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From Challah to Jalapeños, Latin American Jews Redefine a Culinary Heritage

There is no single unifying cuisine, but Jewish food from Central and South America is coming into its own

Leah Koenig
September 10, 2014
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photosShutterstock)
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photosShutterstock)

Susan Schmidt grew up eating tamales, tostadas, and freshly made salsa with her family in Mexico City. And when she and her mother went out, they frequented the taco stands that dot the city. But unlike most other Mexican natives, Schmidt also spent Sundays tucking into goulash, chicken paprikash, palacsinta, and other dishes her Hungarian Jewish grandmother would arrive early in the morning at her home to prepare. On her blog, Challa-peño, Schmidt, who these days lives in Los Angeles, shares recipes and anecdotes inspired by her life as a Mexican Jew.

Her story is one of many. According to the 2002 American Jewish Year Book, approximately 500,000 Jews live in Latin America. The communities are primarily located in Argentina, Mexico, and Brazil, but Jewish populations can be found in virtually every Central and South American country. And yet, while countless articles and cookbooks have been written about global Jewish cuisine, it remains difficult to find information about Costa Rican Jewish food, to learn what Puerto Rican Jews eat on Shabbat, or rustle up a Rosh Hashanah dish beloved by Jews in Panama.

This phenomenon will be primary the topic of conversation at an upcoming panel at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City on Sept. 14. Moderated by cookbook author Jayne Cohen and featuring Schmidt, among other panelists, “Exploring Latin American Jewish Cuisine” will delve into an often-overlooked corner of Jewish food culture.

One reason that Latin American Jewish food is underrepresented, Cohen said, is that it is difficult to define exactly what it is. When speaking about Ashkenazi cuisine, by comparison, there’s a sense of overarching unity. There are differences of course, many of them significant, between the cooking styles of, say, Polish, Hungarian, and German Jews. But over time, the edges of these differences got smoothed over, and a broader cuisine emerged that manages to mostly encompass them all. This is not the case with Latin America. “We are not talking about any kind of monolithic cuisine here,” said Cohen. “Each country maintains its own distinct traditions.”

Even within each country, differences abound. “In my estimation, the Jewish community is too culturally diverse for a strong culinary tradition to emerge,” said Misha Klein, a professor at the University of Oklahoma, and a member of the Latin American Jewish Studies Association. Klein, who published an ethnography called Kosher Feijoada and Other Paradoxes of Jewish Life in São Paulo, was referring specifically to Brazil. But her comment applies to other countries as well, where overlapping layers of Ashkenazi, Sephardi, and in some cases Mizrahi Jews exist, but do not always coexist fluidly.

The first Jews to arrive to many Latin American countries were converso or crypto-Jewish refugees of the Spanish Inquisition. It is still possible to find subtle traces of these communities—for example, families that have been Christian for centuries but who avoid pork or light candles on Friday evening without having a clear explanation why. “But mostly they either fully assimilated or were rooted out and burned at the stake in countries that were still under Spanish rule,” Cohen said. “In terms of cuisine, there unfortunately isn’t much left of them to find.”

Once these countries gained independence from Spain in the 19th century, immigrants began to arrive from Sephardic communities in Turkey, Syria, Morocco, and elsewhere. Later on in the early 20th century, significant waves of Ashkenazi Jews, like Schmidt’s family, came in attempts to flee pogroms and Hitler’s rising influence.

“In 1928 … my grandmother Lily stepped off the Orinoco, the ship that had brought her and her two little girls to the shores of Mexico from Hungary,” writes Schmidt on her blog. At first, “she could not adjust to life in Mexico with its strange language, strange ways, and strange food … [but] my grandfather persuaded her [saying], ‘At least here in Mexico, there is no anti-Semitism like that in Hungary.’ ”

Once in Latin America, these new Jewish immigrants maintained the cooking styles of their former homes. “They kept their traditions very much intact,” said Leticia Moreinos Schwartz, a panel member and a Connecticut-based chef who grew up in Brazil. Her Moroccan aunt Sarita, for example, continued to make spiced meatballs, pastellitos (ground beef and mashed potato patties), and other Moroccan delicacies long after she’d settled in Rio de Janeiro.

As a child in Cuba, panelist Ruth Behar, an anthropologist and writer, learned to love smoked fish and sliced apples dipped in sour cream from her Russian grandfather. Meanwhile, she gained a fondness for “artichokes and tomatoes stuffed with rice and pine nuts, and baklava, which my Sephardic-Turkish grandmother made very sugary and drippy.”

The same is true for Mexico. “The Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities have maintained their foods,” said Schmidt. “The Ashkenazim continue to make cholent or gefilte fish on Passover, whereas the Sephardim will eat rice and make charoset using dates, raisins, fresh orange, pistachios, and sweet wine.” Both groups, she said, have gained a fondness for Mexico’s many hot peppers.

In Barranquilla, Colombia, where panelist and chef Sam Gorenstein lived until he was 14 (when his family moved to Miami), the Middle Eastern-Sephardi and Ashkenazi communities brought their traditional foods together. “Whenever there was a bar mitzvah or wedding, all of the grandmothers and mothers brought their special dishes,” he told me. It would not be uncommon, for example, to find a plate of baklava next to a platter of rugelach, or homemade stuffed grape leaves next to gefilte fish. Colombian foods like fried fish and coconut rice also made it on the table. “It was one big potluck,” he said.

One thing that ties the Jewish eating habits together in each of these countries is an aversion to pork. “With any kind of Latin American cooking, there’s the big ‘P’ problem—it is in virtually everything,” Cohen said. “The interesting question is how people get around it.”

In Cuba, Behar said Jews would regularly order tortilla de platanos maduros, a sweet plantain omelet, when dining out at restaurants to ensure their meal did not break the kosher laws. Moreinos Schwartz and others, meanwhile, have developed kosher versions of Brazil’s national dish, feijoada, that swap out chicken for pork. Broadly speaking, Klein said, “the Jewish tendency has been to ‘kosher-ize’ other cuisines” more than create its own distinct cuisine. Case in point: Buenos Aires is home to the only kosher McDonald’s outside of Israel.

In recent decades, as the first generation of immigrants gives way to the second and third, the beginnings of a Jewish fusion cuisine have begun to emerge across parts of Latin America. Most of these dishes, Cohen said, blend traditional Jewish recipes with indigenous ingredients, things like tamarind and chiles. Behar’s mother, for example, fills her hamantaschen with guava paste instead of poppy seeds or prune jam. Gorenstein’s mother, likewise, used arequipe, the Colombian take on dulce de leche.

Schmidt’s blog offers other colorful examples. There she shares recipes for Manischewitz Sangria and tortilla chips topped with guacamole and gribenes (chicken skin cracklings). For Shabbat, she often serves a traditional Mexican stew, pozole, with matzoh balls, and bakes loaves of her trademark chile-flecked challah, which serves as the namesake for her blog.

In Brazil, Moreinos Schwartz said, “This fusion phenomenon is very recent.” It has been spurred on by the inevitable cultural exchanges that occur between Jewish women and the Brazilian domestic workers they employ. While working for a family, the employees learn about Jewish cooking and start to substitute Brazil nuts instead of walnuts in honey cake, add yuca flour to challah, or make gefilte fish with local Brazilian fish varieties. “In another 10 years, I have a feeling you will start seeing more and more yuca challah,” she said. “It is absolutely delicious!”

Cumulatively, these culinary explorations do not add up to any sort of unified cuisine—though perhaps in time one will develop. But these recipes and creative explorations remain significant. Food, after all, is a crucial aspect of personal identity and serves as a community binder. “When it comes to cultural ethnicity, everything revolves around food,” Gorenstein said. “Food keeps the memories alive,” agreed Behar. “Each dish tells a story of diaspora, of struggle, of border crossings, of remembering the ancestors, and hope for the future.”


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