I was pretty ignorant about Cuban food when I landed in Havana, apart from having tasted two dishes—Ropa Vieja meat stew and the classic Cuban sandwich—and a friendly warning. “Cuba is good for many things,” many a Cuban friend had advised me, “but not food.”

The reality on the ground, as I traveled around the island for two weeks, was more complicated. Here are some things you should probably know about Cuban food before taking your own trip.

Be Careful What You Eat in Restaurants

Have you ever been so hungry that you abandoned common sense? This is what happened to me during the long bus journey from Baracoa, on the eastern tip of Cuba, back to Havana.

My friend Dora and I were on a layover in the city of Santiago, and make the dastardly decision to eat seafood at an un-vetted restaurant.

Needless to say, we didn’t spend the next few days very far from a toilet!

Home Cooking Is Where It’s At

The good news is that for what Cuba lacks in restaurant culture (with one exception—more on that below), it more than makes up for in terms of delicious home cooking. This owes itself to the system of casa particulares that still makes up much of accommodation for independent travelers, whereby locals open spare rooms in their houses to foreigners.

Cuban food - Home-Cooking

The highlight of Cuban home cooking is not in an individual dish—truthfully, I can’t remember a single one—but rather for the freshness and quality of the ingredients, the boldness of the flavors and color and the love put into it by the owner of your casa.

As you eat around the table where she fed her children, some of whom might have also helped prepare the meal, you truly feel like a part of the family.

Havana’s International Food Scene is Growing

Don’t eat seafood in Santiago—but maybe consider it in Havana. To be sure, whether you traipse through the cobbled streets of Habana Vieja, or cruise along the waterfront Malecón, Havana is home to an increasing number of eateries focused on international cuisine.

You can not only find popular global dishes from Italy and Japan in Cuba’s capital, but also more surprising options. For example, the Pablo Neruda-themed Café Neruda serves up Chilean specialties with priceless views of the sea.

Don’t Forget About Beverages!

Whether you love Cuban food or loathe it, solid items are only the beginning of Cuba’s culinary scene.

Cuban food - Rum

Many of the most delicious things in Cuba can be consumed through a straw, whether you sample the country’s iconic rum in the form of a mojito, or sip café con leche while you puff a cigar in the region of Viñales, where just as much coffee is grown as tobacco.

Cuban food: The Bottom Line

Cuba is not and probably never will be one of the world’s foodie bastions. At the same time, there’s a lot of deliciousness to be found on the island, in the form of home cooking and beverages like the mojito cocktail and fresh Cuban coffee.

If you do decide to explore Cuba’s budding restaurant scene, use common sense to avoid food sickness, which is still relatively common here.

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