Ropa Vieja: The National Dish Of Cuba

If you have visited Cuba, or plan to, you may notice that on practically every menu is a dish called ‘Ropa Vieja’.

This dish is actually one of the national dishes of Cuba – but what actually is it? And what is the history behind the dish?

Ropa Vieja: the National Dish of Cuba

In this article, we are going to take a look at the history of the dish, including its origins, history, and the variations of the dish that are found across the Caribbean.

We have even included a recipe for the dish so you can try to recreate it yourself.

So, if you want to know more about this dish then you have come to the right place! Let’s get into it!

What Is Ropa Vieja?

Ropa Vieja, the national dish of Cuba, translates in English to ‘old clothes’ – doesn’t exactly sound appetizing, right?

Well, that couldn’t be farther from the truth! This Spanish dish is usually created with a form of stewed beef, served alongside tomatoes with a sofrito base.

The name comes from the fact that the dish originated because it was traditionally made using the leftover foods of other meals – hence why it is called ‘old clothes’ or ropa vieja.

In Cuba, the dish is most often served with rice and black beans. Although it is known as a national dish, it was actually famously off-limits and off the menus for most Cuban people for a long time in Cuban history.

After the fall of the Soviet Union. Many had to improvise with lamb or pork substitutes, as beef at this time was very hard to come by.

This was the case all the way up until 2010 when it became commonly available again with the advent of independent and legal paladeres of the same year.

Ropa Vieja is especially popular with the Jewish community of Cuba, where it is often served with congri rice and fried plantains.

Where Did Ropa Vieja Come From?

Ropa Vieja

Sources say that the origins of the dish come from the Sephardic Jews of the Iberian Peninsula. The dish originally a slow-cooked stew.

It was prepared so that it could be eaten over the course of a traditionally observed Shabbat.

The dish spread from Cuba to North Africa and the Canary islands of Spain. It is thought that Americans were first introduced to the dish by immigrants from the Canary Islands.

The first reported time that Ropa Vieja was cooked in Cuba was way back in 1857, and it is still extremely popular and is made in the present day! So popular in fact, that it is well known as a Cuban national dish.

A lot of people would say that there is a tale about this dish, a tale that includes Cuba stealing it from the Canary Islands.

With the dish’s roots being in the colonial period, it can be hard to identify where exactly the dish came from, and who stole it from whom.

However, it can be said that when the Spanish conquistadors set out to conquer Latin America, they brought along with them their favorite dishes, ropa vieja being one of them.

Spanish arrivals from the Canary Islands made their way to Cuba and settled in the country. Once there, the colonizers continued to cook the well-loved dish.

Cooking ropa vieja became a tradition in many families throughout the generations and now the dish is regarded as a national dish in Cuba.

The legend of this meal comes from the story of a man who had no money to feed his family, so instead, he shredded his clothes and cooked them.

As the mixture was stewing, the man began praying that the clothes would feed his family, which is then transformed into a meat stew to give to his family. Although the story may not be true, it is still a fun one to tell.

Ropa vieja isn’t only found in Cuba. Because colonizers from the Canary islands settled in various parts of the Caribbean, the dish is found in other places as well. The dish does however have slight variations depending on the country.

Variations Of Ropa Vieja Across The Caribbean

Canary Islands

Here, ropa vieja is served with garbanzo beans and potatoes. Although the most common version of the dish is served with beef like in Cuba, it can also be typically made with other meats such as chicken or pork.

Colombia

Aside from ‘ropa vieja’, the dish is also known by the name of ‘carne desmechada’. It is served with rice, fried plantains, or arepas.

Philippines

Here, the dish includes fish sauce and is usually served with jasmine rice.

Spain

In Spain, ropa vieja is a make-do kind of dish, where it is usually made from the leftovers of other foods.

How To Make Ropa Vieja

Ropa Vieja

Now that we know what exactly this dish is, and its origins, it is time to make it ourselves! The following recipe is taken from here, so if you need more details that is the place to look!

Ingredients

What You Will Need:

  • 1 Tablespoon Vegetable Oil
  • 2 Pounds Beef Flank Steak
  • 1 Cup Beef Broth
  • 8 Ounces of Tomato Sauce
  • 6 Ounces of Tomato Paste
  • 1 Green Bell Pepper
  • 1 Small Onion
  • 2 Garlic Cloves
  • 1 Teaspoon Ground Cumin
  • 1 Teaspoon Chopped Fresh Cilantro
  • 1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
  • 1 Tablespoon White Vinegar

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cooking Time: Four hours

Servings: 6 people

Directions

  1. Heat the vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium to high heat, add the flank steak, and cook until browned (about four minutes on each side).
  2. Put cooked beef in the slow cooker, and add the beef broth and the tomato sauce. Then, add the tomato paste as well as the bell pepper, onion, garlic, cumin, cilantro, olive oil, and vinegar. Stir the mixture well. Cover the mixture and cook in the slow cooker on low for up to 10 hours, and high for up to 4 hours.
  3. With two forks, share the steak while it is in the slow cooker.
  4. Serve with rice, black beans, and fried plantains for a traditional Cuban meal, or over tortillas with a side of cheese and sour cream if you fancied trying something new.

Final Thoughts

So, there you have it. The ultimate guide on Cuba’s national dish: Ropa Vieja.

This is a super tasty dish that can be made for the whole family to enjoy, and it doesn’t need to be super expensive to make either – you can even make it with your leftovers from other meal times!

This has been a traditional and popular dish in Cuba for many years, even when it was taken off Cuban menus, Cuban people still did their best to try and create this meal – and it isn’t hard to see why: it is delicious!

Have you ever had ropa vieja? If you are going to visit Cuba are you going to give it a try?

And if you aren’t visiting Cuba any time soon – you can always make it yourself with the recipe that we provided above.

You won’t regret it! Make this dish and you will see exactly why it is the national dish of Cuba.

Jim Stanton
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