Cuban food and preparation techniques is largely a blend of Taino and Spanish, with certain elements introduced by slaves from Africa. Cuban food bears a strong resemblance to many other cuisines in the Caribbean, due both to what kind of food that is locally available and because of the Caribbean’s history of European colonization and of being an important hub for international shipping vessels. Cumin, garlic and oregano are still very important spices in Cuba despite not being native to the island.
During the Age of Sail, ships brought goods from all over the world to the Caribbean, including exotic spices from South-East Asia and tropical plants that would grow well in the Caribbean even though they were native to far away lands. And it wasn’t just Spanish ships that anchored in Cuba’s warm waters. Despite Spain’s tense relationship with England and France in the 16th and 17th century, many local Cuban residents defied the ban and traded illegally with French and English seafarers – especially in the more secluded parts of the island where the Spanish crown had less influence.
The Canary Islands, a small archipelago scattered in the Atlantic Ocean 100 km west of southern Morocco, was an important supply stop for Spanish ships going to or coming back from the New World, and this in turn created a strong connection between the Canary Islands and Cuba – despite being located world’s apart. The popular Cuban sauce mojo is for instance inspired by a Canary recipe. Another notable example is the ropa vieja, a slow-cooked shredded beef dish simmered in criollo sauce. Originally a dish made by Sephardim, it spread from mainland Spain to the Canaries and then to Cuba and other parts of the Caribbean. Of course, the ropa vieja served up in Cuba today has its own distinctly Cuban characteristics.
After the Revolution of Independence on Haiti in the early 1800s, large numbers of French-Haitians fled to nearby Cuba and brought their own cuisine with them. These immigrants also boosted Cuba’s production of coffee and cocoa, and both crops eventually became important both for domestic consumption and for export. At its peak in the mid 1950s, Cuban coffee farmers exported over 20,000 metric tonnes of coffee beans per year. Coffee production dropped sharply after the Cuban Revolution, but coffee is still a popular drink in Cuba – although the ration that can be obtained through Libreta de Abastecimiento is just two ounces of coffee beans per person every 15 days.
When the Spaniards first arrived to Cuba in 1492, the largest population group on the island were the Taíno, an Arawak people related to other Taíno populations throughout the Caribbean and Florida. Havana, Baracoa, Batabanó, Bayamo and Camagüey are all examples of Cuban cities named after Taíno chiefdoms. Even the name Cuba comes from the language spoken by the Taíno.
Although the Taíno culture was nearly extinct in the 1500s by infectious disease and harsh enslavement by the Spaniards, Cuba’s Taíno heritage still evident in Cuba’s cuisine of today. One notable example is the use of cassava. Cassava was a staple of the Taíno diet, and the name Taíno is actually derived from the Arawakan word for cassava flour. Cassava, also known as yuca, is still an important and popular food in Cuba where it is prepared in many different ways. Boiled cassava covered with raw onion and garlic is a popular side dish, and cassava is also an essential ingredient in old-fashion Cuban Ajiaco stew. Boiled cassava cut into strips and fried in oil is eaten just like French fries, while chicharritas de yuca is an alternative to potato chips. Casabe and Cuban buñuelos a two examples of popular breads made from cassava, and traditional Cuban Churros also include cassava. Traditionally, cassava paste was used for churros in Cuba, and this is still they way churros are prepared in most homes. Professional Cuban churro bakers on the other hand are nowadays more likely to use yuca flour.
Production of the cassava-based bread casabe was actually the very first industry established by the Spanish on Cuba. The Spanish needed to stock their ships with large quantities of bread before they left for long journeys across the ocean, and since wheat didn’t grow well on Cuba the Europeans had to adapt and utilize cassava instead. They soon found out that casabe didn’t grow stale as quickly as wheat-based bread, a great feature for a bread stored for sea voyages.
In today’s Cuba, rice, beans and various roots vegetables such as cassava, malanga and potato are an important part of the diet. Cuba’s geographical location and fertile soil also means that a lot of tropical fruits can be grown here, although they are – with a few notable exceptions – more likely to be served as deserts and snacks than integrated into a main dish. Both plantains and unripe bananas are boiled and fried and served with meals.
Green salads are often rather simple and composed of just lettuce, tomato and avocado, but you may also encounter salads that incorporates sturdier fare such as cabbage, carrots, radishes and fermented green beans.
To purchase beef, pork or poultry on the open market is often prohibitively expensive for Cuban families, and is therefore seen as a treat and not a staple. Such food is included in the rationing system Libreta de Abastecimiento and can be purchased at highly subsidized prices at special carnicerías, but the rations are small and supply erratic. Meat is often served in the form of soups and stews in Cuba, since even a small quantity of meat will go a long way in such dishes.
The Taínos ate their corn fresh rather than turn it into cornmeal, and even though cornmeal and gofio are used on Cuba today, there are many dishes where the Cuban’s prefer fresh corn rather than the dried and processed variety. Cuban tamales is for instance made with fresh ground corn, unlike the Mexican ones which are often based on masa or masa harina. A classic Cuban tamale is flavored with a sofrito sauce, and meat of choice is pork.
The famous Cuban sandwich is a joint Cuban-Florida creation, the result of cigar workers traveling back and forth in the late 19th century. This sandwich is based on Cuban bread and filled with sliced ham, sliced roast pork, sliced Swiss cheese, and dill pickles. Yellow mustard is used as a bread spread, and in some versions the bread is also buttered. The Cuban sandwich is grilled under pressure, creating a flat and compressed sandwich that is cut diagonally before serving.
After the the Cuban Revolution (1953–1959), the new socialist government launched a rationing and distribution system in 1962. This system, named Libreta de Abastecimiento, is still active today (although modified) and has naturally had a large impact on contemporary Cuban cooking and eating habits. A majority of Cubans rely partly on this system for their daily meals. The products distributed through Libreta de Abastecimiento are sold at subsidized prices, making the products attainable even for those who earn a very meager wage. Regrettably, the rations are often very small.
Examples of rationed and subsidized foods in 2011:
Meat products are distributed twice a month and the product type changes with each delivery. It can for instance be beef, ground beef, ground beef mixed with soy, chicken, fish, ham, and/or sausages.
How much a person is allowed to buy of these subsidized products vary with age, gender and other factors. There is for instance special provisions for children, pregnant women, the elderly, and persons with special medical needs. One example is the 1 liter of milk added to the daily ration for a child under the age of 7 years.
Most of the food distributed through this system is sold in bodegas (convenience stores), but meat, fish and poultry are handles by specialized carnicerías instead. The system doesn’t just cover food, but also cooking fuel, matches and other home supplies.
Until the demise of Soviet Union, industrial products such as clothing, shoes and toys were included in the Cuban rationing system.
There are legal markets in Cuba where food is sold, but it is not unusual for prices there to be 20 times higher or more compared to the subsidized food distributed under the Libreta de Abastecimiento.
For those with access to convertible pesos or euros, special stores are available in Cuba, including grocery stores.
Another important method for obtaining food and other kitchen items in Cuba is bartering, where products and services are traded rather than bought and sold.
There is also a thriving black market in Cuba, e.g. fish that is caught and sold directly by unlicensed vendors. In January 2004, a new law was put into force to counteract the black market. It is for instance punishable by up to 8 years in prison to transport or sell meat from an illegally slaughtered cow, while providing beef at an unlicensed restaurant can result in up to 5 years in prison. Buying illegal beef isn’t risk free either, it can yield the buyer up to a year in prison or hefty fine. Additionally, Cuban authorities are legally mandated to confiscate any property of anyone involved in the black-market beef trade.