Cuban food is primarily a peasant cuisine, slow-cooked or sautéed. It has been influenced by a variety of cultures, including Spanish, French, Arabic, African, Chinese and Portuguese. Despite the rich and diverse cultural influences, traditional Cuban food contains a limited set of spices used to make favorite main dishes over and over.
The most popular spices in Cuban cooking are garlic, cumin, oregano and bay leaves. Many meat dishes start with a sofrito: green pepper, onion, garlic, oregano and black pepper fried in olive oil until the peppers and onion are translucent. Root vegetables like yuca and plantains are also common, simmered in a marinade called a mojo, which includes lemon juice, olive oil, onion, garlic and cumin. Meats are often marinated in lime or sour orange juice, then slow-roasted over low heat and served with black beans and rice.
Breakfast and Lunch
For breakfast, it's customary to enjoy a piece of buttered, toasted Cuban bread called a tostada dipped in a cafe con leche, espresso coffee with warm milk. A possible addition is croquetas jamon, or ham croquettes, consisting of ground ham cooked in a cream sauce, rolled, then lightly breaded and fried. For lunch, the traditional Cubano sandwich contains slices of pork, ham, Swiss cheese, mustard and pickles, served on egg bread brushed with butter. Another dish is empanadas, turnovers with meat inside. Mariquitas, or thinly sliced plantain chips, can be served on the side.
Dinner and Dessert
For dinner, the main course is typically a meat, chicken or fish stew accompanied by white rice and black beans. The beans and rice go by the name of Moors and Christians, for which onion, garlic and green pepper are sautéed in olive oil. Then seasonings are added and the beans and rice cook together in chicken broth. The foundation of the stew is sautéed vegetables, then meat and potatoes are added. Maduros, or sweet fried plantains, are also a staple at the dinner table.
Snacks and Desserts
Cuban bakeries produce a variety of snack-time finger foods. Pastelitos, or mini-pies, are puff pastry turnovers filled with cream cheese and guava marmalade -- alternative fillings include mango marmalade or picadillo, ground meat cooked in a wine and tomato sauce with onions, olives and raisins. Bocaditos are bite-size tea sandwiches -- traditionally, made with sweet egg rolls spread with a mixture of deviled ham, small red peppers, cream cheese and mayonnaise. Traditional desserts include a caramel-flavored custard called flan, as well as bread and rice puddings.