Tasty, traditional, and definitely Cuban, the Ropa Vieja has quite an interesting history…
Ropa Vieja dates back to hispanic culture where the dish was originally made as a stew and through continuously adding leftovers, the meal would stretch out for days. Variations of the recipe also stem from the Canary Islands where vegetables became more prominent (2). When this meal was carried over to Cuba, it quickly became popular and was soon named Cuba’s national dish. Now, Ropa Vieja is considered a comfort food for nearly every household.
Although the Ropa Vieja recipe has many delicious variations, the translation of the name does not exactly provide the most appetizing description. Directly translated from Spanish, “Ropa Vieja” literally means old clothes. The common tale goes like this:
There was once a poor man who didn’t have enough money to feed his family. When the man became desperate, he took his old clothes and started to boil them. While cooking the clothes with much love and many prayers, the stew suddenly turned into a delicious dish with beef and vegetables (1).
With this inspiring tale, the meal became a tradition in nearly every family. In Cuba, Ropa Vieja became popular on farms and plantations. While everyone would work out in the field, the grandparents would marinate the beef in vinegar or vino seco (a dry white wine) sauce and then slow cook the beef all day.3 This technique created a shredded and tattered appearance to the meat– once again alluding to the tattered and messy appearance of old clothes. The beef would be served with other vegetables as well, creating a sort of Cuban pot roast.
Here at Danzón Cubano, our Ropa Vieja includes many of Cuba’s various cultural culinary influences such as Latin American, Spanish, African, and Carribean while still preserving the original ways.
Similar to the traditional process, Chef Will Campbell has the beef marinated in a red wine and tomato sauce. Other flavors and ingredients included in this marinara are olive brine to help “deepen the flavor”, sofrito (including garlic, red and green peppers), white pepper, cumin, smoked paprika, oregano, and bay leaf. With the cumin and smoked paprika seasonings hailing from Spain and the red wine “driv[ing] the flavor forward” and providing a “more savory flavor profile”, the marinating process is truly a cultural experience alone (3). Chef Campbell explains that these essential flavors “elevate the dish” for a fuller culinary experience*.
After marinating the beef, it is slow roasted for several hours to ensure the meat is cooked all the way through. As Chef Campbell explains, “if I start Ropa Vieja at 9 in the morning, it probably doesn’t get done until 5 in the evening,” literally making the creation of this dish a 9 to 5 job.3 Once the meat is ready, it is carved and combined with the
marinate once again to complete the Ropa Vieja.
Once the beef marinate sauce is ready, it’s placed atop the fufu. This fufu is essentially “a nod to [Cuba’s] West African heritage and culture.” 3 Fufu originates from West African slave meals and is made through a combination of salt brine, or chicken broth if it was available, and boiled plantains. Occassionally, other variations use sweet potatoes, or tropical root vegetables such as yucca or malanga. Soon, this plantain and broth mixture is transformed into a creamy African version of mashed potatoes.
Basically the Danzón Cubano Ropa Vieja is “soft, chewy, and crispy all in one plate” with African, Carribean, Spanish, and Cuban influences. Starting from the bottom, the African plantain fufu creates a foundation for the Ropa Vieja with a sweeter flavor and softer texture. The Ropa Vieja is then propped on top with all of its beef and vegetables. Next, the dish is completed with crispy malanga to “help stack the flavors” and textures. And lastly, local microgreens, such as beat and amaranth, are sprinkled around the plate to assist in the color contrast. Chef Campbell mentions that this texture contrast allows for truly “lovely bites” with the “pleasantly chewy” meat, “savory wine and tomato sauce”, and the “crispy contrast with
the malanga.” 3
Overall, the Ropa Vieja is truly a cultural and culinary experience. Next time you come in, try our Ropa Vieja and take a trip through family traditions and Cuban history with this heart warming dish.
Written by Lana Freitas