Ropa vieja is the big-deal dish at Emily Gonzalez’s Thanksgiving Day family feast every year in Chicago. A college senior majoring in healthcare marketing, Emily reports they decided to ditch the turkey more than 20 years ago and reimagine the day around traditional dishes steeped in their Cuban and Mexican heritage. Emily’s mom’s family is from Havana and her father‘s people are from Guanajuato.
Instead of the expected turkey, the star of their Turkey Day mesa is Cuba’s national dish. Made with shredded beef braised in a tomato sauce with onions, bell peppers, garlic, and lots of spices, “ropa vieja is associated with family gatherings and special occasions, such as birthdays and holidays,” says Emily. “It brings us together in the kitchen because of its multistep process, such as shredding the meat. Ropa vieja is an enjoyable experience that strengthens connections and bonds between my family.”
For their sides, Emily, who is 22, and her sisters make more of their favorite Cuban recipes: stewed black beans, congrí rice, boiled yuca with garlic and lemon, a fresh green salad with lots of avocado and tomato slices, and sweet pastelitos de guayaba for dessert. Their go-to appetizer, shrimp empanadas, is the day’s sole nod to their Mexican roots. That side of the family’s comida culture takes the lead every Christmas, when the Gonzalezes make tamales, arroz con leche, pozole, and other Mexican favorites for their Noche Buena dinner.
But on Thanksgiving, it’s all about “ropa vieja, which is deeply rooted in our culture and history,” says Emily Gonzalez, with mucho pride. “According to my grandfather, the dish traces its roots back to the Spanish influence on Cuban cuisine. Its name, which means ‘old clothes‘ in Spanish, always surprises my friends when I tell them it is one of my favorite Cuban dishes, derives from the shredded texture of the beef, which looks like worn-out clothing. It has been passed down through generations, contributing to the cultural identity of Cuba, and can be found in Cuban American restaurants around the world.”
How to Cook Ropa Vieja
The trick to making truly great ropa vieja is to let the beef braise over low heat for hours. The recipe calls for flank steak, which can be a tough cut. But let it simmer long and slow, and the meat turns tender and starts to breaks down, releasing layers of flavor. Add tomato sauce, bell peppers, onions and garlic, and the dish becomes one of her all-time mouthwatering favorites, says Emily. “Ropa vieja is a testament to the Cuban kitchen’s resourcefulness. It is traditionally made from leftover meat. This showcases our ability to create delicious meals with minimal ingredients.”
Best of all, it’s easy, Emily adds. People think it’s ”a time-consuming dish, but it’s one of the simplest one-pot meals you can make. In our family, we even use an instant pot to make preparing it even simpler. The ropa vieja love continues into the rest of the Thanksgiving weekend. ”We savor any leftovers by making tacos de ropa vieja the next day, as the delicious flavors remain!
“Ropa vieja is more than just food. It’s a family affair that takes me back home, no matter where I am.”