Sure, it’s lovely to stroll through local museums and check out important cultural or historical landmarks while traveling, but there’s one thing that makes traveling to another country truly incredible: the food.
Trying new dishes is one of the best (and tastiest) ways to immerse yourself fully into a new culture. If you want to give your taste buds a head start before heading to Cuba, here are five yummy Cuban entrees, side dishes and snacks you can make right in your own kitchen.
Arroz Con Pollo
Whether you’re in Havana or Santa Clara (or somewhere in between), arroz con pollo is a popular Cuban staple. And best of all? You can make this chicken and rice dish in one pot, which means fewer dishes to do afterward. Though there are many variations of this recipe, most of them call for the same general ingredients: chicken thighs, onion, peppers, chicken stock, rice, bacon and a handful of spices.
After cooking the chicken and setting it aside, you’ll saute the vegetables and spices. Then you’ll add in the rice, stock (or whatever cooking liquid the recipe calls for) and meat, and let the whole pot simmer for a while. When it’s all done, you’ll have a savory dish that’s perfect for dinner or a late lunch on a lazy Sunday. A few of our favorite recipes to get you started: this one from Bits of Unami, this one from Our Happy Mess and another from the Food Network.
Yuca With Mojo
Yuca, also known as cassava, is a starchy, potato-like root vegetable that happens to be insanely delicious when prepared the right way. A popular Cuban recipe combines this root with mojo, a fresh, flavorful marinade and dipping sauce.
This recipe from Martha Stewart keeps it simple, with a simple mojo sauce made from olive oil, garlic, onion, salt and lemon juice. After you’ve boiled several yuca roots, you’ll drizzle them with the sauce and, voila, you’ve got a light and fresh Cuban side dish. Another version from That Girl Cooks Healthy adds orange juice, oregano, cumin and a bit of sweetener to the sauce. You can really make this dish your own, depending on your preferences.
There are typically two ways to enjoy friend plantains in Cuba — one made with starchy, unripe versions of the fruit (tostones), and the other made with sticky sweet, overripe specimens (maduros). Either way, you’ll want to grab some plantains and try out at least one version before you travel to Cuba.
Tostones are savory and typically fried twice. To start, you’ll peel and slice green plantains, then drop them in hot oil. Once you pull them out of the oil, you’ll smash them and toss them back in for a second round of frying. Add a little salt when they’re done and you’re ready to serve them. For some inspiration for dipping sauces, check out this recipe from the Sofrito Project blog.
The recipe for maduros, the sweeter version of this dish, is similar, but you’ll skip the extra step of frying them twice. Marianne Murciano, the brains behind the blog Suso’s Fork, recommends looking for the blackest, ripest bunch of plantains you can find at the store, as that’s the secret to make this tasty treat.
Walk into any Cuban restaurant from Vinales to Trinidad, and you’re guaranteed to find a healthy serving off frijoles negroes on your plate — no matter what you order. You can easily make this tasty side dish at home, without much effort at all.
Most recipes, like this one from Coco and Ash and this one from Curious Cusiniere, call for dry beans, but you can easily substitute canned black beans if you’re short on time. The secret to making delicious frijoles negros is the addition of a mixture of sautéed green peppers, onions and garlic called sofrito. You’ll also add spices like cumin, oregano and black pepper to liven up the beans.
Ropa vieja is so popular that it’s often referred to as the national dish of Cuba. It’s a flavorful, tender beef dish with a hearty tomato-based sauce — and you can even make it in your slow cooker while you’re away at work, like this version from Lemon Blossoms.
Most versions of this recipe require you to oven-roast or braise the meat for several hours — but the payoff is so worth it. When all is said and done, you’ll have melt-in-your-mouth beef covered with a sauce made from spices, peppers, tomatoes, olives and sometimes anchovies (like this version from A Family Feast).
Sarah is an award-winning writer and editor based in Longmont, Colorado. She regularly writes about travel, nature, food, fitness, education, personal finance and other topics.