It may resemble a pile of old clothes, but ropa vieja is the proud national dish of Cuba. One taste and it’s clear why.
Made from shredded beef (sometimes leftover), onions and vegetables, ropa vieja is generally eaten on rice or tortillas, with sour cream, cheese and fresh cilantro on the side. Variations are found throughout the Caribbean, especially in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. And of course, Cuban ropa vieja is ubiquitous on the island nation of Cuba, where it is sometimes served with a fried egg, green peppers or fried potatoes.
A Brief History of Cuban Ropa Vieja
Originally a Spanish dish, legend has it that rustic ropa vieja (which translated means old clothes) was a desperate bid by a hungry man who literally cooked his clothes.
Another story situates it with Spanish Jews who, not wanting to cook on the Sabbath, slow-cooked the dish in preparation the night before. Yet another narrative links the dish to inhabitants of the Canary Islands. Whatever its origins, the dish is one of those humble, rustic meals, savoured the world over, that utilizes whatever is available in the kitchen, pantry or market.
How to Prepare Ropa Vieja
Braising and cooking the meat for ropa vieja properly is time consuming, but totally worth it. This recipe from allrecipes.com uses a slow cooker to speed the process by several hours.
1 tbsp vegetable oil
2 pounds beef flank steak
1 cup beef broth
1 (8-oz) can tomato sauce
1 small onion, sliced
1 green bell pepper, seeded and sliced into strips
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 (6-oz) can tomato paste
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon chopped fresh cilantro
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon white vinegar
Heat vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Brown the flank steak on each side, about 4 minutes per side.
Transfer beef to a slow cooker. Pour in the beef broth and tomato sauce, then add the onion, bell pepper, garlic, tomato paste, cumin, cilantro, olive oil and vinegar. Stir until well blended. Cover, and cook on high for 4 hours, or on low for up to 10 hours. When ready to serve, shred the meat with two forks and serve up with tortillas or rice.
Just as Spanish culture colonized diverse regions of the world, the initially Spanish dish of ropa viera has traveled far and wide.
The version native to the Canary Islands is made with garbanzo beans. The version of ropa vieja people enjoy in the Philippines features fried plantains and chorizo. Even Cuban ropa viera may vary from household to household, kitchen to kitchen depending on the region and the availability of certain ingredients.
Although it lends itself to swapping out ingredients, ropa viera does have a distinct flavour that comes from slow-cooked beef in a rich tomato sauce. Substituting pork or chicken for the beef will alter the fundamental nature of the dish. This version with pork is nonetheless still traditional in taste.
This elevated gourmet version from Bon Appetit magazine uses chuck roast rather than leftover meat or the more common flank steak for increased tenderness. And of course, there are vegetarian/vegan versions of the dish, such as this one from the blog Coco Verde which uses mushrooms.
Not only has ropa vieja stood the test of time on an island with a dramatic history of political embargoes and sanctions, it has served as nourishing food for people in a place that has often had to rely on its own natural resources for survival.