Growing up in a Cuban household, there was one thing I knew how to do: Eat. There was nothing quite like gathering with the family around a huge dinner table with my mami and abuelita serving up platter after platter of good food. From staples like ropa vieja to classics like white rice and black beans to side dishes like fried sweet plantains, the foods that filled my tummy as a child were nothing less than delicious. Although I’ve since learned to appreciate food outside of the ones I grew up with, my mouth still waters at the mere thought of one of these dishes. In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, here are the 12 foods that every Cuban grew up eating.
Scrambled eggs and rice for breakfast
In my house, we lived on scrambled eggs and rice for breakfast. Sometimes there was also a side of toast or fried sweet plantains, but there was nothing quite like taking last night’s leftover rice out of the fridge, then frying it up with some scrambled eggs. I honestly never realized there was anything weird about this breakfast concoction until a roommate in college said, “What’s that?!” and my fellow Cuban roommate said, “Oh, that’s breakfast.”
Cafe con leche or a cortadito all day long
It’s never too early to start a Cuban kid drinking coffee, so typical staples are cafe con leche (Cuban coffee with milk) or cortadito. Similar to the now-popular hipster coffee shop drink cortado (which originated in Spain), a cortadito is a Cuban espresso that is sweetened with warm milk and sugar as soon as it is brewed to give it a foamy texture at the top.
Sandwiches made with Cuban bread
Although the popular Cubano sandwich actually originated in Tampa, Florida, Cubans in both Cuba and the U.S. grew up eating some version of this popular treat. The truth, though, is that Cubans often eat any kind of sandwich— as long as it’s made with Cuban bread, which is similar to French bread except made with lard. Yes, lard is the reason why Cuban bread is so crunchy and irresistible.
Arroz con pollo and pollo a la plancha
There’s always time for a chicken dish in my household, and everyone’s favorite was always arroz con pollo (yellow rice cooked with chicken). Of course, if mami didn’t want to spend a lot of time making this dish, there was always a simple pollo a la plancha— which is literally just grilled chicken. Serve it up with white rice, black beans and fried sweet plantains, and you’ve got dinner served.
Sour orange and garlic to flavor everything
Although not strictly an actual dish, there is one huge secret to Cuban cooking that every mami and abuelita knows: Sour orange juice and garlic. Although garlic is used in many cuisines across the globe, it’s probably the sour orange juice that sounds odd to non-Cubans. Naranja agria, however, is a staple in any Cuban household. We use it to marinate everything from steak to chicken to even the Thanksgiving turkey for a truly Cuban twist on an American classic.
Moros y cristianos or congri, depending on where you’re from
One of the most popular Cuban dishes that everyone grows up with is white rice cooked with black beans. But it’s just rice and beans, mind you, the rice itself is cooked in the leftover liquid from when mami makes black beans, which means that the rice ends up being a dark brown color. This dish is known as moros y cristianos but confusion might set in because, for those of us from Havana, the dish is often called congri. However, congri is actually the name of a similar dish made with red beans throughout Cuba. Often, when you order congri at a Cuban restaurant in Miami, you’re actually getting moros y cristianos (the black bean version).
Empanadas, sometimes filled with pasta de guayaba and cream cheese
The snack that basically every Cuban kid grew up with was pasta de guayaba (guava paste) with cream cheese. Sometimes mom would serve this to me as an after school snack on a plate all by itself, with slices of guava paste intermixed with slices of cream cheese. Sometimes there would be crackers accompanying this dish. But, when I was really lucky, the pasta de guayaba and cream cheese mixture was in an empanada.
Tostones and platanitos maduros fritos as a side
Plantains, which look similar to bananas but are much sweeter when ripe, are a staple of Caribbean dishes. In Cuba, we typically eat green plantains as tostones (which are smashed and fried twice) and the overly ripe plantains (which look almost black when abuela purchases them) as fried sweet plantains. There’s an art to making the perfect platanos maduros, and luckily Cubans have mastered it. You can basically find fried sweet plantains on the side of every Cuban meal.
Picadillo, ropa vieja, bistec de palomilla and other meat dishes
Meat is a popular thing to eat in Cuba, though we don’t have it as often as you would think. Because of the scarcity on the island, even Cubans in America only indulge a few times a week. Favorites like ropa vieja (meaning “old clothes” but actually a dish of shredded beef cooked in tomato sauce) and picadillo (ground beef) are stand-bys, but I always favorited the bistec de palomilla (a simple pan-fried round steak that has been pounded down very thin, marinated in lime juice, garlic and onions, and then served with white rice, black beans, maduros and those same onions it was marinated in but now grilled to perfection).
Lechon asado and pernil for staple pork dishes
If you’ve ever attended Christmas dinner at a Cuban’s house, then you might have seen something we call La Caja China. This is a large pig roasting box that is most often used around this time of year to make delicious pork dishes. However, if you come around at any other time of the year or for any other celebration, then you are also likely to see lechon asado or pernil— two other Cuban pork dishes we all know and love.
Flan, tres leches cake and merengue cookies for dessert
Dessert is always a must, and Cubans basically rotate the three favorites: flan (of course), tres leches cake, or merengue cookies. What, did you think merengue was just a dance? Merengue cookies originated from French meringue desserts (basically whipped egg whites and sugar) and they made it onto the table at every single birthday celebration and family event.
Wash it all down with a Materva or Jupiña
— Rini 🍐 (@RiniNeowise) December 12, 2013
I’m sorry, do you think Cubans only drink coca-cola? I don’t think so! Although we frequently had the very American drink too, there was nothing quite as great as the Materva (a mate-based drink) or Jupiña (a pineapple-based soda) at the dinner table. They’re a staple in every Cuban household.