The earliest known inhabitants of Cuba were Taíno , a sub-tribe of the Caribbean Arawak Indians. Taíno staples included vegetables, fruit, meat, and fish. Their primary crop was yuca/cassava, a woody shrub cultivated for its edible and starchy tuberous root. Women processed the poisonous variety of cassava by squeezing it to extract the toxic juices. Then they would grind the roots into flour for baking bread. Batata (sweet potato) was the next most important root crop. The invasion of the Spanish in the late 1400s helped introduce new spices, foods and cooking methods to the island. Garlic, cumin, oregano, lime juice, bitter orange juice and bay leaves are the most frequently used spices and flavors in many dishes.

Tainos from Cuba

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Ropa vieja is Spanish for old clothes.

A fusion of Spanish, Oriental and Caribbean cuisine.

Meats are commonly cooked/served in light sauces. The most popular sauce/marinade, used not only with roasted pork, but also the viandas, is Mojo or Mojito (not to be confused with the Mojito cocktail), made with olive oil, garlic, onion, oregano and bitter orange or lime juice. The origin of Cuban mojo comes from the mojo sauces of the Canary Islands. Cuban mojo is made with different ingredients, but the same idea and technique are used from the Canary Islands. Of course with so many Canary Islander immigrants in Cuba, their influence was strong. For example, ropa vieja is a shredded beef dish (usually flank) simmered in tomato-based criollo sauce until it falls apart. Ropa Vieja is the Spanish for “old clothes”, in which the dish gets its name from the shredded meat resembling old tattered clothing. Ropa vieja is also from the Canary Islands, as are many of the origins of Cuban food.

The western Cuban cuisine makes wide use of eggs, particularly omelettes (such as tortilla de papa) and fried eggs (huevos à la habanera, fried eggs served over white rice and fried plantains). Fish dishes are also common, especially in coastal areas, and although Cuba has a well-developed lobster fishing industry, it is used very sparsely. Aside from Cuba’s present economic condition, which makes lobster an unreachable food for most families, Cuban cuisine was always of inland origin, therefore fish and sea products are as commonly used as in coastal areas, where crab is another common food staple. Popular fish recipes are enchilado (shrimp, fish, crab or lobster in a sauce that, despite its name, contains no chili), and à la vizcaína, a tomato-based sauce of Basque origin used to cook bacalao (salted cod).

View of the Malecon from the Bay of Havana
View of the Malecon from the Bay of Havana

Other Spanish dishes can be found in Cuba, such as the paella, arroz con pollo (chicken cooked with yellow rice much like a paella), and the empanada gallega (which is similar to an English meat pie). Due to heavy Galician and Asturian migration during the early 20th century, many northern Spanish dishes made their way to Cuba and influenced the cooking of many families, like the pulpo à la gallega.

While western Cuba is heavily influenced by its European roots, eastern Cuba (the old Oriente province) is influenced not only by European roots but by African and Caribbean cuisines as well. Perhaps the biggest contribution is the Congrí oriental which is cooked red beans and rice. This is due to the close proximity to the other Spanish-speaking islands, where red beans are more prevalent than black beans. Many foods from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico can be found in eastern Cuba with their own twists. One example would be the mofongo (called fufú de plátano in Cuba), which is mashed plantains stuffed with pork, chicken, or seafood. The name “fufu” comes from Western Africa.

Typically, a Cuban meal is not served in courses; all food items are served at the same time. A meal could consist of black beans and rice either cooked together or served separately, a main dish such as ropa vieja (shredded beef) or lechon asado(roasted pork), a “vianda“, or a starchy side such as yuca or malanga, a salad, predominantly avocado and green or ripe fried plantains and Cuban bread.