Ropa Vieja, Cuba’s Shredded Beef Dish

Practically a synonym for Cuban cuisine, ropa vieja is loaded with both flavor and history to entertain your taste buds and your mind.

If you’re interested in this mouth-watering comfort food, keep reading to find out everything there’s to know about ropa vieja.

What is Ropa Vieja?

Ropa vieja is a hearty, nutritious, and delicious dish that’s popular all across Latin America. It’s the pride and joy of traditional Cuban cuisine, to the point that it’s considered the national dish of Cuba.

A humble and rustic dish, ropa vieja delivers some serious nutrition for the body and soul. More than a simple meat stew, ropa vieja is a dish that you can look forward to on a cold winter day to warm you up inside and out!

The most common version of ropa vieja is made with meat, shredded beef to be more specific. It also typically contains onions, peppers, and salsa de tomate.

Ropa vieja sounds very simple, but this combination of ingredients creates a unique flavor profile that can only be described as divine. As a highly versatile dish, you can serve ropa vieja with rice and beans or rice and tostones or just about anything that hits the right spot for your palette.

Ropa vieja is generally easy and affordable to make, but it demands quite a lot of time to get done. It comes in many variations as every country or region adds its own twist to the dish. But hey, we’re not complaining – the more, the merrier!

What does Ropa Vieja Mean?

Shredded Beef Traditional Cuban Dish
Shredded Beef Traditional Cuban Dish

As delicious and hearty as this popular meal is, the name ropa vieja does nothing to hint at the flavors or ingredients you expect to get from or find in the dish.

“Ropa vieja” literally translates to “old clothes”, which admittedly, doesn’t sound appetizing at all. However, the name ropa vieja does have a special background to it.

You see, one of the most common legends told about ropa vieja to explain its name is one of religion and miracle. The story goes like this:

Once upon a time in Spain, there was a poor man who struggled to put food on the table for his family. With no other way to feed their hungry mouths, the man took his old clothes, shredded them, and placed them in a pot with water.

The man started to boil the clothes, and as this inedible mixture simmered away, he prayed over the bubbling concoction for any sort of food to sustain his family. This is when a miracle took place.

When the poor man opened the pot, he found a delicious meal of meat and vegetable stew instead of his old clothes and water!

Although no one claims to know that it really happened, the legend still stands today to tell the tale of this famous Cuban dish.

The History of Ropa Vieja

Cuban Ropa Vieja and rice
Cuban Ropa Vieja and Rice

Now that you’ve had a glimpse into the world of ropa vieja, let’s take a closer look at the actual history of this rich, tasty stew.

The story we mentioned above is probably enhanced for added effect, but here’s a fact for you: the recipe for ropa vieja is more than 500 years old and first originated with the Sephardic Jews in the Iberian peninsula of Spain. Since cooking wasn’t allowed on the Sabbath, the Sephardi would slow-cook a nutritious, savory stew the night before.

That’s right, ropa vieja came about in Spain despite being so closely tied to Cuban cuisine. This dish historically arrived in Cuba from Spain (the Canary Islands to be exact) way back in the Middle Ages.

Spanish colonization introduced several cultural influences to the Americas, and when it came to food, ropa vieja was one of the recipes that stuck around most. Another clue that supported the claim of ropa vieja first originating in Spain is the dish’s presence in Filipino cuisine as the Philippines was a Spanish colony as well.

Still, you might be surprised to learn that the earliest documentation of ropa vieja in Cuba wasn’t until 1857 when a cookbook called Nuevo Manual del Cocinero Cubano y Español.

In addition to Cuba, ropa vieja also traveled to other parts of the Caribbean and eventually across Latin America, where each country added its own touch to the meal to create a characteristic version.

Unfortunately, the national dish of Cuba isn’t nearly as common as it used to be in Cuban kitchens because the government heavily restricted beef in the country starting from 1963.

The Cuban government, led by prime minister Fidel Castro, made it illegal for Cubans to eat or sell their own cattle. If they wanted to do so, they had to get permission from the state first.

This law was supposed to only be a temporary solution when the cow population in Cuba dropped by 20% as a result of failed crossbreeding and multiple natural disasters.

The law didn’t work, unfortunately, and the deficit is still a huge issue to date.

Variations of Ropa Vieja

Unlike the original Canarian version that’s very savory, Cuba’s version of ropa vieja has a hint of sweetness to it. Usually, this is achieved by the addition of bell peppers, and sometimes sugar is used to reach the right level of sweetness.

In the Philippines, ropa vieja is typically served with jasmine rice and fish sauce to give the dish an extra punch. There’s also a Puerto Rican version, a Mexican version, a Venezuelan version (known as pabellon), and a Panamanian version that’s commonly served with fried plantain chips.

Throughout the Caribbean, ropa vieja can be served with frijoles, rice, plantains, or all of them together. In the Canary Islands, the dish is accompanied by garbanzo beans and a generous serving of potatoes.

Additionally, ropa vieja lends itself nicely to the vegan world. Since it uses shredded beef, you can simply replace the meat with a vegan alternative such as king oyster mushroom or jackfruit.

The pods around the seeds of jackfruit very closely resemble the shredded fibers of flank steak. An advantage of cooking with jackfruit is that you can use different cooking tools and take less time to achieve the same texture and consistency.

Instead of adding the jackfruit directly to the sofrito, you can cook it separately until the jackfruit starts to fall apart then top it with the sofrito when you’re plating your ropa vieja.

How to Make Cuban Ropa Vieja

Classic Cuban Food, Ropa Vieja
Ropa Vieja & Rice

Start by collecting the following ingredients:

  • 2 pounds beef flank steak
  • 1 cup beef broth
  • 1 8-ounce can tomato sauce
  • 1 6-ounce can tomato paste
  • 1 small onion, sliced
  • 1 green bell pepper, seeded and sliced into strips
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon chopped fresh cilantro
  • tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon white vinegar

Once you have everything ready, heat the vegetable oil in a large pan over medium-high heat then brown the flank steak on each side for about 4 minutes per side.

Now move the beef to a slow cooker and pour in the beef broth and tomato sauce. Add the tomato paste, olive oil, onion, bell pepper, garlic, cumin, cilantro, and vinegar. Stir the mixture well then cover it and leave it to cook (on High for 4 hours or on Low for up to 10 hours). When ready, shred meat and serve with rice or tortillas.

Wrap Up

Traditional Ropa Vieja Cuban Dish Shredded Beef
Traditional Ropa Vieja Cuban Dish

There you have it, everything you need to know about ropa vieja so you can truly appreciate it the next time you indulge in a bowl of this hearty meal.

But whatever you do, make sure you save room for Tres Leches Cake, a not to be missed traditional Cuban dessert! ¡Ayqué rico!

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