A recipe for Cuba's national dish, ropa vieja, or rags, from the new book "Cuban Flavor"

Liza Gershman's "Cuban Flavor" is an guide to a unique cuisine with Spanish, French, Haitian and Chinese influences

Published May 30, 2018 6:00PM (EDT)

Ropa Vieja (Skyhorse Publishing)
Ropa Vieja (Skyhorse Publishing)

Excerpted with permission from Cuban Flavor: Exploring the Island’s Unique Places, People, and Cuisine by Liza Gershman. Copyright 2018 by Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.

The story of Cuban cuisine is as diverse as its traditions and cultures. Colonized by the Spanish, and later the French, and built up by slaves from Africa and Haiti, as well as a population of Chinese immigrants, Cuba has a food culture with flavors that most closely resemble those found in Puerto Rico and the neighboring Dominican Republic. However, Cuba has a history and figurative spice all of its own.

Cuban Flavor

While rice and beans are staples of the Cuban diet, their cuisine is such a complex story—a tapestry of love and loss, woven so deeply into their culture going far beyond history or sustenance. To those of us more fortunate, Cuban cuisine can appear as a stroke of luck served up on a beautiful platter.

During the most difficult times in Cuba, known as the Special Period, opulent meals were served only to the elite connected to the government, while others sat by and starved. It was a time of great economic crisis in Cuba that began in 1989 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, (and their financial support of Cuba), and continued through the mid-to-late nineties. During this time, Cubans suffered greatly and endured shortages in fuel, food, and other resources. For many, a piece of bread with sugar was sustenance for the day.

When I first visited Cuba in 2003, to my great disappointment, every meal was the same. We ate plain chicken, rice, and beans. Cuba was in a difficult financial period, and tourism had yet to really take hold. Since then, the cuisine has greatly transformed. A burgeoning connection to ingredients and spices inevitably brings European, Asian, and Latin flavors to the island, and chefs now have an opportunity to experiment with flavors through an increasingly hungry tourist population, with an insatiable appetite for more.

Today, the food situation in Cuba is incredibly complex. Despite the increased access to food in this changing cultural and political landscape, most locals still rely on monthly food rations. Food excesses that we are so accustomed to in the developed world (including fine dining) continue to be a privilege of the new generation of elites—now the entrepreneurs of tourism—and to their clientele.

Paladares, or privately run restaurants, became legal in the 1990’s. Often set up as home-based restaurants when they began out of private residences (once a simple affair with one, two, or three tables set in the owner’s living room or anywhere else that they could fit), paladares enabled Cubans to earn money through private enterprise, which can be significantly greater than a salary from a government or state-run job. Now with the large demand from tourism and laws that passed in 2010, which allowed the paladares to run more like a modern restaurant rather than it resembling a meal cooked in a friend’s grandmother’s home, paladares have sprouted up around the country and are not just found in proprietor’s homes, but also function as regular restaurants as well.

For the thriving paladares, food supply is also hard to come by, and items like lobster and spices must be purchased through a black market system. Some make purchases through the Cuban version of Craigslist,, while others barter with friends and suppliers they have come to know. But getting caught with something that is too “special,” like dried cranberries on a salad (an item that has clearly been provided from someone coming from abroad) will raise eyebrows and put the chef in jeopardy. Every Cuban can tell you a daily tale of how they came to access the food in their kitchen. Imagine: a daily chore of searching for food, even if you had the financial wherewithal to purchase it.

Stocking a Cuban home kitchen remains one of the biggest challenges of daily life as the average Cuban lives with a startling food scarcity that one can only describe as cruel. Havana, after all, is a city of two million people before tourists even touch the ground. While tourists dine at any of the estimated 1,700 paladares on the island, food prices for locals soar. Not only is there a dearth of product (both produce and meat alike), but also the prices from competition are impossible for local families to match. Much of the existing food supply is quickly taken by the restaurants, and what little remains for locals is of poor quality at a high price. Given that an average Cuban makes the equivalent of $25 a month, and $45 for a professional job (like an engineer or a doctor), the price of dining at a paladar, where meals can cost just as much, is simply impossible. Cuba has always existed in an us-versus-them paradigm, and food is the surest proof that this continues to exist.

In a typical Cuban home kitchen, you’ll find tools from the 1950s like pressure cookers and rice cookers, broken utensils, dull knives, and mismatched china. It’s a wonder that anyone can actually cook. But the resilience of the Cuban people perfumes each savory dish, as always. Meat, when available, is most often served stewed or slow-cooked with garlic, onion, and simple spices. The island’s signature dish, the delicious Ropa Vieja, or “rags,” is shredded meat that has been simmered in a tomato-based criollo sauce. Traditional Cuban sauces nearly always contain oil, onions, red paprika, or aji cachucha (the little sweet-spicy pepper found in local produce markets). However, even these simple items can be difficult to find because of chronic problems in food supply, and occasional acute food shortages. As a result, Cubans are deeply resourceful people, not only in the search for what is available on any given day, but also in their neighborly sharing economy, which plays itself out as a deep cultural understanding and celebration of what it is to live in the moment.

Adding complication to an already difficult situation is a government, which imposes capricious, shifting regulations for every aspect of economic life. Cuba’s rules and regulations are constantly in flux, followed with extreme corruption and a prosperous black market that locals must depend on to live their daily lives. Each Cuban is given a monthly ration book by the government for food, to provide for basics like rice and sugar, beans and eggs; however, these rations do not provide for meat or produce. The ration amount is sufficient for only twenty days or less, which is most often not enough to feed a family for the entire month. Even top restaurants depend on supplies from the black market in order to provide enough food for nightly guests.

Additionally, a main contributing factor to the current food shortage is the illogical and seemingly draconian regulation prohibiting farmers from the countryside from importing their goods into the capital’s local markets. Only allowed to sell to private restaurants, farmers waste much of their produce, while the local people go without food. As with anything else in Cuba, enforcement is key to maintaining strict regulations, and there are considerable amounts of police patrolling the highways to ensure that this farm distribution cannot occur.

Markets are often empty of products, and residents may have to spend an entire day searching for something as basic and essential to their diet as chicken or pork. Government-run bakeries, grocery stores, and markets simply cannot sustain the demand with the current food production on the island that now includes an increasing tourist population to boot.

Why not fish from the bountiful sea, you ask? The gulf stream is home to marlin and the large fish called pargo (a prized local snapper). However, Cubans are forbidden from stepping foot onto any boat without express consent from the government, and those who are fortunate enough to have this luxurious privilege are very few and far between. While the Havana harbor was once an ideal spot for boats, it is now too shallow for modern shipping vessels. Additionally, the majority of fishermen that remain are elderly; there is a consistent fuel shortage; and most of the working boats on the island left for Florida a long time ago.

While food in Cuba isn’t nearly as diverse as that of more international Latin American or Caribbean cultures, the cuisine in restaurants is changing rapidly as owners and chefs are influenced by international visitors’ ideas, and the newly-found global influences on Cuban cuisine are beginning to yield interesting results.

We can only hope that this resurgence of cuisine in Havana can bless the tables of the average home, and that the people’s access to, and relationship with food, continues to grow. As additional restaurants flourish and sustain themselves through increased tourism, the demand for farming and produce will increase as well. One hopes that the overall population will in turn benefit in the bounty.

I was in Cuba during President Obama’s easing of regulations and the landing of the first commercial flights from the US in more than fifty years. I arrived only hours after Fidel Castro’s death and partook in his mesmerizing funeral, surrounded by a million grieving Cubans. I also stood arm-in-arm with my Cuban friends as the news of President Trump’s travel restrictions were announced. Cuba’s tourism is ever-changing and rapidly evolving, but also slowing. It is an enigma, an energetic whirlwind, and the future is only a guess. Growth and transition foster the seed of invention and innovation, and food is often where these shifts begin.



Ropa Vieja  or rags

The national dish of Cuba, “rags” or ropa vieja, is savory and delectable. When spices are few and far between, this dish’s peppers bring forward a wonderfully light flavor. Traditional ropa vieja is made with flank steak because that cut of beef is best for shredding, but a more flavorful top sirloin works just as well.

Serves 6


2 lb flank steak

Salt and pepper, to taste

1 yellow onion, diced

1 tsp garlic, minced

1 can (28 oz) diced tomatoes

½ cup water

1 red bell pepper, thinly sliced

1 green bell pepper, thinly sliced

1 jalapeño, seeded and thinly sliced

½ tsp dried oregano

½ tsp cumin powder

1 bayleaf

½ cup green olives, halved

2 tsp capers (optional)

1 bsp cilantro, chopped (optional)

Serve with: Rice


Generously season the flank steak with salt and pepper.

Combine onion, garlic, tomatoes and their juices, water, bell peppers, jalapeño, oregano, cumin, and bay leaf in a slow cooker. Add the flank steak, cover, and cook on low for 8 hours.

Remove the meat and let it rest approximately 10 minutes. Discard the bay leaf and stir in the olives, capers (optional), and cilantro (optional).

Shred the meat into fine strips and add it back into the sauce. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Serve hot over a bed of rice.

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