Ropa Vieja (“Rags”)

The national dish of Cuba, “rags” or ropa vieja, is savory and delectable. When spices are few and far between, this dish’s peppers bring forward a wonderfully light flavor. Traditional ropa vieja is made with flank steak because that cut of beef is best for shredding, but a more flavorful top sirloin works just as well.

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Tostones Chatino Plantains

Tostones are a ubiquitous starter in Cuban restaurants. Known throughout Latin America as tachino, chatino, or plátano a puñetazo, this savory twice-fried plantain can be very filling and tasty. There are two types of plátanos that offer significantly different flavors—one variety looks more like a banana and is sweet, while the other is starchy and bigger. You can make chips with it, or you can boil it, mash it, and fry it to make the well-loved tostones.

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Shredded Coconut

Dessert doesn’t have to always be rich and caloric to be flavorful. With an abundance of coconut and papaya on the island, this is an easy, affordable treat.

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Fried Sweet Plantains

Sweet plantains, or plátanos, are a traditional side dish found on every table. The best plantains to use for the dish are overripe fruit with a blackened peel. The darker the peel, the higher the sugar content in the fruit, which yields a sweet flavor and a soft and gooey texture; the charred black edges will also become caramelized and crisp. Plantains, similar to bananas but with less sugar, are readily accessible—markets in Cuba always have a plentiful supply. In the city, produce sellers will wheel carts to busy corners, and people come from their apartments to purchase needed items for the week.

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Cuba Libre (“Free Cuba”)

The Cuba Libre, rum and Coke with lime, is the national drink of Cuba. Though it has conflicting stories of origin, this drink is generally believed to date back to the 1900s when Coca-Cola first entered the Cuban market.

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Cuba Bella

Another creation from the famed El Floridita, this cocktail’s sweet grenadine quality is
a nod to the 1950s cocktail party scene.

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Café Cubano (Non-Alcoholic Drink)

Cuban coffee is such a staple of Cuban society that is difficult to imagine finishing off a large meal without it. Often café Cubano is enjoyed with a hand-rolled cigar, a chair in the shade, and the sound of Cuban rhythms in the air. A favorite spot for this is the Café Paris in Havana’s Old Town; a place where locals and visitors mix as they come for the live music and the opportunity to watch passersby walk from square to square. I love to go there in the early evenings when the temperature drops just a bit. At this time, the corner café usually picks up a slight breeze, and makes enjoying the music and the hustle and bustle of the crowd enough entertainment for the night.

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Cubano (The Cuban Sandwich)

Although the Cuban sandwich is not usually found in Cuba, when it is on a menu, the flavors are a refreshing turn from the more common grilled cheese or jamón y queso (ham and cheese). The pickle planks and mustard are difficult to come by, and most markets don’t carry them now, but when put in a sandwich they add an unmistakably Cuban zest. The best place for a Cubano is the lively Callejon de Hamel in Havana on Sunday afternoons. If you can withstand the crowds and arrive early enough, this alley of street art and Afro-Caribbean-influenced shops is the best place to learn about the religion Santería and its traditions. While Cuba doesn’t have official food carts, the local chef on the street has his own version of a Cubano stand, with all of the fixings and a smile you won’t soon forget.

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Pastel de Chorizo chorizo pie

Similar to an empanada but larger, the aromas of sautéed onion, cumin, and ancho chili from an almost-baked chorizo pie are enough to draw a crowd to the kitchen. While you typically find this dish in restaurants, chorizo pie was a party favorite when beef was commonly available in Cuba before the Special Period.

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Ajiaco (Cuban Soup)

Thought to originate from the native Taíno people of the island of Cuba, this stew-like soup is traditionally made at the start of the San Juan festival in the city of Camagüey. Surprisingly enough, the temperature in Cuba drops to the low 50s several times a year, and a warm soup is perfect for the mild weather.

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