It’s fair to say that that Havana is not famous for its haute cuisine. In the land of bountiful cheap rum and navy strength mojitos, gastronomy has been somewhat limited by food rationing. Yet what Havana lacks in culinary refinement, it more than makes up for with a robust culture of street food that speaks to the history of the nation. So find out where to eat in Havana and give your tastebuds a tantalising treat.
Flavoured by the assorted influence of previous conflicts and migration, Cuban food is an eclectic melting pot of Spanish, African, and Caribbean cuisines. Locals say that anyone wishing to learn about the complex heritage of Havana may do so through their stomachs.
A Havanan staple you’ll encounter almost immediately is the ubiquitous Moros y Cristianos, which translates literally “˜Moors and Christians’. A nod to the iconic rice and peas of Jamaica and the Deep South, this simple dish of mixed rice and black beans is served with almost every meal, and likely derives its name from the Islamic Conquest of Spain during the Middle Ages. It may be used to accompany chilindrÃ³n de Cordero, a lamb stew cooked in the simple tomato, garlic and onion sofrito that forms the basis of many Cuban mains.
Another street food favourite comes from a Cuban partiality for anything and everything deep-fried. Malanga fritters and cassava chips (or yuca frita, as they’re known locally) are big news in Havana. The fried stuffed potato balls of papas rellenas have a distinctly Spanish influence, meanwhile, and are almost identical to a Peruvian dish by the same name.
More substantial offerings come by way of flaky empanadas, crammed with hot meaty fillings of chicken, pork, or spicy beef picadillo. And then of course there’s the traditional Cuban sandwich – or mixto, as it’s known in Havana. This comprises of lightly buttered Cuban bread, filled with roasted pork and onions (pan con lechÃ³n) or a thin sirloin steak (pan con bistec), and pressed in a grill called a plancha. Don’t miss out on the signature Cuban pizza, either: a flavoursome thick piece of dough layered with tomato-herb sauce and sprinkled with cheese. Delicious.
Judging from the wide assortment of churros, cajetas, and pastels, it’s fairly obvious that Havanans have inherited the Spanish sweet tooth. Popular favourites include guava pastries and coconut pie (pie de coco), a deliciously simple sweet of shredded coconut baked into piecrust. Cubans are also famed for their wickedly creamy ice cream, best served between two slices of cake. Feeling thirsty? Try a fruity guava milkshake (batido de guayaba) or refreshing soursop juice champola to wash it all down.
With so much delicious street food to sample in Havana, and with much of it priced at less than $1.50, you’ll be spoilt for choice. Your bank balance won’t suffer – although your waistline might.
Have you sampled street food in the Cuban capital? Give us your tips on where to eat in Havana in the comments section below.
Written by Elizabeth Gourd