How Cuba’s culinary scene might surprise even the biggest foodie

When you think of Cuba, do you think of the culinary scene? Probably not. I certainly didn’t, and as a major foodie, that is usually the first thing I consider! In fact, my expectations for Cuban food were pretty low, thanks to a bunch of online reviews I’d read about how uninspiring the cuisine was.

I went into my Intrepid Travel tour thinking “Well, this will be nine days where I mostly just eat rice and beans and probably nothing memorable.”

Wow, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

A surprise and a delight

My meal expectations changed at our first group dinner thanks to a garlic octopus dish that blew my taste buds away. For anyone who hasn’t done an Intrepid Travel trip before, the first group meal together is pretty heavy on the small talk. You’re getting to know your fellow travelers, so you’ll ask all those basic questions like “Where you from”, “What do you do” and “Is this your first Intrepid trip?”

Experienced in the art of first meals, our guide Antonio subtly ordered several rounds of his favorite appetizers to break the ice. From spiced baked plantain chips to fried goat cheese balls, everything was comforting and delicious. The food helped us all to open up (well, and the mojitos…). For my entree, I dug into an incredibly garlic-forward bowl of grilled octopus and sautéed veggies that I still remember today. The flavor of the garlic was both sharp and mellow with the grill char cutting through it all, creating a well-rounded plate of fresh octopus!

With this initial meal, Antonio really set the tone of the trip saying “I am going to prove to you that Cuban food is not what you think it is”. And boy, did he accomplish that.

Living in Chicago, there aren’t too many Cuban restaurants but there a few, so I came into the trip familiar with the flavor profile of Cuban cuisine — lots of garlic, minimal spicy flavor but well seasoned with herbs and spices, braised meats, etc.

While there is amazing Cuban food in the United States, especially in Florida, those chefs have access to a bevy of ingredients that Cubans living on the mainland may not have. This shapes the diversity of flavors that you might experience in US-based Cuban cuisine versus what you might eat on the island.

A comforting cuisine, a resourceful people

Most Cuban grocery stores are stocked with basic necessities (think bananas, pineapples, tomatoes, etc.), so people only gain access to unique produce if they grow it or buy from local farmers. Their imported staples like salt, sugar, and oil are still rationed and Cubans buy these ingredients at government-owned ration stores. The lack of access makes Cuban chefs resourceful, learning to cook good, comforting food with the most basic options.

Where Cuban food really excels is in the simple and flavorful preparation of commonplace ingredients. You shouldn’t expect as much variety as you’re used to at home (you’ll eat a lot of yucca, chicken, pork, beans, rice and raw veggies) but you should expect significant care and comfort in its preparation.

Aside from that first meal, two other meals from my nine days in Cuba really stand out. The first is a roadside meal that we ate en-route from Bay of Pigs to Trinidad, and the second is a fork-to-farm dinner we ate in Vinales.

Our group were riding along the main highway when Antonio shot up out of his seat and asked, “Are you guys hungry? My friend Marta lives near here and she can cook amazing food!”. Having built a rapport with Tony, we knew we could trust his judgement, so we all agreed to stop for lunch. The bus pulled off the highway into what looked like an abandoned gravel driveway. We drove about 300 feet directly off the road and sure enough, we stumbled on a tucked-away home.

Marta ushered us into her outdoor dining area and to start the meal, she brought out simple side dishes like raw cucumbers, pickled tomatoes, and shaved cabbage. She did not take our order. She cooked us what she had. She brought out an assortment of stewed beef (rope vieja), pan fried chicken, deep fried yucca and the star of the meal, the rice and beans.

I seriously still have dreams about these rice and beans. The rice had been cooked in the leftover bean water so it had a rich flavor and deep brown shade. Marta then sautéed the rice in oil and vinegar in some kind of wok-like device with garlic, cilantro, onions and beans. You were hit with all the flavor elements at once — a spicy bite from the garlic, a light freshness from the cilantro, a hit of acid from vinegar, and an umami profile of the bean-rice — rounding out this simple dish into a full blown flavor adventure.

The second memorable meal, at Finca el Paraiso in Vinales, was my favorite of the whole trip. Wilfredo and his family have owned this farm for many years, and opened up a small restaurant onsite to show off organically-farmed local ingredients. If you have dinner there, you might even catch a hilltop sunset that is simply stunning.

You’ll start the dining experience with an anti-stress fruit and herb smoothie, which you can drink while you wander the grounds of the farm and learn about everything they are currently growing. Once it’s time to eat, you’ll head up to the main house for a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Again, there is no menu and you don’t order. They will bring you whatever’s in season and they’re growing.

The food comes out quickly and copiously. You might start to wonder when is it going to stop – not that you want it to because there is so much variety! From pickled tomato mousse to sautéed eggplant to crispy plantain chips, the farm staff will describe each dish and what ingredients they used.

Most of the dishes are vegetarian, but we also ate a locally-caught fish that was absolutely incredible. And knowing that you are eating the freshest quality food makes this sustainable meal all the more enjoyable.

Final thoughts

I was blessed to have a local guide on a mission to show off the humble culinary prowess of Cuban cuisine, but even without one, I want to dispel the myth that all Cuban food is bad. That just simply isn’t true.

Like anywhere in the world, perhaps not every meal will be spectacular, but there are so many hidden gems to discover in Cuba. Whether its like Wilfredo’s farm or Marta’s roadside home, you’ll experience simple yet comforting dishes. And, importantly, they’ll prove deeply memorable for even the foodiest of travelers.

Ready to experience the culture and cuisine of Cuba for yourself? Intrepid have a Cuban small group adventure for everyone.

(Image credits from top to bottom: Megan Arzbaecher)

Megan Arzbaecher, The Journal

July 6, 2017

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