Speak to pretty much anyone about Cuba and you'll hear the same thing – the food is terrible.
Food is one of our favourite ways to experience other cultures, and we love discovering local dishes, learning about the different ways people use ingredients and trying new flavours. So I was curious about what it would be like to spend a month in a country with notoriously bad food – would we end up hating it?
Well, there was no need to panic because, guys, the food isn't bad in Cuba. Is it the world's most exciting cuisine? No. Did we spend our last week dreaming of everything we were going to eat when we got to Mexico? Ok, maybe. But there are some great local ingredients, especially in rural areas, and much more variety than we expected. We ate grilled lobster by the beach, tropical fruits grown in the gardens of our homestays, straight-from-the-ground yucca fries in the countryside, and cones of freshly-made sugary churros from street food stalls.
Cuban cuisine is changing. With the rise of private restaurants, we ate good food in every city we visited. Although not every meal was Oh-My-God delicious, we had very few bad ones.
Here are a few of the dishes you can expect to see on a trip to Cuba.
The literal translation of Cuba's national dish is "old clothes", but it's actually a delicious tomato beef stew. When it's good (and it usually is), the beef is tender and soft, and the peppers and onions are sweet. A comforting, filling dish usually served with rice and salad.
One of the cheapest snacks you can get in Cuba (the ones we tried ranged from 5 CUPs to 1 CUC – 10 cents to $1). Don't expect Italian-style pizzas, the Cuban version has a thick, doughy base, fresh tomato sauce and a sprinkling of cheese – it's basic, but surprisingly good.
We loved eating peso pizza as it was a chance to eat with locals, something you don't often get in Cuba as restaurants tend to be catered towards tourists.
It feels like every country we go to has its own version of chicken and rice. In Cuba, it's fried chicken, usually a leg and thigh, served with rice and black beans. The best pollo frito we tried was cooked with caramelized pineapple, a delicious balance of sweet and savoury.
Tostones (fried plantains) are a common side dish in Cuba, I think they were part of almost every casa particular meal. They're usually deep fried and crunchy on the outside, like the ones below, but sometimes they were soft and sweet, and other times we got fresh plantain chips/crisps instead. I loved them all.
Now, I have to confess that my interest in sandwiches hinges on good bread, so I didn't eat many sandwiches in Cuba. But the Cubanos sandwich is a classic. Fillings include ham, mustard, pickles and cheese. We (and by we, I mean Colin) didn't try any that compare to the Cubanos sandwiches you get in the US, but it's still a good lunch option.
Flan is usually the only dessert on the menu, but it's a good one. An egg custard dessert with caramel, this doesn't need much of an explanation. So good!
One of the highlights of a casa particular breakfast is the tropical fruit – mango, star fruit, papaya and guava, among others. On days when we couldn't eat another omelette, tropical fruit plates saved us.
If you're not staying in a casa particular, then you can also get tropical fruits from street food vendors.
Churros is another common street food snack. Fried doughnuts covered with sugar, and an optional chocolate sauce, these are always a nice guilty pleasure and the ones in Cuba are no exception.
Check out my other Cuba blog posts for more tips if you're planning a trip.