Ropa Vieja: What Makes The Cuban Meat Stew Unique?

Cuban cuisine is famous for its flavorful mixture of traditional Spanish dishes with Caribbean flavors and ingredients. While most people have enjoyed a really good Cuban sandwich before, that's definitely not where the country's cuisine ends and there are plenty of other traditional Cuban dishes you need to try before you die. A great place to start when exploring the island nation's cuisine is with a delicious ropa vieja — Cuba's national dish. Ropa vieja, literally "old clothes" in Spanish, is a type of stew that is traditionally made with tomato gravy and flank steak that is shredded to look like pieces of old cloth.

But don't let the unappetizing name fool you, this isn't any regular old stew. In fact, ropa vieja is quite different from a classic English stew or German goulash because of its punchy bright flavors and the way it is served. Also, while both of those European stews are often made with beef, ropa vieja can be made with many types of meats, including beef, pork, lamb, or chicken. 

The unique ingredients used in ropa vieja

The main aspect of ropa vieja that makes it so unique and versatile comes down to its base broth. While most ropa vieja recipes often start with beef bouillon or beef broth, many also call for either a bunch of fresh tomatoes or tomato sauce. These tomatoes then add an acidic fresh flavor to the broth, which helps it go well with both red and white meats. You can even make a vegan ropa vieja using shredded soy curls and vegetable broth.

Also, many stews call for root vegetables like carrots and potatoes as the costars to the main protein, but this punchy Cuban stew with its lighter flavors often includes diced red and green bell peppers and stuffed olives. The bell peppers bring a vegetal sweetness, while the stuffed olives add a salty kick. Some recipes call for capers in addition to, or in place of, olives. Then, when everything has been cooked, the dish is normally finished off with a handful of bright green chopped cilantro to pull everything together.

How to serve ropa vieja

Besides the ingredients and flavor of ropa vieja being different from many traditional stews, this Cuban specialty is also served distinctly from other stews you may have tried before. With the light and acidic flavors of ropa vieja, forget mashed potatoes and buttered bread. Instead, this gravy and meat dish shines best when served over plain white rice or black beans and rice. Another option is to mix everything together and eat it all inside a tortilla.  

The most traditional side dish to serve alongside ropa vieja is plantains. One way to enjoy these banana-like fruits is as fried sweet plantains, also known as maduros. They make the perfect side for ropa vieja because they add a light sweetness to cut the spiced tomato broth. You can also enjoy them green and unripe, when they're smashed and fried to make tostones. While plantains aren't sold in every grocery store, they are a common ingredient in Latin American and Caribbean cuisine and can be easily found in specialty grocery stores or ordered online.