The Republic of Cuba consists of one large island and several small ones
situated on the northern rim of the Caribbean Sea, about 160 kilometers
(100 miles) south of Florida. With an area of 110,860 square kilometers
(42,803 square miles), Cuba is the largest country in the Caribbean. The
area occupied by Cuba is slightly smaller than the state of Pennsylvania.

Cuba's coastline is marked by bays, reefs, keys, and islets. Along
the southern coast are long stretches of lowlands and swamps. Slightly
more than half the island consists of flat or rolling terrain, and the
remainder is hilly or mountainous. Eastern Cuba is dominated by the Sierra
Maestra mountains, whose highest peak is Pico Real del Turquino. Central
Cuba contains the Trinidad (Escambray) Mountains, and the Sierra de los
Órganos is located in the west. The largest river is the Cauto.

Except in the mountains, the climate of Cuba is semitropical or temperate.


Christopher Columbus discovered the island of Cuba on October 28, 1492,
claiming it in honor of Spain. As colonies were established, the Spanish
began mistreating and exploiting the native inhabitants of the island
until they were nearly extinct. The colonists resorted to importing black
slaves from Africa to operate mines and plantations. As a result, both
Spanish and African cultures formed the foundation of Cuban cuisine.

Spanish colonists brought with them citrus fruits, such as oranges and
lemons, as well as rice and vegetables. They also grew sugar cane, a major
Cuban crop. African slaves were unable to bring any items along with them
on their journey to Cuba. They were, however, able to introduce their
African culture. The slaves developed a taste for
fruits and vegetables such as maize (corn), okra, and cassava. In time,
Spanish and African cultures joined together to create several popular
dishes, including

arroz congri

(rice and beans, often known as Moors and Christians) and


(pieces of lightly fried fruit, similar to the banana).

Cuban cuisine, however, drastically changed after the Cuban Revolution in
1959. Fidel Castro overthrew the government. Cubans who opposed him began
to flee the island, including chefs and restaurant owners. As a result,
food shortages became frequent, and food that was still available was of
poor quality. As of 2001, Castro was still in power and because of
political disagreements with other countries, trade restrictions imposed
on Cuba remain, so living conditions and shortages of food have improved

Moors and Christians (Black Beans and Rice)


  • 1 pound black beans, dried (or 2 cups canned black beans)
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 3 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 3 teaspoons cumin, ground
  • ½ cup green pepper, chopped
  • Olive oil, for frying
  • 2 cups chicken broth
  • 3 Tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1 cup long-grain white rice
  • Salt and pepper, to taste


A favorite dish all year 'round is Moors and Christians made
from black beans and rice. The name refers to the African (black
beans) and Spanish Christian (white rice) roots of Cuban culture and

EPD Photos


  1. If you are using canned beans, drain the water from them and set them
  2. If you are using dry beans, cover them with water. Bring to a boil,
    remove from heat, and let stand 1 hour. Drain the beans.
  3. Use a large, covered cooking pot and sauté the onion, garlic, and
    green pepper in the olive oil until tender.
  4. Add the tomato paste, black beans, cumin, and chicken broth.
  5. Add rice, cover and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally until rice
    if fully cooked (about 30 minutes).
  6. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Serves 4 to 6.

Fried Plantains

Note: Ripe plantains have peels that are almost completely black.
However, the firm, ripe ones called for in this recipe are black and


  • 4 firm-ripe plantains
  • Vegetable oil for frying


  1. With a small, sharp knife, cut ends from each plantain. Slice through
    the peel and remove it.
  2. Cut the fruit into very thin slices, about ⅛-inch thick.
  3. In a large, deep skillet, heat oil (about ¼-inch deep) and fry 12
    to 15 plantain slices at a time for 2 to 3 minutes, or until golden,
    turning them over once.
  4. Use a slotted spoon or spatula to remove cooked slices and place them on
    paper towels to drain. Season the slices with salt. Plantain slices
    should be slightly crisp on outside but soft on inside.
  5. The slices are best served immediately; however, they may be made 1 day
    ahead, cooled completely, and kept in an airtight container.
  6. Reheat plantain slices on a rack in a shallow baking pan in a preheated
    350°F oven for 5 minutes, or until heated through.

Serves 8.



Although Spain and Africa contributed most to Cuban cuisine, the French,
Arabic, Chinese, and Portuguese cultures were also influential.
Traditional Cuban dishes generally lack seasonings and sauces. Black
beans, stews, and meats are the most popular foods. Root vegetables are
most often flavored with


, a combination of olive oil, lemon juice, onions, garlic, and cumin.

Middle and upper class Cubans, including tourists, usually consume a wider
variety of foods, if available. The most common meals include those made
with pork, chicken, rice, beans, tomatoes, and lettuce. Hot spices are
rarely used in Cuban cooking. Fried (

pollo frito

) or grilled (

pollo asado

) chicken and grilled pork chops are


Fried plantains, like white rice and black beans, are part of almost
every dinner menu. In Cuba, the plantains would be fried in oil
about one inch deep.

EPD Photos

typically eaten. Beef and seafood are rarely prepared, with the exception
of lobster (which is so popular that it is becoming endangered in Cuba).
Rabbit (


), when available, is also eaten.

Other common dishes in Cuba are


(a typical meat, garlic, and vegetable stew),


(boiled green bananas mashed into a paste) which is often eaten alongside

empanadas de carne

(meat-filled pies or pancakes)




(a snack of spiced beef, onion, and tomato). Ham and cheese is a common
stuffing for fish and steaks, or is eaten alone. The best place to find
the freshest fruits and vegetables on the island is at a farmers market.
Popular desserts include


(ice cream),


(a baked custard),


(bite-sized puff pastries filled with meringue),


(deep-fried doughnut rings), and


(sweet biscuits).

Constant food shortages make finding or ordering certain foods nearly
impossible. Economic hardship is another reason for poor food conditions.
Cuba often trades its fresh produce, such as cassava, for money from other
countries. This leaves a shortage of cassava and other produce in Cuba

Tuna in Sauce


  • 2 cans tuna, in oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 medium green pepper, chopped
  • 3 cloves of garlic, mashed
  • 1 small can tomato sauce
  • 1 teaspoon Tabasco sauce


  1. Mix all ingredients in a saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring
    constantly for about 10 minutes.
  2. Cover, lower heat and simmer for 20 minutes.
  3. Serve over white rice.

Serves 4.

Yucca (Cassava)


  • 4 to 6 yucca (cassavas), peeled and halved
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • ½ cup olive oil


  1. Scrape the peel from the yucca, and cut the yucca into pieces. Boil
    yucca in salted water until tender (about 25 minutes).
  2. Drain yucca and add garlic and lemon juice.
  3. Heat olive oil in a pan until bubbling, then pour over yucca. Mix well
    and serve.

Serves 4.

Flan (Baked Custard)





  • 1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
  • ½ cup milk
  • ½ cup water
  • 4 egg yolks, beaten
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract






  • ½ cup sugar
  • 1 Tablespoon butter
  • 2 Tablespoons water







  1. Measure sugar, butter, and water into a saucepan and cook over medium
    heat, stirring until bubbly and caramel brown. Be careful not to burn
    the mixture.
  2. Pour into a warm baking dish, reserving a small amount to drizzle on top
    of finished flan. Roll dish to coat the sides completely with the




  1. Preheat oven to 350°F.
  2. Mix all flan ingredients and pour into a 2-quart baking dish that has
    been lined with a caramel coating (procedure above).
  3. Place pan in a larger pan that contains water. Bake 55 to 65 minutes, or
    until pudding is soft set.
  4. Chill. Drizzle caramel on top when serving.

Helado de Mango (Tropical Mango Sherbet)


  • 1 cup water
  • ½ cup sugar
  • Dash of salt
  • 2 mangoes, peeled and sliced
  • ½ cup light cream
  • ¼ cup lemon juice
  • 2 egg whites
  • ¼ cup sugar


  1. In a saucepan, make syrup by combining the water, ½ cup of sugar,
    and dash of salt. Cook for 5 minutes on medium heat. Remove from heat
    and allow to cool.
  2. In blender, combine mangoes and cream and blend until smooth and creamy.
    (If you do not own a blender, you can mash the mangoes with a fork and
    stir in the cream).
  3. Stir in cooled syrup and lemon juice. Pour the mixture into one 6-cup or
    two 3-cup shallow pans and freeze until mixture is partially frozen
  4. Separate egg whites from eggs one at a time. Discard the yolks, or
    reserve for use in another recipe.
  5. Beat egg whites to soft foamy peaks and gradually add the remaining
    ¼ cup sugar.
  6. Place frozen mixture into a chilled mixer bowl, breaking partially
    frozen mixture into chunks. Beat until smooth.
  7. Carefully mix in the beaten egg whites. Return mixture to freezing
    container and freeze until firm.

Serves 6 to 8.


Pour the mango mixture from the blender into a pan. After the
mixture becomes partially frozen, whipped egg whites will be added,
giving the sherbet a lighter texture.

EPD Photos


Cuba is officially an atheist country (denies the existence of God or a
higher being). However, it is estimated that about half of all Cubans are
believers of a particular faith.

There are three general faiths that religious Cubans tend to follow:
Afro-Cuban religions (saint worship), Judaism, and Christianity. For
Christians, celebrating Christmas during the second half of the 1900s was
often difficult. For years the government, ruled by Fidel Castro, did not
encourage the celebration of a Christian holiday. However, the holiday of
Christmas has been making a comeback since the end of the 1990s. Those who
celebrate Christmas prepare a large meal on Christmas Eve.

A typical Christmas menu in Cuba might include

aceitunas alinadas

(marinated olives), ham spread, or ham croquettes (a ham-filled fried
cake) for appetizers. Cuban salad, black beans, mashed plantains (


), Cuban bread, Spanish potatoes, white rice, yucca with garlic, and
roasted pig may be a typical dinner. For dessert, rice pudding, mango
bars, coconut flan, rum cake, Three Milks Cake, or Cuban Christmas cookies
may be served. To accompany their meal, Cubans might drink Cuban eggnog,
Spanish sparkling hard apple cider, or a Cuban rum and mint drink.

Some Cuban public holidays are January 1 (triumph of the Revolution in
1959); April 4 (Children's Day); May 1 (Labor Day); and December 25
(Christmas Day). During these days, grocery stores are usually closed and
people often head for the island's warm beaches to celebrate, often
packing food for the trip. On New Year's Eve, a small feast is
prepared. At the stroke of midnight, twelve grapes are often eaten (in
memory of each month) and cider is served.

Aceitunas Alinadas (Marinated Olives)


  • 2 cups green Spanish olives, drained and unpitted
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • ¼ cup red wine vinegar
  • ¼ teaspoon ground pepper
  • 3 cloves garlic, mashed
  • Freshly-ground black pepper, to taste
  • Peel of 1 lemon
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • ½ teaspoon cumin


  1. Mix all the ingredients together in a glass bowl.
  2. Cover and refrigerate for a minimum of two days.
  3. Serve at room temperature. (This will keep in the refrigerator for
    several weeks.)

Ensalada Cubana Tipica (Cuban Salad)


  • 2 ripe red tomatoes
  • 1 head of iceberg lettuce
  • Radishes, sliced thin
  • 1 white onion




  • ½ cup olive oil
  • 2 Tablespoons white vinegar
  • 2 Tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon pepper


  1. Cut the tomatoes into wedges.
  2. Cut the onion in thin slices.
  3. Break up the lettuce by hand.
  4. Toss all the ingredients together with the radishes. Place all the
    vegetables in the refrigerator to chill.
  5. In a separate bowl, mash the garlic with the salt and pepper.
  6. Add the olive oil, vinegar, and lemon juice to the crushed garlic. Whisk
    together thoroughly.
  7. Just before serving, gradually add the dressing, a little at a time,
    while you toss the salad with a large salad fork.
  8. Add just enough dressing to cover the salad. Add more dressing, to

Arroz Con Leche (Rice Pudding)


  • ½ cup rice
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1½ cups water
  • 1 quart milk
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 1 lemon rind
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • Ground cinnamon


  1. Boil the rice with water, lemon rind, and cinnamon stick in a pot until
    soft, stirring occasionally.
  2. Reduce heat to low.
  3. Add milk, salt, vanilla, and sugar.
  4. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally until thick (about 1 hour).
  5. Sprinkle with cinnamon and serve.

Serves 8.

Crème de Vie (Cuban Eggnog)


  • 1 cup water
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 can evaporated milk
  • 1 can condensed milk
  • 8 egg yolks, beaten
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract


  1. Before you begin, have a large bowl ready to fill with ice at the end of
    the cooking time.
  2. Separate the egg yolks from the egg whites one at a time.
  3. Combine the water and sugar and boil until it becomes syrupy.
  4. Let cool.
  5. In another saucepan, heat the evaporated and condensed milk and vanilla
    over low heat; do not let the mixture boil (if it starts to boil, take
    the pan off the heat right away.)
  6. Add a little of the hot milk to the egg yolks to warm them.
  7. Then very gradually add the egg yolks to the hot milk mixture.
  8. Heat for about 5 minutes, stirring constantly with a wire whisk.
  9. Remove pan from heat and put pan into large bowl filled with ice to
    chill the mixture.
  10. While the mixture is cooling, add the syrup and mix well.
  11. Strain the mixture through a coffee filter or a sieve lined with
  12. Pour into a pitcher or bottle, cover, and refrigerate until ready to
    serve. (Note: In Cuba, the egg yolks are added to cold milk and are not
    heated. Heating the yolk mixture thoroughly is recommended.)


A typical Cuban breakfast, normally served between 7 and 10


, may include a


(grilled Cuban bread) and

café con leche

(espresso coffee with warm milk). The


is often broken into pieces and dipped into the coffee. Lunch often
consists of


(Cuban sandwiches containing chicken or another meat, topped with pickles
and mustard).

Pan con bistec

, a thin slice of steak on Cuban bread with lettuce, tomatoes, and fried
potato sticks, is also popular. Finger foods are popular snacks eaten
throughout the day.


, small, flaky turnovers (in various shapes) filled with meat, cheese, or
fruit (such as guava), are also common snacks. Because Cubans are meat
eaters, meat, chicken, or fish will normally be the main dish at dinner.
It is almost always served with white rice, black beans, and fried
plantains. A small salad of sliced tomatoes and lettuce may also be

Fast food establishments exist in Cuba, though popular U.S. chains, such
as McDonald's or Burger King, have not yet set up restaurants on
the island. However, a chain similar to KFC, called El Rápido, opened
in 1995.


, a chain similar to McDonald's, has restaurants throughout major
Cuban cities and is open twenty-four hours.

Cuban restaurants are almost entirely government-owned. They have a
reputation for providing slow service and bland meals. Privately owned
restaurants, called


, normally serve a better meal, but are under strict government


are not allowed to sell shrimp or lobster, and are only allowed to serve
up to twelve people at one table. However, most


serve these dishes anyway. Government-owned restaurants often try to
disguise themselves as being privately owned to attract more customers. In
Cuban restaurants it is common to have several menu items unavailable due
to shortages of food. Some of the highest quality of food on the island is
often found at expensive hotels that mostly serve tourists.


About 19 percent of the population of Cuba is classified as undernourished
by the World Bank. This means they do not receive adequate nutrition in
their diet. About 9 percent of babies born in 1993 were considered to have
low birth weight, a possible sign of inadequate prenatal (pregnancy) care.
After the 1959 Cuban revolution and a decreased level of support from
outside countries, some areas of social and health services began to fall

Despite almost one-fifth of the population being undernourished, and a
continuously unsettled economy, Cubans are in relatively good health. In
1993, nearly 100 percent of the population had access to free health care,
and safe water was available to
nearly all (95 percent) in 1995. Almost all doctors work for rural
medical services after graduation, allowing rural Cubans to have nearly
equal health care services as those who live in Cuba's larger
cities. Having access to doctors and various health care services may help
to reduce the cases of malnourishment in children.



Allan Amsel Publishing.

Traveler's Cuba Companion

. Saybrook, CT: The Globe Pequot Press, 1999.

Baker, Christopher P.

Moon Handbooks: Cuba

. Emeryville, CA: Avalon Travel Publishing, 2000.

Fallon, Stephen.

Guide to Cuba, 2



England: Bradt Publications, 1997.

Lonely Planet: Cuba

, 2


ed. Victoria, Australia: Lonely Planet Publications Pty Ltd., 2000.

Web Sites

Cuba Cultural Travel. [Online] Available

(accessed February 22, 2001).

Cuban Food Recipes. [Online] Available

(accessed February 21, 2001).

CUBAVIP.COM. [Online] Available

(accessed February 21, 2001).

Facts About Cuba: Cuba's History. [Online] Available

(accessed February 21, 2001).

Three Guys from Miami: The Traditional Cuban Christmas. [Online] Available

(accessed February 21, 2001).

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Call to action banner image

Lost Password