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Food, Dining, & Drinks in Cuba

WARNING: International disputes with Cuba are ongoing, please read this travel warning before going!

Historic Diet

Cuba's historic diet was based on what the island naturally grew and since the island is quite lush and rainy that meant there was no shortage of fruits and vegetables. Most of these foods were the same as the fruits and vegetables found throughout the Caribbean, including plantains, pineapples, sweet potatoes, maize (corn), cassava (yucca), bananas, coconuts, beans, and numerous other foods. The island was also home to many animals that provided food to the earliest people. Although few mammals and other edible land animals are present, the waters off the coast provide a huge number of seafood, including angelfish, barracudas, grouper, lobsters, and snapper.

Culinary Influences

Cuban Food - Cuban meal
Cuban meal

The first influence to the diet of Cuba came with the first people to arrive who brought with them new foods and cultivated these foods. This led to the introduction of new ingredients as well as organized agriculture.

The first great change to the historic diet arrived with the Spanish. The Spanish brought new foods, animals, and spices to the island, giving the food an entirely new dynamic. The most important aspects the Spanish introduced were their spices and animals, including cattle, which provided beef, milk, and other dairy products. Oranges, lemons, and rice also arrived.

Under Spanish rule, the island became a center of trade and influences to the local cuisine arrived from all over the Caribbean as well as from Africa as the slave trade began to dominate the region. This led to a greater use of rice and Caribbean spices as well as regional dishes.

Cuban Food - Cuban sandwich
Cuban sandwich

In the 1960s Cuba's relations with the United States ended and this vastly changed the cuisine as imports were limited. Not only the United States, but many other countries refused to trade with Cuba as the island nation turned to other communist countries to import food. This led to an odd increase in the consumption of many Eastern European foods, including wheat, pasta, and cabbage, as other, primarily American imports nearly disappeared.

Today, as Cuba is slowly opening up outside influences are arriving, particularly from Europe as tourists arrive to the country. Despite this, these outside influences are slow to take hold as most of these new foods are only found at resorts and the diet of the local people remains primarily as the past has created it, with a strong Spanish influence, but using local ingredients.

Staple Foods

Beans: a side dish served with many meals and often served with rice
Rice: a common base to meals or simply a side dish

Regional Variations, Specialties, & Unique Dishes

Arroz con Pollo: rice based dish with chicken and often cooked with tomatoes and Spanish spices
Mixto (or Cuban Sandwich): a pressed sandwich on bread with pork, ham, Swiss cheese, pickles and mustard
Paella: baked rice dish with various seafood, onions, and peppers
Tamales: the Cuban version is pork in corn dough, then boiled

Dining Etiquette

The Cubans have many of the same dining rules as the Central American countries and the level of formality of a meal is more dependent on the company and restaurant than anything else.

As you enter a home or restaurant, the men should hold the door open for women and let "senior" men enter a room before themselves. If eating in a nice restaurant or a local's home dress a little nicer than you otherwise would, especially if dining with a business colleague. Try to arrive on time, but remember many locals will arrive up to 15 minutes late.

Your host will show you your seat and if you are with your significant other you may be separated to stimulate greater conversation, after all dining together is meant to be a social event in Cuba. The meal may begin with a toast, the most common toast being "salud" and the meal will begin with the words "buen provecho."

While eating use the continental style (knife in the right hand, fork in the left) for all foods, including fruits, and keep your hands in sight be resting your wrists on the edge of the table. Once you are finished eating place your fork and knife together on the right side of your plate to indicate you are finished. A meal may end with coffee and more conversation and it is considered rude to leave right after dinner if your hosts invite you to stay.

If dining in a restaurant get the server's attention by making eye contact, don't wave or call his/her name. The inviter is expected to pay for everyone present, but all others should make an effort to help pay. If you are paying, tips are not expected, but if in a resort, a high end restaurant, or just if service was excellent you may tip a small amount (about $1 or €1), but hand it directly to the server.

Celebrations & Events

The one holiday closely associated with particular foods in Cuba is Christmas. Christmas, or Christmas Eve is highlighted by a roasted pig, beans, bread, and an incomprehensible number of desserts. Generally though this celebration, which can last a full week, is reserved for family and the vastness of the food is only dictated by the size of the family.

For other celebratory events in Cuba, like anniversaries or birthday, the foods vary a bit, but tend to have a huge number of desserts again. Cake is usually only served for birthdays, but other sweets and desserts are common for all events and celebrations.


Cuban Food - Mojito

Drinks in Cuba are common, but there's a preference for local drinks over international, especially over American beverages. Coffee is the drink of choice for most locals in the morning, but local colas, including "Cachito" and "Tu Cola" are more popular for a leisurely drink. Juices are not as common in much of the country as they are elsewhere in the Caribbean, but still easily accessible on market shelves. For a more unique and unusual drink seek out "guarapo," which is the juices from pressed sugarcane, but it is incredibly sweet.

Mixed alcoholic drinks are the drink of choice when consuming alcohol and the options are nearly endless. Rum is the most popular alcohol, but the mixed drinks vary widely, including well-known drinks like daiquiris, mojitos, and rum and coke (known in Cuba as a Cuba Libre). Beers are also common and there are numerous local brews to choice from including Cristal and Bucanero.

The tap water is generally safe to drink in Cuba, however confirm this with your hotel or guesthouse, particularly during hurricane season as the water can be contaminated. If you do drink the water, many people may have trouble adjusting to the local tap water, as it will most certainly be different from what your system is used to if you are not from the region.

This page was last updated: March, 2013