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No Visa Needed For Good Cuban Food

With Congress considering relaxing its nearly 50-year-old restrictions on travel to Cuba, many Americans, including me, are salivating at the prospect of visiting the forbidden island. Those who've gone on special visas — like my husband and some friends, one a Cuba native — have brought back tempting accounts of salsa music, antiquated cars, lively beisbol, gorgeous beaches and Old Havana's colonial architecture.

Their raves don't extend to the food. Years of agricultural constraints, a poor economy and the American embargo — along with the exodus of much culinary talent — have taken a toll at the table. At least for now, you're likely to find better Cuban food in exile communities, mostly in Florida and northern New Jersey — or in your own kitchen.

The cuisine draws on multiple influences: Caribbean, African, Spanish and American (the narrow island is roughly 90 miles south of Florida). Its chief ingredients are starches such as rice, potatoes, plantains and yucca; citrus, mainly lime and sour orange; both red and black beans; and seafood, poultry, pork and beef. Sauces such as mojo criollo, a marinade of garlic and citrus juice, and sofrito, a saute of garlic, onion, pepper, tomato and herbs, invigorate main dishes. And sugar cane, grown in Cuba since the 16th century, yields rum and sweets such as the swoon-inducing tres leches cake, made with three kinds of milk.

Just as this is comfort food for displaced Cubans, it has become so for us, too. It serves as a touchstone to that earlier, more exotic South Florida life, before marriage, mortgages and kids.

I developed a taste for this hearty, humble cooking while working for a Miami newspaper in the mid-1980s. My beau and I frequented Cuban restaurants and came to love their garlicky shrimp, fried plantains (both the sweet platanos maduros and the savory tostones), croquettes, crispy fried pork chunks (masitas de puerco) and a shredded beef dish called "old clothes" (ropa vieja). We often finished with flan, a delicate custard flavored with vanilla, citrus or coconut.

We lived in an art deco apartment with jalousie windows and an aqua-hued living room. A huge iguana usually lounged on the garden wall, near mango and grapefruit trees that dropped overripe fruit in our small yard.

The same pungent, garlicky aroma that infused favorite restaurants wafted into our tiny kitchen from a neighboring apartment building. There, Anna maintained her cultural ties to Cuba by cooking island basics for her teenage son. Her English was even worse than my crummy Spanish, but she managed to communicate the best way to dispatch a mango: Slice open the fruit on both sides of the flat seed, deeply score the flesh of each side like the outlines of a tick-tack-toe game, then invert each side to easily pare away the flesh.

Our tree didn't produce the kind of big, sweet, peachy mangoes that send juice streaming down your arms. Its fruit was small and fibrous — but nothing a blender, a liberal pour of rum, and some lime and sugar couldn't cure. The mango daiquiri — not the ubiquitous mojito — remains my sentimental favorite among Cuban drinks.

My beau-turned-husband and I didn't learn to make Cuban food until we had to, when we moved back north and couldn't find it in local restaurants. Just as this is comfort food for displaced Cubans, it has become so for us, too. It serves as a touchstone to that earlier, more exotic South Florida life, before marriage, mortgages and kids.

It has become part of our family life, too. As a toddler, our younger son developed such an affinity for moros y cristianos — "Moors and Christians," the Spanish-style dish of black beans cooked with white rice — that he'd pound on his highchair tray and demand, "Rice and beans! Rice and beans!" Now he uses the combination to cushion eggs topped with salsa or mojo criollo. And moro rice and Cuban-style pork chops or flank steak are among the boys' top requests when they come home from college.

"Everything about our food is comfort," says Maricel E. Presilla, a Cuban-born scholar of Latin American culture and cuisine. She's also a cookbook author, chef and restaurateur in Hoboken, N.J.

In 1970, when she was a girl, Presilla and her parents left their family home in Santiago, near the island's eastern edge. She has visited repeatedly over the years. "They've lost a lot of the refinements of traditional Cuban cooking," she says of many home cooks, adding that food shortages have forced them to take shortcuts and use substitutes. Younger generations, she says, are losing touch with good, classic cooking. "I meet with people who've just come from Cuba, and their food is really horrendous — canned sauce and spaghetti," she says.

Visitors to Cuba sometimes find good food at paladores, small, family-run private dining rooms licensed by the government, Presilla says. The same is true at a growing number of hotels. Still, she hopes for Cuban culinary re-education, if not outright revolution. The country needs "10 more years of a free government where ideas can flow and food can grow ... to rescue what [it] had," she says.

With plentiful ingredients at hand, however, diners in the United States needn't wait for good Cuban food — travel restrictions or not.

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Carol Guensburg