Currently in the middle of an exciting cultural shift that will someday be a notable chapter in world history, Cuba is an intriguing place – to say the least. Its increasingly celebrated cuisine serves as a microcosm of this momentous shift, and of the curious little island nation’s culture in general.
At its core, Cuban food is a medley of elements from cultures around the world, much like the Cuban identity in general. Its flavors are influenced by the culinary traditions of the island’s indigenous Taínos (a branch of the Caribbean’s native Arawak people), colonial Spanish settlers, the large population of people brought from Africa, and other more recent additions. As in many Latin American countries, rice and beans are common staples, as are chicken, beef, and pork. Many dishes also feature plantains and one of several varieties of root starches like yuca or potatoes. Soups and stews are also favorites, and the fact that Cuba is an island results in a heavy dose of fresh, deliciously prepared seafood.
The Republic of Cuba has seen its share of government restrictions. Those restrictions, while certainly still there, have been loosening lately – making way for some remarkable changes in the art, music, tourism, and gastronomical scenes. For a long time, the supply of ingredients was rigidly controlled by the government, as well as who was and wasn’t allowed to own and operate private restaurants. Given the tropical crops found on the island and the cooking influences from all over the world, the potential for a top-notch culinary scene was always there, but until recently, your family would have had a much easier time finding tasty Cuban food at an expatriate-run restaurant in Miami than in Havana.
Well, the doors are opening now… Varied meats and produce that recently weren’t available are now plentiful, herbs and spices are finding their way into local dishes, and the paladares (private restaurants typically operated out of families’ homes) are increasing their once-limited selections. Talented chefs that left Cuba for more professional freedom in other countries are returning to be a part of this culinary revolution, and more Cubans are choosing to pursue cooking careers in their native country. There are countless factors that make right now a thrilling time to discover Cuba – with the transforming world of Cuban cuisine undoubtedly high on the list.