Ropa Vieja literally means ‘old clothes’ which the dish can claim to resemble, if you use your imagination. It is the national dish of Cuba. According to a fun legend associated with the dish, a man who had no money and desperate to feed his family, started cooking his shredded clothes as he had nothing else to cook. He kept praying while the clothes cooked and tada… his old clothes turned into a delicious stew!
Though the national dish of Cuba, its origin story starts from the Iberian peninsula, in modern day Spain.The jewish community there used to prepare this slow cooked stew for sabbath. From there it spread to the seafaring Canary Islands and north Africa. Sailors from Canary Islands took the preparation to Cuba and the rest of the Caribbean.
Ropa Vieja has a history of 500 years. Of course, originally it was cooked with beef, but ropa vieja can be cooked with pork or chicken thighs as well. I have used pork for this recipe simply because I have been cooking with beef a lot in the past few days and wanted a change.
A dish that has travelled so far, over so long a time, is bound to have some variations, especially when its footprint is spread over geographically separated areas like the Caribbean. That holds too true for ropa vieja, with versions being cooked all over the central and south Americas.
The olives and capers give the dish a bit of tartness, while the mix of peppers and onion gives it lots of color. This is the kind of dish that I cook in a large batch as it tastes better the next day.
Ropa vieja is usually served with cooked rice and black beans. And fried strips of plantains. Rolled up in a tortilla is good too.
R is for Ropa Vieja
- Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a largish pan over medium heat.
- Add the sliced peppers, onion, garlic, cumin and bay leaves to the pan. Season with salt and pepper.
- Stir together and cook till the vegetables are tender and the liquids have evaporated. Keep stirring till it is ready to prevent browning and sticking, about 25 minutes. Set aside when done.
- Season the meat well with salt and pepper.
- Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil to the pan. When the oil is hot, add the meat pieces to the pan in a single layer. Brown the meat on all sides, turning as required, about 8 to 10 minutes. This can be done in batches.
- When all the meat has been browned, add the peppers and onions mix to the browned meat in the pan, along with any previous batches of meat.
- Add the olives, capers, tomatoes, and stock. Mix well, stirring and scraping up any bits stuck to the bottom of the pan. Season with salt and pepper.
- Bring to a boil and reduce the heat to simmer. Cover with a lid, slightly open so that it doesn’t overflow. Continue cooking, checking on the liquid occasionally and stirring to prevent sticking. If you see there is not enough liquid, add a half cup of water to the pan.
- Continue cooking till the meat is tender and shreds easily when poked with a fork, about 2 hours for pork. Check the seasoning.
- Shred the meat using two forks and mix well. Serve with cooked rice and black beans.