There are five Cuban dishes every visitor or resident of Miami (or Cuba) should try at least once. Cuban cuisine is inspired by a myriad of cultures that have come in contact with the island. One will find Spanish, African, Chinese, and French influences throughout this ethnic food.
So, here is how Cubans and Miamians eat traditional Cuban food. A few recommended restaurants that serve these dishes include Larious (South Beach), Versailles (Calle Ocho), La Carreta (Miami), and El Palacio de los Jugos (Miami).
ORIGIN Canary Islands (Spanish) and African
Ropa vieja is a hearty dinner in Cuban Cuisine. Slow cooked flank steak in a reduced beef broth and a tomato based sofrito, which means sauté, with minced onion, garlic, and bell pepper.
The name, Ropa Vieja, meaning “old clothes,” is derived from the dish’s appearance. As the steak is slow cooked, the result is a tender shredded beef with large chunks of potatoes that fall apart in the mouth. The reduced broth keeps the beef moist, dripping in sauce, and intensifies the savory beef flavor that is complimented by the sweet tomato and traditional Cuban spices, including cumin.
This dish is best enjoyed with rice, which is a common side dish for tomato-based plates. The thin, soupy sauce from the broth, tomato paste, and minced veggies is drizzled over the rice. To add a crunch to this classic, enjoy long, thin chips of fried green plantain, called mariquitas. The plantain itself is of African origin, and Cuban cuisine, along with other Caribbean and South American countries, has innovated various cooking methods for this banana family fruit. One variation, mariquitas, are crisp, salty chips that are typically enjoyed with mojo, a garlic sauce containing minced garlic and onion in olive oil. They are also quite yummy with just a bit of salt.
ORIGIN Spanish and African
OCCASION Weekend (long cooking time)
Arroz con pollo is a one-pot meal containing lots of flavorful ingredients. Parboiled rice is cooked in a pot of a whole chicken and its broth with a tomato-based “sofrito” made up of minced and sautéed Spanish onion, green bell pepper, and garlic. The rice turns yellow during the cooking process.
"Arroz con pollo emperial” (imperial rice with chicken) is the baked version of the dish, and it is prepared with added ingredients. The original arroz con pollo is mixed with mayo and poured into a baking dish to be topped with mozzarella, strips of red bell pepper, and bacon.
Of course, Cubans never miss an opportunity to serve plantains. The plantain was brought to the Caribbean from Africa where it has become a standard side dish for many meals from breakfast to dinner. With imperial rice, fried, mature plantains are served. These are called “platanitos maduros” and they are very sweet and soft in texture. A pleasant compliment to this rice dish.
ORIGIN Spanish/ Asian and French
OCCASION Lunch or Dinner
The staple of Cuban cuisine, almost every meal comes paired with this side dish of white rice and Cuban black beans. Arroz con frijoles are seasoned with oregano and cumin and cooked with the common Cuban sofrito (saute) including onion, garlic, and bell pepper.
The combination of black beans and rice comes from Spain, but in Europe, rice was an Asian influence. When Chinese contract workers began immigrating to the island in the mid-1800s to work in the sugar fields, a long-term profitable crop in Cuba, the consumption of white rice became widespread on the island.
Arroz con firjoles might be deemed a side dish, but it is always served in equal or greater portion to the meat it accompanies. The most common is pressed, grilled chicken (pollo a la plancha) or sirloin steak (bistec de Palomilla), the most common steak in Cuban cuisine.
When not served as an appetizer or snack, croquetas are a wonderful side for black beans and rice. These deep fried food rolls are encased in breadcrumbs and contain minced chicken or ham with a puree of potato and Cuban sofrito. Originating from France, they are both a delicacy and a form of junk food served at birthday parties.
ORIGIN Afro-Cuban and Chinese
OCCASION Celebrations (very long cooking time)
A holiday favorite is a Caribbean-inspired derivative of the classic rice and black beans. Congri is a rice-based dish where the rice is boiled with the bean mixture so the rice sponges the runny black bean soup while it is cooked. The finished product looks like gray rice with cooked, but dry beans in the rice.
This flavorful dish is often sprinkled with pieces of bacon and accompanied by a heaping serving of lechon, pork that traditionally came from a young pig. The pork is injected with a garlic, onion, and sour orange mojo seasoned with cumin and oregano. It is slow roasted, often times in a Caja China (Chinese box) and served with long, translucent strips of sautéed onion. The cooking method is similar to that of the Chinese-pecking duck.
If there are left overs from the lechon, it would be sacrilege to consume them in any form other than inside a warm, toasted Cuban bread sandwich, called Pan con Lechon. No other ingredients necessary in this sandwich. The tender pork and sweet onions will do the trick.
The most common accompaniment to this feast-like dinner is boiled yuca moistened by a sautéed onion and minced garlic mojo and a bit of limejuice. This satisfying starchy vegetable is similar to the potato, but with a softer texture.
OCCASION Special Dessert
Arroz con leche, or “rice pudding,” is every Cuban grandma’s specialty.
White rice is cooked in milk and stirred for hours to achieve the perfect creamy texture. With a little sugar, cinnamon, and a tiny bit of lemon zest, this is a mouthwatering dessert to make any dinner special. It may be served hot and fresh or cold from refrigeration. Regardless, it is delicious. The rice is soft and plump and the sugar milk, thick and smooth.
To top off the night like a true Cuban, enjoy a shot of Cuban coffee, or “cafesito.” Café can be described as a strong, nutty espresso. A generous amount of cane sugar is expected in order to soften the bitterness of the bean and enhance its flavor. The sugar is stirred in as soon as the coffee brews to ensure it fully dissolves. One might desire to end their meal with a sweet dessert, but in Cuban culture, el café is always last. Besides, that small shot of dark and frothy liquid energy already contains all the sugary goodness one can desire.