A tale of how Cuba stole its national dish ropa vieja from the Canary Islands. Follow along on this Cuban journey as I weave you a story of how this came to be!
Shredded beef and vegetables that resemble a heap of colorful old rags – that’s ropa vieja. From the Spanish term for “old clothes”, this is one of Cuba’s most popular and beloved dishes. So popular in fact that it’s one of the country’s designated national dishes.
Ropa vieja is a popular dish of the Canary Islands and Cuba. The original recipe consists of a dish made with leftovers from the cocido (or cozido), a traditional stew eaten as a main dish in Spain, Portugal, Brazil and other latin countries. In the Americas, it is a shredded flank, brisket, or skirt steak in a tomato sauce base.
Variations of ropa vieja found across the Caribbean
Variations of the dish can be found throughout the Caribbean, especially in the Dominican Republic (carne ripiada) and Puerto Rico. In Venezuela, ropa vieja is known as carne mechada (shredded beef) and is part of the national dish called pabellón criollo, which consists of a serving of the carne mechada accompanied with black beans, fried plantains, white rice, and sometimes arepitas de maíz (corn fritters). In Veracruz and Tabasco, Mexico, ropa vieja is made with shredded beef, mint, garlic, tomato, and onions, and cooked with eggs.
This dish dates back to the Middle Ages of Spanish Sephardi, a loose adaptation of a dish that remains popular in southern and central Spain. Traditionally it was a way to stretch the leftovers of stews such as puchero or cocida, both of which are garbanzo-based dishes as is the original Spanish version of ropa vieja. This dish was later taken to Cuba where the Cubans made it their own.
Central in this dish are beef and tomatoes, both naturally umami-rich ingredients. Added to that are zesty bell peppers, caramelized onions, as well as some additional ingredients and spices that will make your taste buds sing with joy!
What cut of beef is used in ropa vieja?
Traditionally Ropa Vieja is made with flank steak. Have a look around the internet at all the ropa vieja recipes and virtually all of them call for flank. That piqued my curiosity because here’s the thing: flank steak is from the bottom hard-working muscle area of the cow (very lean with very little fat) so it not only has less flavor than some other cuts of beef, it’s also notoriously tough.
Because of its low fat content, flank steak is best suited to very quick, high heat cooking, like grilling. It is not the best choice for braising or slow cooking because without the fat content and connective tissue, it dries out during the cooking process. For all of these reasons, flank steak used to be one of the cheaper cuts of beef. But in recent years the price has sky-rocketed and in many places is double the cost of chuck.
But flank still continues to be used in nearly all ropa vieja recipes out of tradition because of its shape – the grains of the cut yield long strands of shredded beef resembling the dish’s namesake, torn clothing.
Flank steak is unique in that respect with those long tough strands. But chuck works so well for slow cooking because the long cooking time over low heat breaks down the cartilage, melts the fat and keeps the beef moist while also adding a ton of extra flavor. It is by far the most popular beef cut of choice for slow cooking and shredding.
So what about the aesthetics element, those long strands of beef you get from the flank steak? Chuck has short strands that after slow cooking and shredding typically looks less pronounced and are mushier. The way around that: Simply ask the butcher to cut you a piece of chuck that is taller than it is wider (the height running with the direction of the grains). That way you’ll get longer strands along with a deliciously flavorful, tender and moist shredded beef.
What is the origin of ropa vieja?
The origin of ropa vieja is from the Canary Islands, which are Spanish islands off the coast of North Africa in the Atlantic Ocean. The original version of ropa vieja contained leftovers, but later became a shredded meat dish with garbanzo beans and potatoes in the Canary Islands. Some versions in the Canary Islands contain beef or chicken or pork, or a combination of any of the three. Ropa vieja is widely prepared in the Caribbean today. It is listed among traditional Panamanian cuisine, Cuban cuisine, Puerto Rican cuisine, Dominican cuisine and Canarian cuisine.
I am guessing you are wondering what that old clothes (ropa vieja in Spanish) have to do with a Spanish recipe. It is probably because the dish ropa vieja is actually derived from another dish, a Spanish bean stew. Making a stew was a way to take advantage of leftovers whenever a Spanish stew was cooked. The exact origins of the dish are not really known, but recipes have been passed down for decades.
Garbanzo beans were an essential part of the daily diet in Spain until about 50 years ago and were considered a food for the masses due to their inexpensive nature. They are a very healthy bean and a staple in many diets and have grown in popularity in the U.S. in recent years.
Today, even though the standard of living in Spain does not require such thrifty ways, cooks often prepare extra meat in their homes so that they may make ropa vieja the following day. As with all traditional dishes, there are many variations and some of these are due to different regions. Ropa vieja is still one of the classic, comfort foods, which Spaniards fondly remember eating at mom’s or grandma’s table as children.
Ropa Vieja, the national dish of Cuba, is a meal that is steeped in history. This rustic, humble dish so perfectly tells the story of the country’s culinary and cultural evolution over the last half-century. It’s fascinating and a perfect read if you’re feeling a little hungry.
The story behind ropa vieja
The geographical journey might be easy enough to trace, but the story of its invention requires a little more imagination. Like many great parts of Cuban culture, ropa vieja started life in Spain.
The story goes that a penniless old man once shredded and cooked his own clothes because he could not afford food for his family. He prayed over the bubbling concoction and a miracle occurred, turning the mixture into a tasty, rich meat stew.
Now, we’re not totally sure that this story is absolute fact but it’s wonderful nonetheless. What we do know is that the recipe for ropa vieja is over 500 years old and originated with the Sephardic Jews in the Iberian peninsula of Spain. Because cooking was not allowed on the Sabbath, the Sephardi would slow-cook a hearty stew the night before. And let me tell you, the aromas will drive you crazy overnight.
But beyond what tells the story and the place where it is said that this delicious dish emerged, it is already part of the Cuban culinary art. The truth is that those who visit Cuba and try it have the possibility of taking, with them and forever, the taste of Cuba.
The dish then travelled to the Americas with the Spanish people, where it became a staple dish across the Caribbean and Cuba. And although the recipe has been tweaked over the years, the fundamental base of ropa vieja remains today as it always has.
This dish is enjoyed all over peninsular Spain, and the Canary Islands. Even though it is very popular in Latin America, particularly in the Caribbean, the preparation, however, is different there: beef is stewed with onions, tomato sauce, and vegetables, then shredded and served alongside beans, rice, and plantains.
As in Spain, in Latin America, there are many variations of the dish. It is especially popular in Cuba, where even more variations exist. Despite the differences, though, most people refer to this as a classic comfort food.
Look out for this delicious dish on your trip to Cuba, and make sure to share its history with your friends.
- 2 lb beef chuck roast (flank steak, or brisket)
- 1 red hot pepper , julienned
- 8 cloves garlic , crushed
- 2 onions , cut into strips
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 teaspoon cumin
- ½ teaspoon oregano
- 1 red bell pepper , julienned
- 8 tablespoons tomato purée
- ¼ teaspoon black pepper
- ¼ cup vegetable oil
- 5 teaspoons dry white wine
- Remove the meat from the refrigerator and leave it at room temperature for 30 minutes.
- Place the meat in a pressure cooker.
- Add an onion and 1 teaspoon of crushed garlic. Season with salt and pepper.
- Add water to cover the meat by 2 inches and cook over medium heat for 45 minutes after reaching boiling point.
- Check the tenderness of the meat with a fork. If it is not soft enough, continue cooking for 20 minutes from boiling.
- Once the meat is tender, remove the meat from the broth and reserve the broth.
- When the meat is lukewarm, shred it and place in a large bowl. Cover the bowl with a plastic wrap and set aside.
- In a deep Dutch oven, heat the vegetable oil and fry the onion, remaining garlic, as well as the red hot pepper for 1 minute over medium heat, stirring regularly.
- Add 3 tablespoons of the reserved meat broth, 2 bay leaves, cumin, oregano, black pepper and tomato purée.
- Stir well, then add the meat and mix again. Add 3 tablespoons of wine and mix.
- Cook uncovered and over high heat for 5 minutes.
- Cover the Dutch oven and cook for another 15 minutes over medium heat until the sauce is creamy.
- One minute before removing the pan from the heat, add the remaining two tablespoons of white wine and the julienned red bell pepper, and stir gently.
- Serve hot, with white rice and plantain chips.
For a more liquid sauce, add a little more meat broth.