the base of the dish. Beyond that, the stew may incorporate dried meat, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, tomatoes, and even plantains (via Parts Unknown). The beauty of the dish is that the bulk can be filled in based on the ingredients you have available. Talk about the perfect comfort food!

Fricasé de pollo

Chicken is a popular protein in Cuba and there are countless ways to enjoy it. According to 196 Flavors, fricasé de pollo is inspired by the French chicken stew, fricassée. The source indicates that the dish can, in fact, be traced to various cultures, each providing their own touch. The ingredients are both sautéed and stewed, which gives the dish maximum flavor. The French fricassée is made with a creamy sauce and white chicken meat, whereas the Cuban version opts for brown meat cooked in a tomato-based sauce.

Per 196 Flavors, the chicken is first marinated in a citrusy, garlicy mojo, providing lots of flavor. Aside from tomatoes, chicken thighs and legs are stewed in a combination of garlic, onions, bell peppers, potatoes, olives, stock, and spices like cumin and coriander (via Taste Atlas). Once the potatoes and chicken are fully cooked, the saucy dish can be served with rice or warm Cuban bread.

Vaca frita

Vaca frita is a direct description of what you'll be served: fried beef. It's not  deep-fried but instead, it is first boiled until the meat softens, 196 Flavors explains. Then, the beef is shredded, marinated in garlic, lime juice, and salt, and finally pan-fried until it is pleasantly crispy, according to Britannica. The source adds that flank or skirt steak are common cuts used for the preparation since they are lean and dry out fairly quickly. Generally, bell peppers, onions, and additional seasonings are fried with the meat to add more flavor.

The simple yet tasty dish goes well with classic Cuban sides: think white rice, black beans, fried plantains, and plenty of lime juice. The crunchy texture is a welcome contrast to the softer accompaniments, making for a winning combination. While the shredded beef aspect is similar to ropa vieja, the two dishes have substantially different preparations and final results.

Pulpeta

Meatloaf tops many a list of comfort foods, and Cuba happens to have a version of the classic dish. Pulpeta is a combination of ground beef, pork, and ham, as well as eggs (for binding as well as a whole hard-boiled egg stuffed in the center), onions, vinegar, cheese, breadcrumbs, tomato, wine, and herbs to tie the whole dish together (via Taste Atlas). Once the meatloaf is formed, the exterior is coated in breadcrumbs and fried to create a crispy outer shell. Finally, the fried meatloaf stews in a richly seasoned Creole tomato and bell pepper sauce to fully coat it in layers of flavor (via Bean Train). 

Hispanic Food Network notes that there can be a smoky undertone to the sauce, perhaps somewhat reminiscent of BBQ sauce. Fresh parsley often acts as an herbal garnish to offset the sweetness. Traditional Cuban sides including fried plantains and rice are often paired with the dish. Pulpeta is also regularly served with another classic comfort food that's enjoyed internationally: mashed potatoes. If you can imagine the delicious sauce as gravy, you'll realize why this combination is so great.

Arroz con pollo

Arroz con pollo (aka "rice with chicken") is another fuss-free dish that is as simple as it's delicious. Most countries across Latin America have some version of the meal, and Amigo Foods remarks that it is among the most popular dishes consumed in the region. The source reports that the origin of the dish is believed to come from the Moors — Muslim inhabitants who invaded Spain in the medieval period. The dish can easily be customized and once you taste it, you'll quickly understand why it is a staple in so many countries.

The Durango Herald describes the nuances of the dish that provide so much flavor. First, the rice is boiled in chicken fat that is saved after frying up the chicken thighs. The rice is combined with stock, beer, tomato sauce, and saffron which adds a distinct earthy aroma. A classic sauté of onions, bell peppers, and garlic creates a rich foundation that infuses plenty of aromas to the dish. Once the rice is cooked, the crispy chicken thigh is served on top.

Congrí

Congrí is also named arroz con moros y cristianos, which has a culturally relevant meaning regarding the various ethnicities present in Cuba historically. According to Food52, the dish highlights a battle centuries ago between Spanish Christians and Muslim Moors. In fact, "moros" refers to the darker-skinned Moors as well as to the black beans in the dish, whereas the rice is termed "cristianos" for the white Spaniards (via Cuba Plus). The source remarks that the dish is likely of African origin and various renditions exist in surrounding countries.

The rice and beans are cooked with the classic sofrito flavor base of onions, garlic, bell peppers, cumin, and bay leaves. When the rice and beans are cooked together, the rice takes on a grayish color, which Food52 indicates is where the name congrí comes from — "con gris," which is Spanish for "with gray." Chopped bacon or chorizo are sometimes included to provide extra flavor and protein. The dish can be served as a frugal main course, or else as a side paired with a meat-centric main like ropa vieja or lechon asado.

Arroz imperial

Rice is certainly at the heart of many Cuban dishes, and this is no exception when it comes to arroz imperial. The dish contains a lengthy list of ingredients, including regulars like chicken, bacon, sofrito (a garlic, bell pepper, and onion sauté), as well as green peas, mayonnaise, and cheese (via Taste Atlas). Imagine layered rice crossed with a cheesy lasagna, plus plenty of extra mayo and sauce to make the dish especially creamy. Much like a baked casserole, the top layer is browned during the cooking time.

World Food Guide indicates that while it's not as ubiquitous arroz con pollo, the preparation is still a popular one. Served as a side dish or main course, arroz imperial's layered presentation makes it particularly eye-catching. Unlike some other Cuban dishes with straightforward origins, the influences that led to the creation of arroz imperial are hard to place (via Taste Atlas).

Picadillo

Amigo Foods explains that picadillo comes from the Spanish word "picar," meaning to chop, which is an essential part of the preparation. There's no straightforward rule as to what meat is used in the recipe, although a traditional Cuban rendition is made with ground beef, according to the source. Nevertheless, this is the type of dish that can be prepared using whatever is available. On top of the meat, vegetables and seasonings are incorporated, varying depending on the region. Raisins, olives, and even capers can make an appearance in some styles of the dish, which The New York Times labels, "the ultimate Cuban comfort food."

Picadillo can be a filling, say for an empanada, but it also pairs well with plain rice and potatoes. A comparison can be made with the meat mince that makes up a sloppy Joe, as The New York Times points out. Thanks to the versatility of the ingredients and its easy preparation, picadillo is a common meal in many Cuban homes.

Enchilado de camarones

Sifting through the endless meat-based recipes fundamental to Cuban cuisine, it's easy to forget that the country is an island. It follows that along the coast, seafood is an important part of what is being served. Enchilado de camarones is a shrimp stew, which 196 Flavors identifies as coming from neighboring Haiti. The sauce is tomato and pepper based, flavored with spices, and often prepared with wine. Curiously, enchilado generally entails a hot chili component, but Spoon University indicates that the sauce is mild and free of chilies.

As with many Cuban recipes, the shrimp is marinated in a citrus sauce prior to being cooked (via 196 Flavors). The shrimp are first pan-fried, and later added to the enchilado sauce to stew as they fully absorb the additional flavors. Plain white rice or a pilaf make an easy accompaniment to soak up the sauce, and fresh cilantro adds some contrast. The same preparation can be made with other seafood, such as crab or white fish.

Platanos maduros

Platanos maduros (or "ripe fried plantains") are a common side dish and snack across Latin America, West Africa, and India where they likely originated, according to Amigo Foods. Surprisingly, the source indicates that plantains, which are related to bananas, were brought to the Caribbean by the Spanish. The food is now so deeply rooted in Cuban culture, that Fine Cooking describes how the term "aplatanado" (basically "plantainized") is used when a foreigner becomes enmeshed with the local culture and customs.

The starchy fruit must be cooked and the dish takes advantage of the extra sugars that build up as the fruit ripens. Oil, butter, and salt are just about all that goes into the preparation, per Amigo Foods. Although they can be served as a side for just about any rice and meat dish, the fried plantains make a great snack with a bit of lime juice and avocado. For a crunchier take, plantains can be flattened into discs and deep-fried as tostones, not unlike a cross between a chip and a french fry in texture.

Tamales

Popular across Latin America, tamales vary regionally but generally consist of masa (a corn-based dough) wrapped in a corn husk and steamed, though they can be roasted, grilled, or fried, Toasty Kettle explains. Thanks to the husk, the corn filling doesn't dry out and manages to absorb extra flavors and seasoning. The preparation and additional fillings can vary widely between countries and cooks. As for the Cuban style, Taos News explains that fresh corn kernels are commonly used instead of a finer flour-like mass. Seasoned pork is a common add-in, and in areas where bananas grow, the fruit's leaves are used to wrap up the masa instead (via Taos News).

Homemade versions abound, which isn't surprising since tamales have been around for millennia. Ethnic Spoon indicates that they were consumed in Pre-Columbian times by the Aztecs and Mayans, and were commonly served at festivals, which is no wonder when you consider the conveniently wrapped format. The corn-based snack is often sold as street food, easily transported and ready to unwrap when the time comes. If you've never tried a tamale, the husk is merely used for cooking and to infuse flavor — you don't want to try eating it!

Croquetas

Every cuisine deserves a crispy bite-sized snack, and in Cuba they are found as croquetas. According to The New Tropic, as with many culinary creations, the food originated in France as a way to use up leftovers by forming them into a mass within a breadcrumb shell and frying it. Meat or potatoes are common fillings, and the source adds that what sets croquetas apart from other fried morsels is that they contain a creamy bechamel sauce as well. An order usually comes with a pile of croquetas, which are either tubular or round. The snack is common both in Cuba and in Miami, and it's easy to see why the warm savory treat goes down so well.

Just be careful if you are buying pre-made ones in Cuba from state-owned distributors, as multiple people have experienced facial burns as a result of an exploding croqueta. NBC News notes that croqueta company Prodal released a statement warning people to heat the oil only to 180 F, avoid overcrowding their pans, and to watch out with one of the varieties in particular which has a thicker filling. It's very unlikely that Cubans will stop eating croquetas because the tasty snack is both cheap and satiating, but greater attention will have to be taken to prevent further injuries.

Arroz con leche

Being a common staple in Cuban cuisine, rice also takes on a sweet flavor profile in arroz con leche, or "rice with milk." The dessert probably came to Spain during the reign of the Moors, and the Spanish eventually shared the dish throughout Latin America, including Cuba (via Reference). It's not quite Rice Krispies with milk — instead, long grain rice is slowly cooked in simmering milk as other ingredients are incorporated to add flavor. Sugar is a certainty, and cinnamon is a common option to infuse warm fragrant aromas into the pleasant dish.

Amigo Foods indicates that in Cuba, sweet condensed milk and cinnamon are regularly included, as well as vanilla and a hint of lemon zest to add contrast. While some regions produce a dish with well-separated grains of rice, the Cuban version tends to be especially creamy. As with many classic widespread dishes, each household has its own specific preparation, and there is plenty of room to experiment.

Flan

Creamy unctuous flan is found in many regions of the world, but according to Eater, a few elements set the Cuban version apart from the rest. The custard dessert is made with sweet condensed and evaporated milk on the island, unlike the fresh milk preparation elsewhere. In fact, the substitution makes the texture even more decadent and prevents separation. Megan Fawn Schlow, author of the book "Paladares: Recipes Inspired by the Private Restaurants of Cuba," tells Eater that Cuban flans are regularly made in a bain-marie on the stovetop since ovens were once far harder to come by in the region.

Since Cuban agriculture centers around sugarcane, sugar is certainly abundant and required in this recipe. Eggs provide the custard texture to the dessert, and if accessible, vanilla is added to infuse fragrance. Insight Cuba remarks that cinnamon is sometimes also included for a soft spicy kick. Finally, the dessert is topped with dark caramel which balances out the rich eggy sweetness of the flan.

Buñuelos

Delicious recipes that can be made with basic ingredients are always a hit, and that certainly includes buñuelos. The popular dessert is made from a sweetened fried dough, and The New York Times indicates that they are sold as street food primarily close to Christmas time. The dish appears to come from Spain, but countries across Latin America have fine-tuned the preparation based on preferences and ingredient availability.

In Cuba, the dough is usually made from the cassava root, which The New York Times points out is abundant on the island. Eggs, some flour, and anise spice are also incorporated into the recipe (via Insight Cuba). The texture of the treat is not unlike a donut, and it is regularly flattened or shaped into an infinity symbol. Once the buñuelos have been deep-fried, they can be served in a syrup spiced with anise, cinnamon, and orange. Other variations include a syrup made with cinnamon, lemon, and vanilla, according to Insight Cuba.

Pastelitos de guayaba y queso

With so many sugary desserts, the sweet and salty combination of pastelitos de guayaba y queso is a welcome change. Pastelitos refer to a flaky puff pastry pocket that can contain various sweet or savory fillings, Food52 explains. The sweet ones are also often covered in syrup which means you'll be licking your sticky fingers as you enjoy these treats. Pastelitos de guayaba y queso are filled with guava paste and cream cheese, though versions with only one of the two ingredients are also easily found (via Food52).

Guava fruit is abundant in Cuba, and its sweet and sour flavor profile contrasts perfectly with rich cream cheese. In fact, The Epoch Times remarks that fresh cheese with guava paste has long been a common snack in Cuba and throughout Latin America, although the pastelito version was created in Miami. As with many iconic Cuban recipes, elements from various cultures that influenced the island are combined with modern-day Cuban culture in the United States.