While it translates as old clothes, the reality is a lot tastier than the name would suggest. The dish is made of shredded beef with peppers and onions in a tomato sauce, often served with white rice.
Ropa vieja stakes a claim to be Cuba’s national dish, but the whole history of the food is slightly more complicated, with roots in the colonial period. As the Spanish conquistadors set out to conquer Latin America, they brought their favourite foods with them.
In the case of Cuba, a lot of the new Spanish arrivals hailed from the Canary Islands, where ropa vieja had long been a popular dish. After they settled in Cuba, these colonizers continued to cook ropa vieja. The tradition has lasted for generation after generation, and now Cubans regard ropa vieja as a national dish.
The geographical journey might be easy enough to trace, but the story of its invention requires a little more imagination. The legend of ropa vieja is that a man didn’t have any money to feed his family, so he shredded and cooked his clothes. As the mixture bubbled away, he started to pray, and the clothes turned into a meat stew that he could give to his family. Believe it or not, it makes a great story.
At the same time it’s important to note that ropa vieja isn’t only found in Spain and Cuba. Colonizers from the Canary Islands also settled in other parts of the Caribbean, perhaps explaining why today slightly different versions of ropa vieja are also found in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.
Look out for the delicious dish on your trip to Cuba, and make sure to share its history with your friends.