Lonely Planet recommends the best Cuban dishes and where to find them

Lonely Planet recommends the best Cuban dishes and where to find them

Lonely Planet recommends the best Cuban dishes and where to find them

 19 July 2022   Lonely Planet

The travel expert Brendan Sainsbury at Lonely Planet has published a detailed article regarding the best Cuban cuisine and the excellent gastronomy places you can explore to find them. Read on and find out more!

Cool Cuban cuisine, no longer an oxymoron!

Lonely Planet, famous for their excellent guides regarding all things travel has just published a really interesting article regarding the best Cuban food you can eat if you're lucky enough to be visiting the "Pearl of the Caribbean".

Why is the article so interesting? Well, simply because about ten years ago, it probably couldn't have been written!

Historically, with all the problems Cuba has had with the economic embargo from the United States, exciting ingredients couldn't really be imported, and typically, Cubans have had to make do with a combination of rice, beans, and pork. Not the most inventive of ingredients, you'll admit.

Thankfully, over the last ten years, Cuba has undergone a genuine gastronomy revolution thanks to Obama and Biden's more liberal stance regarding the USA's outlook towards their neighbours, and aside from the influx of recognised chefs who have come to ply their trade here, many wonderful eateries have sprung up offering creative fusions from all over the world. This is Cuban cuisine 2.0!

So what are Cuba's best dishes?

The first thing that the Lonely Planet article mentions is the well-known dish "Ropa Vieja", which literally translates as "old clothes"!

Gastronomy experts think this dish may be up to 500 years old, and originated from the Jewish community in Spain, before going through the Canary Islands, which have a huge influence on Cuban culture and dialect to this day, then over the Atlantic Ocean to Cuba.

You'll be able to find this dish on any menu in any establishment as it's a staple Cuban cuisine, but the Lonely Planet article does specifically mention that "El Rum Rum de la Habana's" version of this dish is one of the best around!

"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 'ropa vieja' has subsequently leaped back into vogue." - Lonely Planet

Another Cuban favourite

Although most people will have heard of "Ropa Vieja", not so many may be quite so familiar with "Picadillo a la Habanera".

Said to be a cousin of Ropa Vieja, this dish was originally considered a meal of the poor, and mincemeat was used to hide cheaper, less desirable cuts of meat.

Essentially, it is ground beef, olives and raisins slow-stewed until it achieves, as the article informs us, a "deep, satisfying and subtly sweet flavour". Herbs and spices, including cumin, oregano and garlic, are also thrown into the mix.

Where to find this dish? There's a wonderful paladar called "Dona Eutimia" near the cathedral in Havana's old town. The food there is authentic Cuban and cooked just as Eutimia's grandmother used to, and is definitely not to be missed!

Ajiaco, the most Cuban of dishes

If it's a stalwart Cuban dish that you're looking for, seek no further than "Ajiaco". There's a myth in Cuba that Fernando Ortiz, the famous Cuban anthropologist, once likened the country's culture to an "ajiaco", which is a culinary combination of heritage from Africa, Spain, France, China, and the indigenous Taínos - just like the Cubans themselves. Now you see why it's such a stalwart dish!

"The stew contains a potpourri of various meats, vegetables, fruits, corn and flavourings. The Taíno people used to make it in large clay cauldrons using gamey meats, yucca or squash, and the sweet 'aji' peppers from which the dish gets its name. The Spanish introduced new meats such as beef and pork, although ajiaco's proteins were pared 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 back into fashion." - Lonely Planet

This dish is so popular it even has its own cafe named after it and is a great place to try it! Head to "Ajiaco Cafe" just outside Havana in Cojimar.

What else makes the list of best Cuban dishes?

Aside from the three dishes listed above, there are plenty more that the Lonely Planet article deems worthwhile mentioning.

One such dish is "Cochinillo Asado" which is a roasted suckling pig typically eaten around Christmas. If you want to try the most authentic type of Cochinillo Asado, look for a place that does it in the open countryside, over an open charcoal fire pit. The roasting process can take up to seven hours and is extremely labour intensive!

The fantastic and traditionally rural Vinales region of Cuba is one of the best places to find this dish, but also try "Casa Mia Paladar" in the chic Vedado district of Havana.

Then there's "Pescado con Lechita" - a fish dish for anyone with limited Spanish. Being an island, the seafood, in general, is very good across the island, but this celebrated dish goes one further, especially in the Eastern provinces around the town of Baracoa.

"Arguably the most delicious local speciality is a coconut sauce called 'lechita' commonly served over fish. 'Lechita' is made using coconut milk, tomatoes, and garlic and adorns most of the local river - and seafood, including swordfish, prawns or the 'teti' fish. Legendary in Baracoa is the private restaurant La Colonial, which has been knocking out the local favourites doused in 'lechita' for more than 20 years." - Lonely Planet

Last but not least

One of the remaining dishes on the "best Cuban foods" menu is the interestingly named "Cucurucho". It's a dessert only found in Baracoa and is made from sweet local ingredients, including coconut, guava, pineapple, almonds and honey.

What's interesting about this dish is that no two recipes are exactly alike! To prepare it, the ingredients are heated and cooked in a pan to make a sticky paste before being cooled and wrapped in a cone-shaped palm frond. You'll see it being sold at the side of the road, and it is well worth a try!

Lastly, the article really recommends trying the lobster. As mentioned before, Cuba, being an island, is well-equipped to provide hungry diners with as much seafood as they can eat.

The lobster in Cuba has long been an option of choice for tourists as they are large, flavoursome, yet subtle. They're typically served in the shell with little more than butter and some light seasoning, but the best establishments to find them are "Varadero 60" in Varadero and "Lenny's Lobster Shack" in Cayo Coco.

With all of this wonderful food available in Cuba now, together with the art, the architecture, the history, the vibrant nightlife, and the long white sandy beaches, it's no wonder that this is the number one tourist destination in the Caribbean!

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