The most important thing I ever learned from my Abuela is that food is powerful. The right dish can lighten hard times or 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 traditional Cuban food. A cuisine like no other, Cuban food has something for everyone.

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 in all their glorious forms.

Cuban food comes from complicated origins. The island in the Caribbean, known for its roast pork and variety of sandwiches, has heavy influences from Africa and Spain because of the slave trade. Like many other Caribbean islands, the forces of colonization brought an array of versatile ingredients that inevitably mixed with the Indigenous cuisines. Now, they’ve been formed into beloved national dishes. In Cuban culture, food is at the center of many celebrations and everyday life. If you're heading to Cuba or to a Cuban restaurant, here's my rundown on what you should try.

1. Ropa Vieja

Anna Arriaga

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. This dish 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,"a name coming from an old Cuban tale. The tale tells the story of an old man who was too poor to purchase meat. Instead, he shred his clothes and cooked it, praying it would turn to meat to feed his family. Miraculously, the clothes turned to shredded beef. The dish is a symbol of hope and resilience in Cuban culture. .

2. Picadillo

Anna Arriaga

Picadillo is made with ground beef, potatoes, olives, and string beans in a big pot, but the recipe varies depending on the cook. Many recipes include raisins, a common addition to ground beef across other Latin-American cultures. Picadillo can be enjoyed with white rice and beans, if you want to keep it simple, but can also be found in Cuban pastries or sandwiches. Some recent innovations by Cuban-American restaurant Pikadiyo turns the simple dish into a Chipotle-style experience, paired with fried plantains and even packs the beef into small wraps.

3. Pernil

Anna Arriaga

 Roast pork shoulder is one of the tenderest, most succulent dishes you could ever order at a Cuban restaurant. Plus, it reminds many Cubans and Cuban-Americans of Christmas, since it's what is usually cooked on Christmas Eve. Typically enjoyed on special occasions, pernil is often paired with white rice, black beans, and sometimes carrots with potatoes. Pernil is known for the juicy broth leftover after cooking which is used to soak the rice and give flavor to its sides. This roast pork has competition with the other dish usually shared on noche buena, which is a roast pig cooked in a “Caja China.” 

4. Masitas/ Chicharron

Just thinking about a plate full of juicy masitas is enough to make your stomach grumble. These crispy chunks of fried pork are tender on the inside, crunchy on the outside, and full of flavor. You can find these bite-size meat snacks at nearly any Cuban bakery or restaurant. Level them up by adding a squeeze of lime or the sauce of your choice. If you like dried pork rinds, you’ll love Chicharron.

5. Tostones

Tostones are smashed fried plantains that can be eaten like a bag of potato chips. The plantain is an ingredient used in all its forms throughout Cuban dishes, an important show of Afro-Cuban culture. The plantain was originally brought from Africa to Cuba by slaves, then made into its many versatile forms such as fried plantains, tostones, etc. The ingredient’s influence remains imperative throughout Cuba’s food history, tostones being a staple in any Cuban dinner. Tostones are flat circles, a shape made from smashing and flattening pieces of the plantain, that are fried in oil. They’re commonly enjoyed with ketchup, lime juice, and a pinch of salt. 

6. Arroz con Frijoles

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 black beans. Rice and beans, or arroz con frijoles negros, are served on the side of pretty much every other Cuban food. The importance of rice is another Afro-Cuban feature of Cuba’s culinary history. A tradition brought from Africa, rice and beans is a consistent, reliable side that will satisfy any stomach. Despite its simplicity, it can be dressed with sauces and be enjoyed by vegans and vegetarians alike.

7. Mojo

I would literally drink mojo. This marinade and dipping sauce tastes good on nearly everything. It's made of two delicious ingredients: sour oranges (otherwise known as naranja agria) and garlic. In addition, the marinade is spiced with black pepper, oregano, and sometimes includes white onions or olive oil. Because mojo is a marinade, mojo versions of different meats can be found at most Cuban restaurants, including (but not limited to), mojo roast pork, mojo chicken, and even mojo dipping sauce for crispy yuca fries. The acidic citrus juice from the sour oranges is what makes that mojo slow roast pork tender inside. 

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 and native to South America. Yuca can be boiled and mashed or cut into chunks similar to potatoes, fried like french fries, or baked. Yuca is most often an accompaniment to a pork roast, covered in mojo sauce, and mixed in with buttery sauteed white onions.

9. Buñuelos

Cuban Buñuelos 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 how important plantains are in Cuban culture? Maduros are sweet plantains that are only fried once, as opposed to tostones getting fried twice. Unlike the savory crunchiness of tostones, maduros are tender and sweet, used to balance the saltiness from meat in a Cuban dish. They taste delicious as a side dish to some simple fried eggs or with white rice.

11. Flan

caramel, cake, flan
Lissane Kafie

Flan is the centerpiece of Cuban desserts — it’s the ideal dessert after a meat-centric meal. The sweet treat is a custard-like cake topped with a caramel topping that can be made in different flavors, including coconut or dulce de leche most commonly. Here's a simple, 5 ingredient version.

12. Cuban Chicken Fricassee

This chicken dish is a similar delicacy like pernil, commonly served at holidays or celebrations. The dish is a hearty mix of tender, slow-cooked chicken, vegetables like carrots and potatoes, and leaves a citrusy sauce perfect for adding to white rice. The chicken usually falls off the bone after it's slow cooked in a blend of sour orange, tomato sauce, dry wine, and various spices. 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 dish can be made in one pot, which makes it an amazing weeknight recipe. It includes all the usual suspects: tomato, garlic, and rice. Because of its versatility, the chicken can be made a la vaca frita, in a fricassee, or just on the grill.

14. Guava Paste

Guava paste on salty crackers is a common snack among Cuban families, sometimes accompanied with a smear of cream cheese. Loved for its simplicity (and of course, its sweetness), guava in all its forms is a beloved part of Cuban culture. The paste itself, made of guava and sugar, is sold in blocks and can be used for eating or for baking. Guava paste is a versatile ingredient in baking fruity desserts like guava cookies, cakes, and crumbles., The possibilities are endless.  

15. Cuban Tostada

Cuban bread is some of the best bread in the world. It's flaky, light, and is best served warm. At nearly any Cuban bakery, the common breakfast order will be a tostada and a cafe con leche. A tostada is about a quarter of a cuban bread baguette, sliced in half, toasted, and slathered in butter. It’s best enjoyed when dipping the bread in the hot coffee, soaking up the coffee flavor and softening the buttery bread. That being said, it's also the perfect food to sop up any juices or sauces leftover from your meal.

16. Cuban Sandwich

sandwich, ham, bread, cheese, lettuce
Bernard Wen

What list of 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. This sandwich is a great go-to order if you ever find yourself in a Cuban-style restaurant.

17. Croquetas

Anna Arriaga

Croquetas are bite-size fritters that come with different fillings, from ham and bechamel to fish and fun vegan versions packed with chickpeas or fake ham. While they’re not a pastry, croquetas are usually included in boxes of pastelitos that are enjoyed on Sunday mornings, bought at a local bakery, or passed around as appetizers at celebrations. No matter the filling, croquetas are creamy and crispy. There’s quite the controversy when discussing the origins of the beloved fried finger food, some speculating it comes from the French croquette.

18. Colada

No Cuban meal is complete without a cafecito to finish it off. While there are many versions of Cuban coffee, the colada is the drink made for sharing. The classic drink is a huge four ounce cup of strong, sweetened Cuban espresso, served with an array of mini shot-style cups (for sharing, of course). The shot-style cups are meant for sharing the cup of espresso between as many people as possible – making coladas in the morning or midafternoon is a common practice in workplaces or at home.

19. Pastelito de Guayaba 

Anna Arriaga

Back to the importance of guava: guava pastries, or pastelitos, are a delicacy. Often served in boxes purchased from bakeries that alongside cheese or meat pastries, the guava pastelito is the dessert. Filled with gooey, warm guava with a crispy, buttery shell, the guava pastry usually comes in rectangular, triangular, or circular shapes and can sometimes include cheese as well. Pair a warm guava pastry with a cafecito for a late breakfast and your taste buds will thank you.

20.  Arroz con Leche

Arroz con leche is a common dessert across Latinx cultures but is often enjoyed in Cuban culture for special occasions, always an expected dessert after pernil at noche buena. The dessert is basically a sweet rice pudding made with condensed milk, cinnamon, and white rice. 

21. Crema de Malanga

There are few things better than a creamy, cheesy potato soup. Crema de malanga is essentially a soup made from malanga, which is a root vegetable similar to a potato. Malanga can also be eaten solid and is a trademark in both Cuban and Puerto Rican cuisines, much like plantains. The root was originally grown in South America and brought to the Caribbean islands by Spanish colonizers. The soup can be sprinkled with cheese and is a great remedy for a sore throat.

22. Vaca Frita

Vaca frita translates to “fried cow” in English — the dish consists of lime and garlic marinated strips of beef that are then seared (lightly fried) until crispy. It can be confused with Ropa Vieja, because that is also strips of beef, but the vaca frita is fried and does not involve any stew. The meat goes well with a squeeze of lime juice, white rice, black beans, onions, and maduros. 

23. Elena Ruz

This iconic sandwich comes with delicious flavor and an interesting history. In the 1920s, Cuban socialite Elena Ruz made a special order at a restaurant in Havana: a soft medianoche roll with turkey, strawberry jam, and cream cheese. After the quirky order was popularized in Cuba, it became a commonplace item on Cuban-American menus everywhere and a national dish of sorts.

24. Medianoche sandwich

Ever get midnight cravings after a night of partying? Sinking your teeth into one of these soft sandwiches is sure to satisfy your cravings. This sandwich is named the medianoche (which means midnight in English) because it was a common midnight snack in Havana after nightclubs closed. The famous dish consists of a sweet medianoche roll that sandwiches slices of ham, pork, pickles, mayonnaise, mustard, and swiss cheese. 

25. Tamal en Hoja Cuban style 

Anna Arriaga

Much like arroz con leche, tamales are common across Latinx cultures. The Cuban tamal distinguishes itself from traditional Mexican tamales because they’re made with fresh ground corn rather than cornmeal, and the meat (usually pork) is mixed in with the corn masa instead of in the center. It’s wrapped in corn husk, boiled, then enjoyed with a side of hot sauce.