The Best Local Foods to Eat in Havana

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The Best Local Foods to Eat in Havana

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Exploring Havana, I was immediately drawn to the rich aromas and flavors that seemed to fill every corner of the city. The Cuban sandwich, with its layers of ham, roasted pork, Swiss cheese, pickles, and mustard, pressed between two slices of Cuban bread, is a must-try for anyone seeking the authentic taste of Cuba. Ropa Vieja, a dish of slow-cooked shredded beef in a tomato-based sauce, is another classic that showcases the depth of Havana’s food culture.

In this lively city, each dish tells a story of tradition and creativity. For instance, Moros y Cristianos, a simple yet flavorful combination of black beans and rice, reflects the blend of African and Spanish influences that define Cuban cuisine. To truly understand the local fare, one should also taste the sweet, fried plantains known as Tostones, which perfectly complement savory meals.

By diving into Havana’s food scene, you not only indulge in delicious flavors but also connect with the city’s history and people. Each bite is an insight into the island’s culinary heritage, passed down through generations. Whether it’s street vendors selling fresh coconut water and crispy chicharrones or paladares (small, family-run restaurants) offering a home-cooked meal, the food of Havana is as vibrant and inviting as the city itself.

Traditional Cuban Sandwich

Sampling a Traditional Cuban Sandwich in Havana is an experience in itself, akin to a vivid stroll along the city’s energetic streets. Known locally as a Cubano, this sandwich is a testament to Cuba’s rich culinary legacy, featuring a delectable stack of roasted pork, ham, Swiss cheese, pickles, and mustard, perfectly enveloped within Cuban bread. While the core ingredients are generally unwavering, regional variations and individual tastes introduce delightful twists to the classic Cubano.

For those eager to taste an authentic Cuban sandwich, La Bodeguita del Medio stands out as a culinary landmark in Old Havana, offering a Cubano crafted with precision and a respect for tradition. Likewise, El Floridita, while famed for its daiquiris, also presents a mouthwatering take on the Cuban sandwich. Havana’s eateries offer a spectrum of interpretations, catering to both purists and those seeking a unique take on the traditional.

The Cuban sandwich serves as more than mere sustenance; it’s an edible narrative, echoing the island’s history and the confluence of Spanish, African, Caribbean, and American gastronomic influences. For visitors to Havana, indulging in a Traditional Cuban Sandwich is a chance to connect with the city’s dynamic culture and storied past.

Ropa Vieja

In Havana, the culinary adventure introduces us to Ropa Vieja, embodying the heart of Cuban flavors. This dish, Ropa Vieja, gets its name from the Spanish term for ‘old clothes’ and stands as a classic representation of Cuba’s gastronomic traditions. It’s a flavorful shredded beef stew simmered in a tomato sauce, traditionally served with rice and sweet plantains.

Let’s delve into the essentials of this cherished Cuban meal:

Firstly, Ropa Vieja isn’t just food; it represents Cuban culture’s resilience and ingenuity. The story goes that a man, too poor to buy meat, cooked his worn garments, which then turned into a feast. This tale underscores the Cuban spirit of making something valuable from minimal resources.

The cooking method is crucial for Ropa Vieja’s unique taste. The beef is gently cooked for many hours with onions, garlic, bell peppers, and a mix of spices, until it’s so tender it shreds easily. This slow-cooking technique allows for a full merger of flavors, resulting in a rich, savory stew.

The beef in Ropa Vieja becomes exceptionally soft and flavorsome thanks to the lengthy cooking, easily pulling apart. The sauce, with its tomato base, provides a subtle sweet and tangy counterpoint to the meat’s savoriness.

Ropa Vieja traditionally comes with white rice and fried plantains. The rice perfectly absorbs the stew’s tasty sauce, while the plantains add a sweet contrast to the meat’s flavor.

This dish also reflects Cuba’s mixed culinary influences. Ropa Vieja marries Spanish and African tastes, a blend that typifies Cuban food’s diverse roots. It’s a culinary symbol of Havana’s dynamic culture.

To truly appreciate Cuban culinary art, Ropa Vieja is a must-try. It’s not only a meal but also a glimpse into the Cuban people’s inventive spirit. When in Havana, savoring this dish is like tasting a piece of Cuban history.

Moros Y Cristianos

Moros y Cristianos, a beloved staple in Cuban cuisine, combines black beans and rice to reflect Havana’s rich flavors and cultural legacy. This dish is more than a meal; it represents a significant chapter of history, illustrating the coexistence of the Moors (Moros) and the Christians (Cristianos) in Spanish history and the impact of Afro-Cuban traditions on Cuba’s food culture.

The story behind Moros y Cristianos begins with the Moors, followers of Islam, who governed Spain for many years. Their eventual defeat by Christian forces came to be symbolized through this dish, representing the blend of two distinct cultures. In Cuba, with its deep-seated Afro-Cuban roots, Moros y Cristianos embodies the culinary merger of African and Spanish influences.

Across Cuba, you’ll find regional takes on Moros y Cristianos, each adding a local spin. Havana’s version typically includes black beans, rice, onions, garlic, and a mix of spices such as cumin and oregano. Meanwhile, other areas might toss in extras like bacon, bell peppers, or even chorizo for added flavor.

The cooking process, especially in Havana, involves simmering the ingredients in a large pot over a gentle flame. This method allows the individual flavors to come together harmoniously, creating a dish that’s deeply flavorful and a true icon of Cuban dining.

This dish doesn’t just fill a plate; it tells a story, one of conquest, fusion, and the shared table. With its simple yet savory ingredients, Moros y Cristianos is a testament to Cuba’s historical tapestry and its ongoing culinary evolution.

Lechon Asado

Diving into Havana’s culinary treasures, we encounter the mouthwatering Lechon Asado. This slow-roasted pork dish is a feast for the senses, offering tender meat that seems to dissolve on the tongue.

Lechon Asado is steeped in Cuban heritage, tracing back to the Taino people who originally prepared whole pigs over an open flame. This cooking tradition has since become a cornerstone of Cuban festivities and social events.

Throughout Cuba, you’ll find regional takes on Lechon Asado. In Havana, chefs marinate the pork in a zesty blend of citrus and garlic, infusing it with bold flavors. Over in the east, the marinade typically includes sour orange juice, adding a subtly sweet note.

The cooking techniques vary by region too. Some opt for spit-roasting, while others favor the earthy flavors achieved by slow-roasting in a pit. No matter the method, the result is a rich and savory dish that captures the spirit of Cuban culinary artistry.


In Havana’s culinary scene, Tostones stand out as a signature dish, known for their savory crunch. Originating from green plantains, Tostones are slices of this unripe fruit fried to a golden hue, resulting from the African heritage in Cuban cooking traditions. The green plantains, unlike their ripe counterparts, lend a robust, savory taste to Tostones, not found in the sweeter, softer ripe plantains.

The preparation of Tostones involves peeling the green plantains and cutting them into thick disks before frying them to achieve a crispy exterior with a soft heart. This texture contrast is particularly favored in Cuban meals as a complementary side or a standalone snack, often accompanied by flavorful dips such as garlic mojo or a zesty salsa.

Restaurants across Havana serve Tostones with creative variations, from the simplicity of salted ones to those enhanced with spices. Toppings like succulent shredded pork, rich cheese, or creamy guacamole frequently adorn Tostones, enriching them with diverse flavors and textures.

It’s essential to understand the distinction between Tostones and plantains as a whole. Tostones refer specifically to the dish made from green plantains, while plantains themselves vary in use from savory to sweet, depending on their ripeness. Green plantains are typically reserved for savory dishes like Tostones, while ripe plantains may be cooked into desserts or served as a sweet side.

Arroz Con Pollo

Having enjoyed the crisp and savory Tostones, my palate now turns to a cornerstone of Havana’s gastronomic offerings: Arroz Con Pollo. This quintessential Cuban meal, whose name means ‘rice with chicken,’ is a foundational element of Havana’s culinary tradition. The dish harmonizes succulent chicken, aromatic rice, and a blend of seasonings, resulting in a deeply comforting and fulfilling meal.

In Havana, Arroz Con Pollo presents itself in several must-try variations:

  • The Classic Arroz Con Pollo is a combination of juicy chicken pieces seasoned with spices like cumin, paprika, and oregano, all simmered with rice and a variety of vegetables.
  • The Arroz Con Pollo a la Chorrera variation introduces a sumptuous sauce to the dish, enriched with chicken stock, wine, and milk for a creamy finish.
  • The Arroz Con Pollo Valenciana, taking cues from the Spanish paella, incorporates a vibrant mix of vegetables, such as bell peppers, peas, and carrots, adding color and nutrition.

For an exceptional Arroz Con Pollo experience in Havana, these establishments are renowned:

  1. La Guarida impresses with its breathtaking rooftop view and refined atmosphere, serving an Arroz Con Pollo that’s truly unforgettable.
  2. El Cocinero, located in the bustling Vedado district, offers a tantalizing Arroz Con Pollo with a contemporary flair.
  3. Doña Eutimia, nestled in the historic core of Old Havana, is a treasured spot where the Arroz Con Pollo is prepared with devotion and expertise.
  4. La Fontana, with its inviting courtyard and classic Cuban dishes, is an ideal choice for those seeking an authentic Arroz Con Pollo.
  5. La Casa del Arroz, true to its name, focuses on rice dishes, delivering a standout Arroz Con Pollo.

To fully embrace Havana’s culinary heritage, Arroz Con Pollo is a dish not to be missed. Be sure to explore these versions and visit these acclaimed restaurants to quench your gastronomic thirst.

Flan Cubano

Flan Cubano enchants those who savor it with its creamy custard base and a deep, rich caramel layer. This traditional Cuban sweet treat is a favorite end to many meals across Cuba. To create flan, you whisk together eggs, condensed milk, sugar, and vanilla, then gently cook it in a bain-marie until it’s firm. The result? A custard that’s both silky and indulgent.

Achieving the ideal Flan Cubano involves a delicate interplay of sweetness and a lush texture. The caramel, with its slightly bitter edge, is essential as it balances the custard’s sugariness. For that signature flavor, the caramel must be heated until it turns a dark amber hue.

Every family has their own take on flan, often adding personal touches like a sprinkle of cinnamon or a zest of citrus to the custard. Yet, even with these variations, Flan Cubano remains an iconic dessert, evoking the lively ambiance of Havana’s streets with each spoonful.

In preparing this dessert, it’s crucial to aim for perfection in both flavor and texture. While some might add spices or zest for a unique twist, a classic, unadorned version is equally delightful. This dessert isn’t just a sweet ending to a meal; it’s a cultural experience that captures the essence of Cuban hospitality.

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