There’s no better way to experience Cuban culture than by understanding the food of Cuba. It’s an awesome way to not just get to know the cuisine of Cuba, but also to engage with Cuban locals at the same time. We’re going to overview the culture of Cuban food and the types of places to eat Cuban food in Cuba and overview what you’ll get out of a Cuba cooking class while you’re visiting Cuba.
Cuban food has many influences – and understanding them will help you to appreciate the unique aspects of Cuban’s culture and its people a whole lot more.
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What is Cuban Cuisine?
It is a combination of Cuba’s landscape, location and her turbulent history that has influenced her cuisine. While the staple ingredients of Cuba are similar to those of nearby Central American and Caribbean countries, Cuban’s unique situation has driven a further two elements that influence the food. Isolation and necessity.
There are influences in Cuba’s history from her colonial rule – the Spanish colonized the island in the 16th and 17th centuries. Haiti’s collapse as a sugar-producing nation drove the growth of the sugar industry in Cuba, which in turn saw the arrival of slaves in increasing numbers. American influences increased, coups raised and fell and Castro’s revolt against the US-backed Batista led to communism on the island and US embargos.
All of these events – much shortened – read more about a potted history of Cuba here – have influenced the availability of foodstuffs in Cuba, the Cuban recipes that have their heart on the island and the flavours that you’ll find in Cuban food.
At its most traditional Cuban food comes from ingredients harvested from the land. Sweet potatoes, corn and yucca. Cuba is, as an island naturally also relies heavily on seafood. Larger animals were not present on the island until the Spanish colonization brought pigs and the Cuban love affair with pork began. The Cubans of Spanish descent brought their cooking flavours and techniques and this is firmly entrenched in the Criollo Cooking of Cuba. You’ll also find Creole influences in Cuban food, harking from the nearby island of Haiti. It was in the 1790s that the Haitian revolution brought the French colonists and their African Creole slaves to Cuba. African spices like cumin came to the island at this time.
Cuban food is at its best a fusion of all this. It is a combination of the people and events that have forged Cuba into the island nation she is today.
Where to Find the Best Cuban Food in Cuba
I won’t lie. You will hear some horror stories about food in Cuba. You’ll hear about food shortages. US-driven embargoes mean that the island suffers from shortage leading to 25-page menus in restaurants and the availability of just 1 or two items on the menu.
You will also hear about huge lobsters. Amazing fish suppers. Incredible breakfasts. Succulent papaya and mango. Tasty stews. The best mojitos you’ll ever taste. You just need to make sure you go to the right places.
And even learn to cook some amazing food while you’re in Cuba – we have two recommendations for you of where to do this. One in Havana and one in Varadero. Read on for more details.
Places to Eat in Cuba
A lot of the time the way that you travel will define the places that you eat in Cuba. On many more occasions, the places that you stay and the people that you travel with will also impact this massively. Stay with locals in a Casa Particular and take your breakfast and your hosts will provide a feast that will you for the rest of the day. Travel in colectivos or a locally sourced transport and you’ll get the heads up on where the best place to head to for a great meal is.
Stay in a government-run hotel and eat in a government-run restaurant and your experience might be somewhat different.
Local isn’t just better in Cuba, local is great and sometimes amazing. Our best meals in Cuba have been at casa particulars, where our hosts have produced the most incredible meals when we’ve seen nothing on the shelves on the local bodegas. Our plates have been the fullest at these casa particulars and in some of the Cuban paladars we’ve frequented.
Kiosks and Street Food in Cuba
Street food and kiosks in Cuba are cheap and easy ways to eat. Rock up, find out what’s on offer and buy or don’t buy. Sit on the Malecon and enjoy your meal. If you like street food and want to experience it without any hassle, then why not try this Havana Street food experience?
Cuban State-run Restaurants
State-run restaurants in Cuba resemble for the most part school canteens. Prices tend to be high, quality tends to be low. Service is an interesting, but lacking concept.
Casa Particulars are private run, rooms (or entire houses) for rent within Cuban residents homes. They are legal, residents pay a tax to the Government based on you staying there. Casa Particular owners supplement their income by providing additional services like breakfast, dinner, taxi services, booking services and so on. The best Cuban Cocktails that you drink WILL be at your Casa Particular, so make sure you book a good one!
Paladares are privately owned and privately run restaurants – more like those that you’re familiar with. Food portions at paladares tend to be huge. Value is great and service, because this is a private enterprise tends to much better than state-run restaurants.
How to Experience the Best Cuban Food in Cuba
To my mind, the best food in a country is one which combines its history, the influences of the country and comes from the people, not just a menu in a restaurant. Experiencing Cuban food by learning not just about the food, but also the history of the dish, the person cooking it and how it comes about is a truly enlightening experience. That’s why I think that the best Cuban food you can get is that which you learn about from the ground up, by buying the ingredients, by preparing it and by cooking it in a Cuban kitchen under the guidance of a local host.
There are two cooking classes that we recommend in Cuba. One is based in Havana and the other in Varadero.
- Read more about mastering Cuban cuisine in Havana here.
- Check out this Cuban cooking class in Varadero here.
Why Take a Cuban Cooking Class in Cuba
Taking a Cuban cooking class is a truly immersive experience. Not only do you get to spend time with a Cuban local, but you’ll also learn recipes that have been in Cuban families for generations. You’ll use local ingredients and discover Cuban aromas and flavours that will forever remind you of your time in Cuba. Both cooking classes that we recommend are held in family-run enterprises. Our Havana cooking class is held in a Cuban family-run paladar in Havana that has been running for more than 25 years and in Varadero, you’ll visit a family home and learn to cook with the family!
Where to Take a Cookery Class in Havana
The Ranchón La Mulata is a legendary paladar in Cuba’s capital city, Havana. Lisbeth and Armando run this traditional restaurant, which uses recipes that come down through the family from Lisbeth’s grandmother. And in this cooking class in the kitchen of the restaurant, you’ll learn them alongside her and her staff.
Ranchon La Mulata is a stunning location, the garden is lush and quiet, the team here are warm, friendly and welcoming. You can book your immersive cooking experience at the Ranchon La Mulata online, and pay ahead of time here.
Where to Take a Cookery Class in Varadero
You’ll get four hours of foodie fun at this cooking class in Varadero. While the tour and cooking class meets in central Varadero, you’ll travel by minibus to Cardenas and take a tour in a horse-drawn carriage and then buy the ingredients for your cooking class. Then you’ll head to the home where you’ll be taught how to cook Cuban food. There’s a swimming pool at the home, so you’ll get a chance to cool off and relax – and you’ll also learn to make three Cuban cocktails – and, of course, to drink them too! Want to know more? Here are the Varadero cooking class details.
There are details of what else to do in Varadero in our guide here.
What other iconic experiences to take in Cuba?
Why not check out some of the other locally run experiences in Cuba while you visit? Our favourites – ad you can book them all safely and securely through the A La Mesa website and app – the best directory of restaurants and experiences in Cuba! You’ll find that A La Mesa has many more reviews and updates for experiences and restaurants in Cuba than other sites, like TripAdvisor. This site is much more used by Spanish speaking visitors and Cubanos. Check out other iconic experiences – here’s a selection of our favourites
Experience Street Food in Vedado, Havana
Ariel is a founder of the A La Mesa website and app and as such has done much of the exploration and documentation of the foodie scene in Havana. On this, off the beaten track experience he’ll take you to places where he eats his lunch, where students and workers go. You’ll get everyday snacks and drinks. The most incredible salty, spicy shredded pork sandwiches and cinnamon-laced coffees. Take away a set of tips and recommendations as to where you should go and eat, drink and make like a local after your tour. Check availability and book now!
Dive into New Cuban cuisines in Havana
Get a daring modern take on centuries-old Cuban recipes. Use natural products and creatively pair your food selections with the right drink. You’ll cook these culinary masterpieces alongside Chef Ivan at his restaurant Ivan Chef Justo in Old Havana. Check availability and book your new Cuban cuisine experience here.
Explore the Tapas Trail in Havana Cuba
In this experience in Old Havana, you’ll explore 3 hidden bars that have developed unique cocktails and tapas for the Old Havana Tapas Trail. Explore the exceptional combinations of ginger, coconut, rum and ropa vieja (!) and get to see some of the hidden Havana. This 3-hour experience is led by Havana locals. Check it out here.
Take a Street Food Tour in Havana
Take this street food tour of Old Havana and Vedado and experience what it’s truly like to enjoy street food in Cuba. You’ll be taken on a tour of stalls and private homes to try guarapo, popcorn, hotdogs and pizza to mention just a few. You’ll get to know the areas and also understand the creativity and inventiveness that’s needed to provide food for sale in Cuba. You can read more about this tour and book it here.
Final Words on Experiencing a Cuba Cookery Class
I honestly can’t think of a better way of experiencing the culture of a country than to understand its food. Taking a Cuban cooking class while you’re travelling in Cuba is an amazing way to get a big slice of local culture and understand how and where Cubanos eat and drink. Please do let us know your favourite Cuban dishes and where you enjoyed them in Cuba!
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