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Ropa Vieja – Cuba National Dish – Day 81/Dish 46

April 6, 2010

Hello hungry adventurers!! Croatia was a treat to the eyes, the senses and the palate. Our next destination is Cuba, pronounced Koo-Bah’ like the sounds of wind and sea resonating from the mouth.

Sailing out of the Adriatic and Mediterranean Seas, we follow the currents towards the Caribbean Sea and the largest island there. Guarding the mouth of the Gulf of Mexico between Florida and the Yucatan Peninsula is the island of Cuba, land of revolutions and stalwart tropical champion of Communism. There has been more than 500 years of history filled with conquistadores, disease, cash crops, battles, pirates and revolutions. It would take a hearty tome to record all of it and we only have a brief stop. So we will get a small feel for the bigger story and leave it to the history books to tell the rest.

Cuba was first settled by Arawaks, Siboneys and Tainos who had migrated to the island from other parts of the Americas. In October of 1492 Christopher Columbus claimed the island for Spain. In 1511 Diego Velasquez de Cuellar founded Baracoa as the first settlement followed shortly thereafter by Habana (Havana) in 1515. Spanish dominion over the island resulted in the death by disease of nearly all the native inhabitants. This happened in many of the European settlements throughout the Americas. Native resistance to European illnesses did not exist to combat the germs of the Europeans, in much the same way that Europeans and Americans have not developed tolerance to tropical illnesses such as Malaria and Dengue Fever.

400 years of Spanish colonialism followed early settlement. In this time, the Spanish took advantage of agricultural circumstances and produced Tobacco, Bananas, Sugar and various other high demand cash crops for export to America and Europe.

At the beginning of the 1800’s Spain began to deal with increased defection by former colonies seeking their independence and autonomy. At first Cuba remained loyal to the Spanish crown. However with time, several resistance movements evolved and eventually Jose Marti’ launched his campaign to reclaim the island from the Spanish. Upon his death in the Battle of Dos Rios in 1895 Marti’ was immortalized as the hero of the nation. In the next decade, Cuba was the proverbial birdy batted back and forth between Spain and America in a global game of Badminton.

Revolution Square - Memorial to Jose Marti'

After the 1898 Spanish American War and the sinking of the USS Maine in Cubas waters, America settled a treaty with Spain turning over the island of Cuba and buying the territories of Guam, Puerto Rico and The Philippines. In 1902 American President Theodore Roosevelt who sided with the freedom fighters in Cuba granted the island autonomy with a clause allowing US intervention in policy.  An ammendment to this this treaty also leased the US Naval Base at Guantanamo to America. It still operates to this day.

Most Americans are at least partially aware of the events of the middle 1900’s in Cuba. After the second world war, Cuba enjoyed a period of popularity and became a center for wealthy Americans including many Hollywood Stars to vacation and gamble in Havanas famed casinos and nightclubs such as the Copacabana.

By 1956 communist interests had culminated with the arrival of Fidel Castro and his 82 armed revolutionaries. In a multi-year guerilla campaign from the mountains of the interior, Castro encouraged local men to join the cause and eventually, in 1958 Castro’s ragtag bunch fought their way into Havana and then sitting President Batista was ousted and fled to Portugal. This set up a 50 year ongoing struggle between the US and Cuba.

Fidel Castro and East German Leadership c. 1958

The Cuban Missile Crisis in 1963 brought the Western hemisphere to the brink of war. Now, 50 years later there is talk of ending the crippling embargo of Cuba. This would allow goods and people to travel to and from the island reuniting some families after nearly five decades.

The food of Cuba is similar to what you would expect from this area, with Spanish influences as well as influences of African descendants and native peoples. The national dish of Cuba is Ropa Vieja. Translated this means “old clothes” and is a stewed shredded beef cooked in a tomato and herb gravy and plated over rice.

I give this dish a 3 for difficulty. If you have to prepare the Sofrito ( I love this site) sauce that goes into the gravy, it will take a bit longer. Sofrito is a condiment that is regularly used in Cuban cuisine. I was able to find a premade jar of the condiment for speed, but fresh is best as they say. Goya produces a huge variety of spices and condiments that are used in Latin American cuisine. Check any Latino grocery for Goya products.

The true test of a great recipe is the aroma. You can smell it when it is good. The best way to do this is after it has been cooking for awhile, step outside for about 3 minutes to clear your palate. Then step back inside while taking a large deep breath through your nose. You should be able to pick out almost every ingredient. And you should salivate too!



Appearance: 3 out of 5

Aroma: 5 out of 5

Flavor: 4 out of 5

Total: 12 out of 15


2 1/2 lbs flank steak, cut in strips

5 tablespoons oil

2 1/2 teaspoons minced garlic or 5 cloves garlic, minced

1 large onion, diced

1 green pepper, diced

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1 (8 ounce) can tomato sauce

1 cup water

6 ounces sofrito sauce


Heat 3 tbsp. of oil in skillet on medium, brown the meat on all sides.

Remove from skillet, add remaining oil to skillet, stir in garlic, onion and green pepper and cook until translucent.

Stir in black pepper, browned meat, tomato sauce, water and sofrito.

Simmer until meat is tender and shreds easily, about 1-1.5 hours.

Serve on top of rice.

Serves 6

15 Comments leave one →
  1. April 6, 2010 10:32 pm

    hi it’s my first visit here…and I loved your post..I’m a history fan so to read the post was very lovely..great recipe


    • April 6, 2010 11:09 pm

      Hi Sweetlife,

      Welcome and thank you for leaving a comment! My granddad was a history teacher and he left an imprint on my heart when it comes to the stories that places tell thru the ages.

      I lived for 2 years in Miami and as such Cuba was a place that began to fascinate me. Many of my friends were Cubanos, some had arrived in the Mario Boat lift when Castro cleaned out the prisons.

      I wish I had more time to tell the story of Cuba. Too many Americans at least, do not understand the story and how conditions were ripe for the Revolucion. Our school books often disavow such things.

      Please come again and thanks for coming by.

      Eric – MyHungryTum

  2. April 7, 2010 7:59 am

    I have been wanting to visit Cuba for the longest time! I have dual citizenship so that would not be a problem, it is finding the time that is the problem! I especially want to visit now before the embargo gets lifted because I am sure that when it does it will be a matter of months and the island will be replete with mcdonalds and Starbucks and dunkin donuts.
    Other than that, thanks for the ropa vieja recipe; i had seen the recipe elsewhere but not explained so clearly.
    Also enjoyed reading your post on Croatia, my grandmother was from Dalmatia and I am interested in that part of the world and cooked an actopus risotto recently with the ink! (my kids loved it too)

    • April 7, 2010 9:29 am

      I couldn’t agree with you more about going before the embargo is lifted. On the other hand I do hope they lift it for the sake of the Cubans still living there. They will benefit in the short run if not the long run.

  3. Mara permalink
    April 7, 2010 8:06 am

    I was looking around for Cuban recipes and found your blog… thanks so much! I’ve been trying to prepare Latin American food lately and learning Spanish online at ( — it’s keeping me warm while it’s still so cold in Germany, even in April!! It’s cool to learn about the cuisine, history and language all in tandem.

    • April 7, 2010 10:33 am

      Good luck with all of your ventures! I have quite a few Latin dishes including some feasts posted. If you click the categories tab on the right side of the page and scroll down to Latin American Food you will find several. I hope you enjoy them and thanks for stopping by…


  4. April 7, 2010 9:24 am

    This looks so delicious! I wonder … it reminds me, consistency-wise, of pulled pork. Altering the presentation by placing mounds on slices of crunchy bread … perhaps a good tailgate offering … with a bowl of banana chips and cool sliced veggies, as you’ve presented… hmm. I know the national dish concept might be usurped here, but … I think I might try it! Baseball season has begun up here and the parties before games can be fun times to experiment on your friends!

  5. Lisa permalink
    April 7, 2010 10:38 am

    One of my very favorite dishes!!! Your presentation is yummy, and if served on top of Coconut white rice, the dish is to die for.

    One correction – It was the Mariel Boat Lift, not Mario, and Castro allowed a number of persons to leave Cuba, not just prisoners. I think the Wiki entry for the Mariel is pretty fair and should provide more details –

  6. April 7, 2010 10:47 am

    Thanks Lis, The dish was awesome. I knew Cuba would get some responses. It was one of the dishes I was most looking forward to cooking.

    I always say Mario, don’t know why. Stupid American I guess! 🙂 I appreciate the link and the info.

    Someday it would be cool if you got to come try one of these dishes with us. Ji has been missing you and Belize….

  7. veronika permalink
    June 20, 2011 7:00 pm

    all the random history has nothing to do with the dish D: i wanted the history of the actual food!

    • July 3, 2011 10:40 am

      Hello Veronika, Ii am glad you stopped by the blog. Sorry you didn’t care for the format. By way of response, I would say that there is usually very few written accounts documenting the history of a particular dish. Maybe some day I will figure out a way to do just what you said and study the specifics. As a hobby, I am interested in both the history and the food of a country. I feel that knowing the history of a place can often shed some light on the food itself, i.e war torn and impoverished places tend to have a higher amount of subsistence meals whereas wealthier and more peaceful places tend to have a wider diet including more proteins and fresh vegetables…

      Also the history lessons sometimes explain the migration of certain dishes around the world and that is really what I am going for in this blog.

      Thanks for your comment and I hope you stop back again…Eric

  8. Mary Jo Chavez permalink
    October 22, 2011 5:51 pm

    Hi Eric, I do want to try this recipe. It sounds delicious. First of all, I’m not the worlds greatest cook, so please tell me what sofrito sauce is, and where do I find it.
    When I was in California, I had a good Cuban friend named Merta, that I have lost contact with. She used to make Platano, (I’m not sure of the spelling), it was so good. Do you have the recipe for that? Enjoy your website!! Mary

  9. alphia permalink
    November 16, 2011 4:10 pm

    This is really useful…..because im doing a project on this topic……..:):):)

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