HAVANA, CUBA – On my first night in Cuba’s capital city I ate ropa vieja, the braised beef so tender it nearly melted with each bite, a cliché well-employed in this particular instance.
A Cuban band played to my left. To the right a street bustled with all the energy and hustle of a city of 2 million.
It was one of those rare, transcendent meals that I will likely remember until I die. Live music, warm, tobacco-scented air, novelty (I had landed in the country just hours before) and the company (a friend I hadn’t seen in years) perfectly proportioned.
And the meal.
Ropa vieja, which literally means old clothes, didn’t originate in Cuba, instead coming from the Canary Islands, according to Ana Sofía Peláez, the author of “The Cuban Table.” However, it’s as associated with Cuba as daiquiris or old Fords.
It’s a savory dish made with beef, onions, spearmint and, in some instances, fully ripe red bell peppers that add a sweetness that is sometimes replicated with sugar (see recipe below).
Accompanied with rice, banana chips, beans and a cold beer (or rum) it’s a complete gustatory experience.
And so, I was drowsy and full when my dinner companion burst my sated reverie.
“Normal Cubans can’t eat that,” he said, pointing at the remnants of my meal.
And he was right, to an extent. Ropa vieja, and beef in general, are meals reserved for the rich and tourists, two words that may as well be in interchangeable in a country with an average monthly salary of about $20.
Later, back in the United States, I emailed a Cuban man who works in tourism and asked him if ropa vieja, and beef more broadly, were luxury items.
It’s more than a luxury, he said, calling it “almost divine.”
“Lobster, shrimp and beef are like a fantasy that only happens maybe once a year for 90% of the families in Cuba,” the man, who asked that I not use his name, said in the email.
I ate all three numerous times during my 17-day trip.
What tourists eat in Cuban restaurants and homes is very different than what the average Cuban eats, he said. The vegetables and meats served to foreigners aren’t available in the stores where normal Cubans shop.
The reasons for this are varied and complicated and touch on the contentious political and economic history of the island nation and its neighbor, the United States.
Like many islands, Cuba struggles with self-sufficiency, relying heavily on foreign imports (think of Hawaii’s famously high prices). It hasn’t helped that Cuba has had, for much of its history, only one game in town: sugarcane.
For centuries sugar has been Cuba’s great strength and weakness. As a Spanish colony nearly the only thing Cuba grew or produced was sugar; it was sent all across the world reaping huge profits for Spain and the owners while the work itself was done by slaves and the poor.
This dependence continued after Cuba won its independence from Spain and fell into the orbit (and military control) of the United States. Companies such as Hershey had feudal-like power, building and running entire towns; to this day there is a Hershey, Cuba.
During WWII, Cuba benefited from the destruction and/or temporary closure of other sugar producing nations.
But the war ended, and Cuba found itself with more sugar than it could sell and no agricultural base to provide actual food. As sugar prices plummeted, poverty prevailed.
This mono-culture boom-bust cycle meant that self-determination and self-sufficiency, particularly around food, were defining goals of the revolution.
“One of our greatest causes of economic dependence on the United States is sugar, and it is imperative that we diversify our production and our markets,” Fidel Castro said in a 1959 speech.
That wasn’t to be. After the 1959 revolution the U.S. imposed an embargo on Cuba. That combined with the U.S. financed and orchestrated invasion at the Bay of Pigs, pushed the Cubans firmly into the lap of the Soviet Union.
The Soviets bought sugar at well above market value and sold Cuba food and supplies on the cheap. By 1980 Cuba was the world’s third largest sugar producer, according to a 2015 Newsweek article.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, Cuba lost its main export and import partner, leaving the nation again with too much sugar and not enough food.
Famine swept the country and Castro announced new restrictions, euphemistically dubbing it the “Special Period.” During that time the average Cuban lost about 12 pounds, according to a 2013 paper.
“A generation grew up craving eggs, and when they were obtained, the shells were ground into powder and mixed with sugar water,” longtime Cuban-based journalist Marc Frank wrote in his book “Cuban Revelations.”
And what does any of this have to do with braised beef on a sultry Havana night?
During the “Special Period” Castro changed some long-standing rules. In particular he allowed more tourists into Cuba. This brought money and some European investment to the country but it also meant Cuba had to attract tourists. And that meant allowing tourists to do and eat things Cubans couldn’t.
In 1963 Castro and the Cuban government made it illegal for Cubans to kill their cows without state permission. The law was intended to be temporary after a hurricane killed 20% of the nation’s cows. The goal was to restore the nation’s herds to pre-revolution levels when there was, roughly, one cow for every person.
It did not work. The cow population continued to decline and the “you can’t kill your cow” law persisted. As of 2015, there were 30% fewer Cuban cows than there were in 1958.
That can be partially blamed on the longstanding U.S. embargo. During the early ’90s, for instance, the U.S. maintained the embargo despite widespread malnutrition, hoping the Cuban government would collapse under the pressure.
But, the shortage of beef and other food items can’t be blamed only on the embargo.
Instead, the law is a perfect representation of the various levels of bureaucracy that exist in Cuba, Frank writes. In order to enforce the rule, the Cuban government had everyone register each cow. Then, the state created a cattle inspector whose job it was to make sure no one was killing cows, or rearing unregistered cows, without permission.
Of course, the cattle inspector was an easily bribed and corrupted job. So, an inspector of the inspector position was created, and so on.
“Many other Cuban secrets can be unlocked by the ‘you can’t kill your cow law,’ ” Frank writes.
Lines are still a prominent feature in Cuba. I saw lines for food, for gasoline and for internet access while traveling in Cuba.
This is changing. Starting in 2007, Raúl Castro (Fidel’s younger brother), introduced numerous agrarian reforms intent on reducing the bureaucracy and inefficiencies of the past. Now, roughly 70% of the country’s farmable lands is owned privately, according to a 2015 paper.
Nearly at the same time the U.S., under President Obama, eased restrictions on travel and business to Cuba. Most of those U.S. reforms remain in place despite President Trump’s campaign promises to remove them.
This entire history was colliding on my plate and mixing in my palate that night in Havana. Although I didn’t know it then I’ve learned more about that meal (and the meals that followed) since my return to the U.S. And, in that process one of the real powers of food and travel has crystallized in my mind.
In the United States, Cuba has long been portrayed as a totalitarian regime, one that squashes dissent and – through its policies and politics – has destroyed its own economy. There is some truth there. But, it’s fantastically more complicated than my high school textbooks or the political rhetoric of Florida-pandering politicians makes it out to be.
This information was all available before me visiting Cuba.
But it wouldn’t have connected in the same way. It would have remained dry knowledge unaccompanied by experience and flavor. I can nearly taste the sweet beef, feel the crunch of the banana chips and hear the music. The rhythms and sensations of that meal echo in my head.
So, when you make ropa vieja, consider the history, the politics and the economics of this dish and the place we have in it all.
This recipe comes from the book “The Cuban Table.” The authors, Sofía Peláez and Ellen Silverman, traveled extensively through Cuba and Miami researching the recipes. It’s available at the library or online.
Ingredients for the braised beef:
2 pounds flank steak or brisket cut into 4 pieces
1 large yellow onion, quartered
1 large carrot, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
1/2 red cabbage, quartered
1/2 small bunch fresh flat-leaf parsley, trimmed 1-inch above the stems, tender leaves kept aside for the garnish
2 sprigs spearmint
4 large garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon whole cloves
2 dried bay leaves
Ingredients for the ropa vieja:
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 large yellow onion, thinly sliced
1 large green bell pepper, stemmed, cored, seeded and thinly sliced
4 large garlic cloves, peeled
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1 large pinch ground cloves
1 1/2 cups canned tomato puree
1/4 dry white wine
1 dried bay leaf
1 cup roasted red peppers, sliced
Shredded beef as prepared above
Fresh flat-leaf parsley, leaves and tender stems finely chopped
To prepare the beef place all ingredients for the beef in a 4- to 5-quart pot with 6 cups of water. Bring to boil and then maintain on a low simmer and cook, covered, for 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
Allow the beef to cool in the broth then drain and set aside 1/2 cup of the broth. Remove the beef and shred by hand. Set aside.
To prepare the ropa vieja heat the oil in a 10-inch skillet over medium heat. Add onion and green pepper and sauté until the onion is soft and translucent, 6 to 8 minutes. Mash the garlic, salt, black pepper, allspice and cloves into a paste using a mortar and pestle. Add the garlic paste to the skillet and cook until fragrant for about 2 minutes.
Add the 1/2 cup of reserved broth, tomato puree, wine and bay leaf and return to a simmer. Stir in the shredded beef and reduce heat to low and cook covered for 15 to 20 minutes. Stir in the roasted red peppers. Sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve over rice.
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