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Cooking Up Spain’s Jewish Past

Medieval Sephardic recipes come out of hiding at La Vara, a new restaurant in Brooklyn that reconnects Spanish cuisine with its Jewish roots

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Chef Alex Raij at La Vara. (Rachel Barrett)
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Downstairs in the kitchen at La Vara, a 44-seat Spanish restaurant that opened in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill neighborhood a few weeks ago, a line cook tosses hunks of marinated lamb into a pressure cooker. Nearby, another cook mixes preserved kumquat peel into a tub of olives before turning around to plate an order of beef tongue braised in tomato-caper sauce. As in all new kitchens, the pace is hectic as the staff learns its way around an unfamiliar space. But for chef Alex Raij, everything feels like it’s in exactly the right place.

La Vara joins a small but growing cluster of nouveau Jewish eateries in the neighborhood: The Montreal-style delicatessen Mile End, the appetizing store Shelsky’s Smoked Fish, and the egg-cream-pushing Brooklyn Farmacy & Soda Fountain are all a short walk away. But unlike its neighbors, La Vara’s culinary explorations are Sephardic—and Raij said she does not aim to “elevate nostalgic comfort food,” as many of her contemporaries are credited with doing.

La Vara is the newest venture for Raij and her husband, Eder Montero, who co-own two Spanish restaurants in Manhattan, the tapas bar El Quinto Pino and the Basque-inspired Txikito. La Vara is also Spanish (pork and seafood dishes are scattered liberally across the menu), but with a twist: Many of the restaurant’s dishes are inspired by the medieval Jewish and Islamic cuisines that shaped the food of southern Spain—a legacy that virtually vanished for centuries but is now being revived by Raij.

Raij isn’t Spanish; she was raised in Minnesota by Argentine-Jewish immigrant parents. “My husband is the Spanish one, he’s Basque,” she said of Montero, who moved from Bilbao to New York City in 1999 to work as a chef, and whom Raij met shortly after in the kitchen of the now-closed restaurant Meigas. “I have always looked for ways to feel more personally tied to his food.” The Sephardic legacies woven through La Vara’s dishes serve as a point of connection between their respective Spanish and Jewish backgrounds.

Top left to bottom right: berenjena con miel, garbanzo rinconcillo, and alcachofa.

La Vara is named after the longest-running of nearly 20 Ladino-language periodicals published in the early 20th century by Sephardic immigrants in America. La Vara, which was published on the Lower East Side from 1922 to 1948, was known for its social and political satire and community news—the Ladino answer to the Forverts, the Yiddish-language Forward. Raij found the name, which translates to “branch” or “staff,” while Googling the words “Sephardic Brooklyn,” and said it immediately clicked. “We have a mural at Txikito that reads, ‘When you leave your country, your branches become your roots,’” she said. “That feels true to my parents’ experience leaving Argentina, and certainly true of my husband leaving Spain.”

The culinary landscape La Vara explores evolved over an eight-centuries-long period in southern Spain, where Jews flourished in relative peace under Arab Muslim rule. The period was defined, in part, by cultural symbiosis: “Jews … were deeply rooted in the local society, alongside the Arabs, Berbers, and Mozarab Christians,” writes Claudia Roden in The Book of Jewish Food. In addition to wearing Arab-style clothing and speaking Arabic, Jewish Spaniards for the most part ate the foods their Muslim neighbors introduced to the region—things like eggplants, chickpeas, artichokes, almonds, oranges, and quince. According to A Drizzle of Honey: The Lives and Recipes of Spain’s Secret Jews by David M. Gitlitz and Linda Kay Davidson, Jews in Spain “ate tangy meatballs” called albóndigas (which likely stems from the Arabic word for “round”) and “covered their dessert pastries with sweet sugar sauce.” And like many medieval cooks, they perfumed foods with copious, overlapping spices and herbs.

Medieval Spanish Jewish cooks did, of course, make adjustments to the local cuisine, primarily to accommodate their ritual and kosher dietary laws. They avoided pork, rabbit, and shellfish, though Gitlitz told me that there is “very little evidence that they actively separated milk and meat.” They also salted and soaked their meat, and prepared hearty, long-simmering stews called adafina (Arabic for “hidden”), which did not require active cooking during the Sabbath.

Everything changed with the Inquisition, however, when Spain’s Jews were either expelled or forcibly converted to Christianity. At that point, the same customs that once set Jews apart began to be used as testimony in trials against conversos accused of maintaining their ties to Judaism. The Inquisition turned neighbor against neighbor, as citizens exposed suspected crypto-Jews to authorities. A Drizzle of Honey recounts many of these stories of betrayal, including that of Beatriz Núñez, a convert who was burned alive after her maid testified against her for continuing to prepare a Sabbath stew made of lamb, chickpeas, and eggs. Other crypto-Jews were sentenced for getting caught lighting Shabbat candles, removing the prohibited sciatic nerve from a leg of beef or lamb, snacking on cold salads with friends on Saturday afternoon, or refusing to eat dishes made with pork.

As a result, Jewish cooking in Spain—or what little was left of it—was forced underground and, over the generations, faded almost entirely. A black-and-white graffiti-style painting on La Vara’s otherwise minimally decorated walls evokes this sense of hidden-ness: Two young girls in ruffled skirts crouch side by side, one whispering a secret into the other’s ear.

But on the menu at La Vara, traces of Islamic and Jewish cooking, both subtle and explicit, are brought out of hiding. Take the berenjena con miel, a dish of crisp-fried eggplant served with melted cheese, honey, and black nigella seeds, or the garbanzo rinconcillo, a hearty chickpea and spinach stew reminiscent of adafina. There’s also alcachofa, fried artichokes with anchovy alioli, and La Vara’s take on albóndigas, made with lamb. On the dessert menu, egipcio, a date and walnut tart, is flavored with orange blossom water, and a sweet rice custard called natillas de arroz con leche comes scented with cinnamon, rose, and rosemary.

Through its menu, La Vara helps to revive Spain’s Jewish cuisine and gives Sephardic Jews a reason to celebrate their legacy—literally. When the grandson of La Vara’s last publisher, Joe Halio from Great Neck, N.Y., heard about the restaurant opening, he immediately contacted Raij and offered to bring her archived broadsheets of the old Sephardic newspaper. Raij, in turn, invited him to their opening-night party. “Joe told me he planned to drop by and say hello,” Raij said. “But he ended up staying and partying with us the whole evening.”

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Samuelele says:

Vara : Is also a spanish measure 848 milimeters long, parallel to the english yard (924 milimeters) that was used before the actual metric measures.
                                                                                                                                    SLG

Jacob Abolafia says:

*Sigh* Would that such bastions of the “Jewish food renaissance” cooked food that still-observant Jews could eat today…

Jewish, but not kosher…. Hmm. It’s a little hard to stomach. 

Gabe Gorritz says:

About time we get something in the press. We are often overlooked b/c of the history in hiding…next should be the Caribbean cuisine which also has many culinary nods to Jewish roots deep with in its simmering historia. Thanks for this piece. Kosher or not, it’s nice to see some recognition for those almost disappeared. 

There is a saying like this
“Only one himself knows if the shoes match his feet or not”。If you really love her /him, race, color or age. ain’t nothing but
a number for these loved-up A-Listers. My BF and I both think so! He is a
banker .We met via ___Blackwhiteplanet,,C0′M____, a nice place for women and
men who have much money, Ever feel that you would best enjoy someone who is in
your group? If u are really interested in it, maybe u wanna check it out or
tell your friends.
 

I grew up with a grandfather reading La Vara in that community they mention of Spanish-Balkan/Turkish Jews of NYC and I am a historian of Sephardic Jews–as a member of the Sephardic community, I can tell you that no observant Sephardic Jew in their right mind would ever go to a non-kosher place, especially one which exploits their publication / name in order to make money. While La Vara was a paper which utilized humor, the subjects they covered were serious and not a joke. This “mix” of pork, a Judeo-Spanish Jewish newspaper name and a restaurant is just plain silly. God bless.

oralsaab says:

How sad that this “Jewish” restaurant cannot accommodate those who would really want to experience it.  A disgrace to its glorious Jewish/Spanish history.

As a Spanish-Portugese Jew, I feel more like our history is being exploited to find something new. To put shellfish and pork on the menu with the history those products have particularly in the Inquisition really bothers me.  The Jews of Spain were able to create a delicious cuisine without those items, why can’t the owners of the restaurant?

Rachel Amado Bortnick says:

From what I read, this restaurant has NOTHING of the Sephardic food that La Vara’s readers ever ate.  Plus they would never eat at a restaurant that serves non-kosher meats.  I am surprised that Joe Halio was so eager to help the owners profit from his grandfather’s newspaper’s good name.   (By the way, “vara” is a staff or an arrow, not a branch.)

Also, the Inquisition did not “expel” the Jews, and had NO jurisdiction over non-converted Jews at all.  It went after conversos, those that had converted to Catholicism, because of charges that they were still clinging to Jewish practices.

lkoenig23 says:

Thanks all for your comments. Just wanted to clarify one thing, since it seems to be the source of a lot of confusion/conversation.  La Vara does not strive or claim to be a Jewish restaurant. It is a Spanish restaurant that, among other things, explores the Islamic and Jewish culinary influences on pre-Inquisition Spanish cooking. I apologize if the article was at all misleading.   

emil47 says:

there was an interesting piece on 60 minutes this sunday night 2/22.  it spoke of the decline of christians in the holyland. the interviewer questioned the former ambassador to the us.  he said the problem was the increase of muslims in the area, and the interviewer suggested the isralie occupation.  i am of italian decent, and raised a roman catholic.  i would like to see a 2 state solution to the problem.   isreal has a right to safety of it’s people, but the palestinians have a right to a homeland that seems to be eroding by the west bank settlements.  i pray for peace in the holyland, between christians, muslims, and jews.

Been championing a kosher spanish eatery for a long time. Perhaps she could be convinced? ….

jakespring says:

The absolute Best television series ever about Spanish Food and Culture is From Spain With Love ..It is a brilliant show..Annie the Host is brilliant…Congrats on a very interesting article…

“As a result, Jewish cooking in Spain—or what
little was left of it—was forced underground and, over the generations,
faded almost entirely.” 

I am a friend of Alex Raij, Chef-Partner of La Vara and I wish her the best and I am glad she has gotten some good publicity about the Jewish roots of some of her Spanish cooking, but there are many aspects of this article that are just flat wrong and misleading. I recommend that the writer, Leah Koenig, read Claudia Rhoden’s fabulous new book, The Food of Spain (HarperCollinsPublishers; she mentions Ms. Rhoden in this article.)  She will find that as opposed to here contention that Jewish cooking roots in Spain, rather than hidden have been quite ubiquitous for centuries and form a vital part of traditional Spanish cuisine today. 
It is a great article for Alex Raij, but much of the piece is off base such as : “Many of the restaurant’s dishes are inspired by
the medieval Jewish and Islamic cuisines that shaped the food of
southern Spain—a legacy that virtually vanished for centuries but is now
being revived by Raij.”  My friends, Paula Wolfert, who knows a thing or two about Spanish
Jewish cooking, and Janet Mendel, the cookbook author who lives in
Mijas, the village I lived in in Andalucia, would probably have a field
day with this stuff.  How did Jewish and Islamic cuisines simultaneously
“shape the food of southern Spain” and be “a legacy that virtually
vanished for centuries, but is now being revived by Raij.”? 

For one thing, a sure sign of Jewish cooking in Spain back before the expulsion order was the use of garlic and onions, now since the discovery of the Americas brought tomatoes, the basis of Spain’s sofrito, one of the most widely used bases for dish in Spain today.

Other observations:
adafina:

“. . . and prepared hearty, long-simmering stews called adafina (Arabic for “hidden”), which did not require active cooking during the Sabbath.” — The Tablet

The writer should talk to Paula Wolfert and to Claudia Rhoden, who will verify that many of the multitude of Spanish stews that are currently a part of the cuisine have their roots in the Jewish adafina tradition.

((Cholent (Yiddish: טשאָלנט, tsholnt or tshoolnt) or Hamin (Hebrew: חמין‎) is a traditional Jewish stew. It is usually simmered overnight for 12 hours or more, and eaten for lunch on Shabbat (the Sabbath). Cholent was developed over the centuries to conform with Jewish religious laws that prohibit cooking on the Sabbath. The pot is brought to boil on Friday before the Sabbath begins, and kept on a blech or hotplate, or placed in a slow oven or electric slow cooker until the following day.)

In Spain and the Maghreb a similar dish is called adafina or dafina, from the Arabic d’fina or t’fina for “buried” (which echoes the Mishnaic phrase “bury the hot food”). [7] Adafina was popular in Medieval Judeo-Iberian cuisine, but today it is mainly found as dafina in Jewish communities in North Africa.–all this can be found on Wikipedia.))

Bringing “traces” of Islamic and Jewish cooking “out of hiding.”  More monumental poetic license. 

The Tablet:  “But on the menu at La Vara, traces of Islamic and Jewish cooking, both subtle and explicit, are brought out of hiding. Take the berenjena con miel, a dish of crisp-fried eggplant served with melted cheese, honey, and black nigella seeds, or the garbanzo rinconcillo, a hearty chickpea and spinach stew reminiscent of adafina. There’s also alcachofa, fried artichokes with anchovy alioli, and La Vara’s take on albóndigas, made with lamb. On the dessert menu, egipcio, a date and walnut tart, is flavored with orange blossom water, and a sweet rice custard called natillas de arroz con leche comes scented with cinnamon, rose, and rosemary.”

(I love “traces,” both “. . . subtle and explicit. . . “!)

Berenjenas can be found all over Spain.  This dish is “A typical dish from Granada and Málaga areas of Andalucia, it is quick,
easy and inexpensive to prepare. Slice, flour and fry eggplant rounds.
Drizzle “miel de cana” (miel de caña, sugar cane molasses) or honey over the top, then
serve.” — About.com

Chickpea and spinach stew, espinacas con garbanzos can be found in almost any tapas bar in Sevilla and it is hardly “reminiscent of adafina.” 

Alcachofas fritas, fried artichokes, are very common in Spain.  I
have sliced young artichoke hearts sliced, flash fried, and served with
a lobe of foie gras in a restaurant in southern Navarra near the once
very Jewish city of Tudela, home of Benjamín
de Tudela, the famous “wandering Jew” of the middle ages.  The addition
of foie gras is a modern creative touch, just as anchovy alioli is to
La Vara’s version.

Albóndigas can be found in damned near every tapas bar in Spain.

“Egipcio, a date and walnut tart, is flavored with orange blossom water,” here called egipcio or “Egyptian,” is a classic Spanish dessert cake from La Vera in Extremadura which could have had Jewish-and-Moorish origins and is sold by latienda.com on-line.

Natillas de arroz con leche
is a combination of two of the most popular and ubiquitous desserts in
Spain, served all over the country, and usually “scented with
cinnamon.”

IMO, the only thing “in hiding” here in this writer’s version is her agenda,
which is to make her research fit her theme of how all Jewish tradition
in Spain has been suppressed for centuries, when in fact it is indelibly
embedded in Spanish culture.  Jews may have been forced to convert, but
many of them did not stop being Jews and eating dishes that were also
assimilated from Jewish tradition into Moorish and Spanish Christian
tradition as well.

lkoenig23 says:

Thanks for all the additional information @facebook-535454190:disqus  and for pointing to Roden and Wolfert’s work, which I deeply admire.  I think you perhaps misread my sentence, however.  I did not mean to suggest that the dishes themselves faded away or were hidden. I meant to suggest that, over the centuries, the awareness about the Jewish/Moorish influence on some of these dishes faded. So, for example, you find fried eggplant drizzled with honey, but the average diner won’t know it as a dish with Jewish/Moorish roots.

My bad!  Sorry for misspelling Claudia Rhoden’s name, which I did with her great book on my desk!!

 ”But on the menu at La Vara, traces of Islamic and Jewish cooking, both subtle and explicit, are brought out of hiding.”What am I misreading in this sentence?

“So, for example, you find fried eggplant drizzled with honey, but the
average diner won’t know it as a dish with Jewish/Moorish roots.”  Why would you know if you had not been privy to the culinary history of the dish?  Do you expect every restaurant or household in Spain that serves such a dish to announce:  This dish was originally Moorish…Jewish…Christian? 

If the average cheese buyer sees one of those stunningly good ewes’ milk “torta” cheeses of Extremadura (and eastern Portugal), some of which are sold at Zabar’s, how is that person supposed to know  that these cheeses are still made according to old Jewish (and Moorish) dietary rules?  Would you consider that if the cheeses were not advertised as such that someone is trying to hide the cheeses’s Jewish-Moorish dietary roots?

meigancam says:

A Very nice article! Cooking up spin’s It’s really made me interested here. Thank you for bringing more informative post. I have gain more knowledge and enjoyed it so keep sharing it continue.    

Ram Noham says:

I hope the restaurant is still open. After such an offence. Jewish doen’t have to be cosher.

after tis article I’m interested, and when I get to NY I’ll visit.

Ram Noham, Israel

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Cooking Up Spain’s Jewish Past

Medieval Sephardic recipes come out of hiding at La Vara, a new restaurant in Brooklyn that reconnects Spanish cuisine with its Jewish roots

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