Cuban Food and its Incredible Revolution
Cuban food has, in previous decades, left travelers coming home somewhat disappointed. Most restaurants have been owned by the state and ingredients have been hard to come by, which has led to bland, boring food served over and over again. Ham sandwiches, rice and beans, ham empanadas and the like have been staples for travelers and locals for many years.
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In 2011, economic reforms sparked a change. People have been allowed to open up more private restaurants called paladars and access to ingredients has dramatically increased. Paladars are the heart of the gastronomic Cuban Food revolution. Chefs still have to improvise and buy things they need or want as soon as they see them because imports are still unreliable, but by owning their own restaurants, people are more committed than ever to serving delicious, healthy food. Restaurant owners are going back to their roots and exploring the diversity and traditions of Cuban cuisine.
Cuban food is simple, but when its done right it's so good its almost obscene. Breakfast is often as no-nonsense as a buttered toast and cafe con leche; its more than acceptable to dunk your crusty, toasted bread in your coffee. Tropical fruit like pineapple, guava, and mango are also served at breakfast. If you're after something heartier, a version of ham and eggs is also typical.
Cuban lunches are equally light. A sandwich called media noche is available just about anywhere. Ham, roasted pork, swiss cheese, pickles, and mustard are piled between two slices of bread and toasted.
Dinner is the main, most exciting, the meal of the day. Everyone should try the national dish, ropa vieja: stewed beef with vegetables over rice. While the exact translation of ropa vieja is old clothes, any good dish of it will taste nothing like that. Other traditional Cuban food options might consist of roast pork, fried chicken, or fish with rice and beans and vegetables or salad. You might also have more tropical fruit or fried plantains on the side. For dessert, ice cream with chocolate or caramel sauce is beloved and flan is a classic staple.
If you get sick of traditional Cuban food, you're in luck! The recent reforms and food revolution also mean that independent restaurants are experimenting with food from around the world. In the cities, it's easy to get Chinese, French, Italian, Spanish, and Japanese food, among other options.
On a budget? Cuban street food is reliable and cheap. The food revolution hasn't fully reached the street food scene just yet. So eat those cheap sandwiches and empanadas for sure, and keep your eyes out for new street food vendors testing the traditional limits of Cuban food. But splurge on a few meals (especially dinner) at paladars. The good news is Cuban food still much cheaper than most meals out in the United States.