The most important thing I ever learned from my Cuban Abuela is that food is powerful. The right dish can lighten even the tensest situation or can help celebrate the biggest victories. I love my Abuela's cooking and because my mom's side of the family is from Cuba, I grew up eating Cuban food. I'll let you in on a little secret: traditional Cuban food is really, really good.

Cuban food is typically very meat-centric, so many of these dishes are not for the vegetarians among us. However, there is also a focus on tropical produce like plantains and guava. If you're heading to Cuba or to a Cuban restaurant, here's my rundown on what you should try.

1. Ropa Vieja

When I was growing up, my Abuela would make me a special meal on my birthday. More often than not, the meal I chose was Ropa Vieja. It consists of tender shredded beef that is cooked in tomatoes and served over tons of fluffy white rice. The name literally translates to "old cloths," which some people say is because its easy to stir leftovers into the recipe. Old cloths never tasted so good.

2. Picadillo

Picadillo was the other dish that I tended to request as my birthday meal. My Abuela makes it with ground beef, potatoes, olives, and string beans in a big pot, but the recipe varies depending on the cook. Many recipes include raisins, which I personally despise, but hey, whatever floats your boat.

3. Pernil

This roast pork shoulder is the tenderest, most succulent dishes you could ever dream of. I have a hard time not ordering it when I'm out at a Cuban restaurant. Plus, it reminds me of Christmas, since it's what my Abuela usually cooks on Christmas Eve.

4. Masitas

Just thinking about a plate full of masitas and rice makes me want to run to the Latin American restaurant down the street from me. These crispy chunks of fried pork are tender on the inside and crunchy on the outside and oh so flavorful. The ultimate traditional Cuban food.

5. Tostones

Tostones are flat, fried plantains that I could eat like a bag of potato chips. I gained a newfound appreciation for my mom and Abuela when I tried to make them myself last year. Flattening those plantains takes some serious muscle. 

6. Rice and Beans

rice, meat, vegetable, pepper, corn
Miranda Dambrot

So simple, yet so delicious. Just ask my roommates, I eat some variation of rice and beans at least once a week, and in my opinion no pantry is complete without a can of Goya black beans. Rice and beans are the traditional Cuban food that are served on the side of pretty much every other food.

7. Mojo

I would literally drink mojo. This marinade and dipping sauce tastes good on everything. It's made of the best two ingredients in the world: lime and garlic, along with a whole bunch of other spices and citrus.

8. Yuca

There's nothing better than yuca steamed in garlicky mojo sauce. Yuca is another word for cassava root, a starch that is similar to a potato. You can eat it like French fries or baked or steamed.

9. Bunuelos

Cuban Bunuelos are little donuts made out of yuca. They taste like light, flaky doughnuts and they are usually dipped in a sauce made of anise. It's super tricky to get them shaped correctly, but practice makes perfect.

10. Maduros

Can you tell Cubans love plantains? Maduros are sweet plantains that are only fried once, as opposed to tostones getting fried twice. They taste delicious as a side dish to some simple fried eggs.

11. Flan

caramel, cake, flan
Lissane Kafie

My mom's flan is famous in my neighborhood. This traditional Cuban food is the ideal dessert after a meat-centric Cuban meal. It is a sweet custard-like cake topped with a caramel topping. My mom is lactose intolerant and she sometimes makes it with dairy-free ingredients like lactose-free milk and cream cheese. Here's a simple, 5 ingredient version.

12. Cuban Chicken Fricassee

This chicken dish is my dad's birthday meal request every year. It features slow cooked chicken, olives, and tomatoes, along with tons of garlic. If you thought the French had the best fricassee, think again.

13. Arroz Con Pollo

Arroz con Pollo, or Chicken with Rice, is a quintessential Latin American dish. This traditional Cuban food can be made in one pot, which makes it an amazing weeknight recipe. It includes all the usual suspects: tomato, garlic, and rice.

14. Guava Paste

When I was a kid, guava paste was the bane of my existence. It's a thick paste made out of guava fruit and sugar that my family spreads on crackers. As I've gotten older, I've come to appreciate this tropical fruit, and it's definitely a traditional Cuban food everyone should try.

15. Cuban Bread

Cuban bread is some of the best bread in the world. It's flaky, light, and is best served warm. It's also the perfect thing to sop up any juices or sauces leftover from your meal.

16. Cuban Sandwich

sandwich, ham, bread, cheese, lettuce
Bernard Wen

What list of traditional Cuban food would be complete without the Cuban sandwich? You can never go wrong ordering this bad boy made out of ham, pork, cheese, pickles, and mustard on Cuban bread. Make your own Cuban-style panini at home for the perfect lunch. 

There's nothing like a bowl of rice and beans at the end of a long day. Cuban food is some of the best food in the entire world, and if you try these traditional dishes, you'll get a taste for why.