While it may be Cuba’s national dish, Ropa Vieja traces its origins to Sephardic Jewish traditions in Spain and North Africa dating back 500 years. As Jewish law demands no cooking or physical activity on the Sabbath, Jews made this slow-cooked meat the night before so it would be tender, flavorful, and ready to enjoy on the day of rest.
By the time the dish made it to Cuba in the mid-19th century, it had acquired a charming fable to explain its peculiar name. According to lore, a hungry pauper desperate to feed his family threw old clothes into a boiling pot. As he prayed for sustenance, the old clothes miraculously changed into real meat stew. Perhaps this fabled story alludes to the resourcefulness of the Jews and Cuban cooks who succeeded them. After all, transforming tough, otherwise inedible cuts of meat into a sumptuous, hearty meal is a miraculous feat.
Many modern recipes add Mediterranean-inspired ingredients like green olives, peas, capers, and chopped parsley to honor Ropa Vieja’s Iberian roots. In Spain’s Canary Islands, garbanzos and potatoes are added to the stew instead of Cuban’s classic congri accompaniment.