Cuban cuisine is one of the most interesting and exciting cuisines because it is a melting pot of many flavors. Through centuries, Cuba was exposed to many cultures and foods, including those from Spain, France, Africa, and more. These influences are heavily reflected in its traditional recipes, and such an assortment eventually became a distinct and delicious identity.
If you want to try how this medley of flavors comes together, try as many Cuban dishes as possible. You can start with these classic Cuban side dishes, which you can make at home. They’re simple, authentic, and delicious!
Cuba has many bean recipes, which may be a testament to how well-loved these legumes are in the country. But among them, the most popular are frijoles negros or Cuban-style black beans, which can serve as a side dish, meal, or snack. To make this dish, the black beans are cooked with many flavorful ingredients, like onions, garlic, chili peppers, bay leaf, chicken stock, and red wine vinegar.
Black beans are excellent, but if you want more color, make frijoles colorados or Cuban-style red beans. It tastes tangy because of the tomato-based sauce and is also incredibly aromatic and smoky because of the sofrito and other spices. Unlike frijoles negros, it isn’t meatless, so there are chunks of meat, beans, and veggies bobbing in the mixture. Cook this in a pot or a pressure cooker!
Mix your black beans with rice, and you have a satisfying, aromatic, and flavorful side dish called congri, also known as moros y cristianos. Interestingly, moros y cristianos translates to moors and Christians. The white grains symbolize the Christians, and the black beans pertain to the moors or African Muslims; both sides significantly impacted Cuban culture. Besides beans and rice, there are spices and other flavorings.
Plantains are a banana variant cultivated for their high starch content, making them more suitable for cooking than typical bananas. They can be made into a side dish, like platanos maduros fritos or fried sweet plantains. These sweet and golden plantains are usually served with arroz a la Cubana, a popular Hispanic breakfast. However, you can also eat them with lunch and other meals.
Tostones are like maduros but are made from green plantains, so they taste starchy and less sweet. They are also fried twice rather than once, so they come with perfectly crisp exteriors and tender inner flesh. Before re-frying, the plantain slices are pressed, so they have a smushed appearance. Such textures are similar to chips and fries, and you can dip tostones into sauces like ketchup or aioli.
Mashed veggies, like potatoes and cauliflower, are popular side dishes, but have you had mashed fruit? Banana fufu, or fufu de platano, is made from boiled green plantains mashed with lemon juice, bacon, garlic, oil, and salt. While you might think it’s too sweet to be served as a side, green plantains are starchy and not too sweet. Thus, fufu works well with savory dishes like pulled pork.
Besides plantains, another important crop in Cuba is yuca or cassava. This starchy tuber is sliced into wedges or chunks and boiled until tender. Careful preparation is essential when handling fresh yuca to avoid cyanide poisoning. Once cooked, a homemade garlic mojo sauce is poured over the chunks. The sauce is made with olive oil, onion, bitter orange juice, salt, and garlic, so prepare for exciting and complex flavors.
Besides making yuca con mojo, you can also shape and fry it, so it looks like fries! It’s as good as regular potato fries but has a distinct chewy texture and subtly sweet flavor. Moreover, the preparation method is slightly different; instead of slicing and frying the cassava immediately, it is first boiled. Once cooked and crispy, you can serve yuca frita with your entree and chosen dip.
Have you had Cuban-style zucchini? This recipe takes classic Cuban spices and incorporates them into zucchinis, which you can swap for squash. The vegetables are roasted to caramelize and tenderize them. But before popping them into the oven, they are brushed with oil, paprika, cumin, chili, salt, and black pepper. Thus, the zucchini already exudes incredible, complex flavors, even before being topped with cojita cheese, cilantro, and lime.
Croquettes are adorable finger food rolls that are breaded, stuffed, and usually deep-fried. The Cubans have their version of this delicacy called Cuban croquetas, which they enjoy as a side dish, breakfast, snack, and appetizer. It is filled with pork, ham, or chicken, although you can also use leftover meat. Cuban croquettes are shaped into logs or cigars rather than balls and can be eaten with a dip!
Papa rellenas, or Cuban potato meatballs, are similar to Cuban croquettes in many ways. They’re both breaded, fried, stuffed with meat, and are a crowd-favorite finger food. Also, you can use both recipes to recycle food: croquettes are filled with leftover meat, while papa rellenas make use of leftover mashed potatoes. However, papa rellenas stands out for having potato as the star ingredient and picadillo as the stuffing.
12. Cuban Empanadas
Empanadas or meat hand pies are a shared delicacy of Hispanic countries, although each culture may have its variant. For instance, Cuban empanadas are typically filled with picadillo, a ground beef dish that is sweet, tangy, and spicy. Such a blend of flavors is made possible by combining the meat with spices, raisins, tomato sauce, Worcestershire, dry sherry, and Tabasco.