While on vacation, one of the most interesting elements of visiting a new culture is learning about how the locals enjoy everyday pleasures, and the leisure activities and daily habits that make their culture unique. To get a real flavor of the local culture, many tourists focus on exploring the traditional food in the area. After all, the cliché phrase reminds us that “When in Rome, do as Romans do”, which must include eating like the locals do, too! Many tourists place food at the top of their must-try lists while on vacation.
One of the countries in the Caribbean Sea with the best cooking cultures is Cuba, which has been influenced by many gastronomic cultures over the centuries, including French, Chinese, African, Arabic, Spanish, and Portuguese. A true “fusion” cuisine, some of the more traditional dishes are simple, while the more exciting foods have been shaped by the influx of recipes from visitors, immigrants, and traders. However, Cuba’s most traditional dishes favor simplicity in process and taste, with hours of cooking, steaming, and flash-frying leading to complex, subtle and delicious tastes highlighted with a mild blend of spice.
A Taste of Havana: What to Expect on the Street
Many people expect to travel to Cuba and explore lots of amazing seafood from the surrounding ocean. However, most of Cuban cooking is actually based upon other proteins, such as meat, pork, chicken, and bean dishes. The spices that are typical of Cuban cooking include cumin, laurel leaves, garlic, and oregano, and the flavors of onion, pork, and pepper are critical to the success of a Cuban dish. One of the most typical elements of a flavorful Cuban dish is the sofrito, which is a combination of simple spices and vegetables flash-fried in olive oil.
Great Cuban food is cooked slowly over low heat for a long period of time, allowing different spice flavors to amalgamate and helping meats, rice, and vegetables become very tender. In fact, the tender meat is a critical part of Cuban cuisine: meats are marinated in citrus fruit juices such as orange, lime, and lemon juices and cooked slowly enough that the meat peels easily away from the bone. These meats, along with vegetables such as the root vegetables yuca, boniato, and malanga, are best served with tomato-based sauces. Looking for an extra kick? Look for dishes flavored with a marinade known as mojo, which includes sliced raw onions, cumin, garlic, hot olive oil, lemon juice, and a splash of water.
Popular Havana Street Food: Gourmet-Level Cuisine and Local Favorites
If you’re out on the street around breakfast, check into a cafe to find Cuban bread and toasted bread, tostada, and the perky espresso with warm milk drink cafe con leche. The traditional way of enjoying this delicious breakfast includes breaking the tostada into small chunks that are dipped into the milky espresso. On the street, you might want to try coquetas filled with smoky creamed ham.
At lunch, it is popular for both the tourists and the locals to order empanadas—street sandwiches with various meats, vegetables, and cheeses on traditional breads. For example, a “midnight sandwich” (media noche) is a special Cuban ham-and-cheese sandwich deceivingly appropriate for a nighttime meal. Another popular option is pan con bistec, featuring palomilla steak – especially with a side of Cuban potato fries. Top snacks include savory pastries and finger foods from Cuban bakeries, such as small, bite-sized bocadito ham-spread sandwiches, and the flaky, creamy pastelitos with a variety of fillings. Without question, it is impossible to visit Cuba without trying their traditional, melt-in-your-mouth fried plantains (platanos) with delicious spices and multi-dimensional flavors aroused through the slow-cooking process.
Exploring Local Food with a Local Tour Guide
Learning more about Cuban gastronomy is an excellent way for tourists to further engage within Cuban culture. Experimenting with street food, however, does not have to be an experiment. Some guidedtours of Cubaoffer a concentration in the gastronomy field, bringing participants throughout the city of Havana or even across the country in search of delicious Cuban cuisine. Before booking your next trip, be sure to look up the different options involved in hiring a Cuban guide to help you navigate the Havana street food scene.
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This is a post by Ashley Williamson. Ashley is a freelance writer interested in topics related to travel and health. When she is not working she likes to read as much as she can. If you have any questions feel free to leave a comment.