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Ropa vieja, which translates as "old clothes," refers to a shredded meat stew that may be accompanied by potatoes and garbanzo beans. Canary Islanders are credited with creating ropa vieja, though many countries that serve the dish claim to have invented it. However the Canary Islands was a waypoint for ships heading to the Americas, so it’s logical to assume that popularity of the dish spread from the Canary Islands to several Central American countries and to the Caribbean.
Though typical versions of ropa vieja contain flank steak or some form of beef, the dish may also be made with shredded pork or chicken. In most recipes, beef is slowly braised up to a day in advance. You can take out some of the work by preparing the meat in a slow cooker, which allows you to neglect it while you pursue your day’s activities.
When the meat is cooked and cooled, it is shredded and then cooked with spices like cumin and oregano, tomato sauce, paste or fresh tomatoes, onions, bell peppers and sometimes olives or pimentos. The dish can be simply served with rice, loaded into tortillas, or served in the traditional Canary Islander way with potatoes and beans.
The spices, onion and garlic give ropa vieja both a savory and slightly sweet taste. In fact, some recipes even call for a small amount of sugar to be added. Accompaniments with the dish often vary by country. Cuban ropa vieja may be garnished with pimentos and served over rice, or served with warmed tortillas, chopped cilantro and sour cream. Others may serve the dish with Spanish style rice and black beans.
There’s no clear inventor of this popular dish. Some connect it to several Middle Eastern dishes, which may certainly have influenced Spanish cuisine in earlier times. Origin stories are rather romantic and lovely. One that seems to be enjoyed on the Canary Islands is that of a very poor man attempting to feed his family, when he had no food. He proceeded to braise his old clothes, but since his act was done with so much love, the dish was transformed into something wonderful.
If you’d like to try making the dish, you’ll find many recipes online and in Caribbean and Central American cookbooks. You may also find South American recipes that are quite similar to ropa vieja, like the Venezuelan carne mechada. You may be able to sample ropa vieja at Caribbean, South American, Latin American and some Spanish restaurants.