A History Of Ropa Vieja, One Of Cuba’s Most Famous (And Forbidden) National Dishes

On a cold winter day, what is better than coming home to a huge bowl of Cuban ropa vieja? If you’ve ever had this delicious dish, you know how hearty and nutritious it is: more than a simple meat stew, ropa vieja is the bread and butter of Cuban cuisine, offering some serious nutrition for the body and soul. Made with shredded beef, onions, peppers, and salsa de tomate, it sounds simple, but it’s got a complex and multilayered history that is sure to make your mouth water.

Ropa vieja is widely regarded as a Cuban national dish, though it is popular all throughout the Caribbean.

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As is the case with most things food and beverage, it’s difficult to trace the exact origins of ropa vieja—with its strikingly simple and straightforward ingredients, one might argue that ropa vieja is just a clever term for a basic meal. The name “ropa vieja” translates to “old clothes,” and legend has it that a poor old man once shredded and cooked the clothes off his back in order to feed his hungry family. As the clothes simmered away, the man prayed, and they transformed into a meal of meat and vegetables that would cure his family’s hunger. Of course, this is a slightly fantastical origin story, though ropa vieja—with its salt-of-the earth ingredients—is definitely the kind of dish that would support a working man’s lifestyle.

Although Cuba’s identity is undeniably entwined with ropa vieja, the dish actually originated in the Canary Islands of Spain, dating back to the Middle Ages. Colonization brought several Spanish influences to the Americas, and ropa vieja was one such thing—however, the earliest documentation of ropa vieja‘s presence in Cuba did not appear until 1857, in a cookbook titled Nuevo Manual del Cocinero Cubano y Español. But another indication that ropa vieja originated in Spain is its presence in Filipino cuisine (the Philippines were also a Spanish colony).

Of course, in addition to Cuba, ropa vieja started to emerge in other parts of the Caribbean (and eventually throughout Latin America), with each country creating its own characteristic version.

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Unlike the Canarian version, which is highly savory, Cuba’s version has a sort of sweet undertone, which is usually achieved through the use of bell peppers (sometimes sugar is even added to ensure the proper amount of sweetness). In the Philippines, ropa vieja is usually enhanced with fish sauce and served with white jasmine rice. It’s served in Puerto Rico, Venezuela (where it’s known as pabellon), and Panama. And throughout the Caribbean, ropa vieja is characteristically served with frijoles, arroz, platanos, or all of the above. In the Canary Islands, it’s complemented primarily with garbanzo beans and a hefty serving of potatoes.

Ropa vieja is still a household staple throughout Spain. Back in the day, ropa vieja existed as a way to take advantage of leftovers whenever a Spanish stew—like a garbanzo-based puchero or cocida—was cooked. Puchero was typically made in the morning, and the meat used to flavor the stock would be turning to shreds by the time lunch came around. Cooks would strain the meat from the soup and saute it with a sofrito base of onions, peppers, garlic, tomato paste, and other seasonings. Then, garbanzo beans from the soup were then added to the meat and voila! Ropa vieja. And even though the quality of life in contemporary Spain doesn’t necessarily require such thrifty approaches to cooking, people often still prepare extra meat so that they can make ropa vieja the following day.

Unfortunately, ropa vieja is not nearly as common in Cuban kitchens as it once was, as beef is heavily restricted by the government.

“Ropa vieja, and beef in general, are meals reserved for the rich and tourists, two words that may as well be in interchangeable in a country with an average monthly salary of about $20,” Eli Francovich wrote in an article for AP News. “What tourists eat in Cuban restaurants and homes is very different than what the average Cuban eats, he said. The vegetables and meats served to foreigners aren’t available in the stores where normal Cubans shop.”

In 1963, Fidel Castro and the Cuban government made it illegal for Cubans to eat or sell their own cattle—in order to do so, they must first get permission from the state. The law started out as a temporary solution to a 20% deficit in the nation’s cows from unsuccessful cross-breeding and a series of natural disasters. The law aimed to restore the nation’s herds to pre-revolution levels when there was roughly one cow for each person. 

The law didn’t work, though. As of 2015, there were 30% fewer Cuban cattle than in 1958. And today, Cubans are still suffering from this de facto state monopoly.

So, the next time you indulge in a plate of ropa vieja, try to acknowledge what a privilege it is to enjoy this dish. Que aproveches!

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