How Latin American Jewish chefs are redefining Jewish cuisine
Discover the beauty of Latin American Jewish fusion.
One could argue that reinvention and adaptation are the nouns that best characterize the Jewish experience. In the diaspora, these traits are essential to survive and thrive. Food has never been exempt from diasporic travel; in fact, it is the linchpin that sustains it. Wherever Jews migrated, we take our flavors, textures and aromas with us. Over the centuries, the Jewish culinary repertoire has evolved into a synthesis of the culinary and religious traditions of our people while incorporating new ingredients and cooking techniques from the places that have adopted us and that adhere to and conform to our strict kashrut laws, holidays, and ritualistic way of life.
As author and chef Leah Koenig writes in her book The Jewish Cookbook, “Jewish food is as varied as Jewish culture, which has flourished around the world and absorbed local customs from a range of places and peoples.”
The tastes of Latin American Jewish fusion reflect this multifaceted process of cross-pollination. Sephardic Jews were the first to arrive in the Americas, dating back to the Columbine Expeditions. However, many of these people were apparently not Jewish, but crypto-Jewish or converse protect themselves from religious persecution, fleeing the horrors of the Inquisition. As a result, they had to hide not only their Judaic lifestyles, but also their Hebrew eating habits for decades, if not centuries.
Soon, strange-looking, strong-tasting, foreign ingredients such as corn, potatoes, chili peppers, peppers, avocados, tomatoes, plantains and the like quickly became dietary mainstays and had an impact on many recipes that imprinted the nascent Jewish life in these new territories. The evolution of this merger has become so diverse over the years that it varies from community to community. Take for example my ancestors who settled in Curaçao or Venezuela. Their current culinary repertoire illustrates this cultural mix. The traditional gefilte fish is replaced by dishes like Jewish Curacao fried snapper with a spicy vegetable sauce. In Venezuela, my mother replaced almonds with crushed cashews in traditional Sephardic desserts like Pan d’Espanya and orange blossom water with a few drops of rum.
A new wave of immigration from Europe arriving in the late 19th and early 20th centuries would also have a significant impact on the cuisine of the region. They brought flavors from their diverse Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Mizrachi cultural backgrounds. Moreover, Latin America provided these Jewish immigrants with spaces and opportunities to inhabit, explore and work as they pleased; it offered them independence in the practice of their Judaism, their education and the preservation of their traditions and customs.
The culinary synergy resulting from these new gastronomic creations would lead to a rich and dynamic amalgamation of recipes representing the old and the new. Countries in the region such as Argentina, Mexico and Peru are known for their distinctive cuisines, which have transcended their borders. Argentinian premium meats, Mexican tamales and tasty Peruvian ceviche are the star specialties of these countries. Less known are the dishes of Jewish origin. However, this trend has changed in recent decades, and plates embody Jewishness, and components of Latinity are more common than ever these days.
A new generation of chefs like Tomás Kaliká from Argentina and his famous restaurant Mishiguene offer his eaters a mix between his distinctive Jewish dishes like varenikes and beetroot hummus inspired by his Polish bubble and signature Argentinian tones like wood-smoked Patagonian beef and pastrami asado (roasted pastrami).
In Mexico, the creations of Mexican Jewish chef Pati Jinich won her the James Beard Foundation Award and a spot on public television in the United States as the host of the popular PBS series Pati’s Mexican table. Jinich’s dishes mix Mexican ingredients with traditional Jewish holiday dishes like her Jalapeño Mushroom Matzo Ball Soup and Gefilte fish in Veracruz, a version of the Jewish classic covered in tomato sauce and sprinkled with salted olives. Much like Jinich, Kleins, a deli in Mexico, fuses two cultures into one flavor. Their kosher salami enchiladas are among the star dishes.
El Ñosh is another notable example of this fruitful collaboration that exists between Latino-Jewish fusion. The pop-up restaurant created by Eric Greenspan of The Foundry on Melrose and Roberto Treviño of Condado, Puerto Rico’s Budatai offers mouth-watering treats like Dill Pickle Croquetas with mustard sauce and Mole Braised Brisket with sweet plantain kugel and cilantro salad .
Whether in Latin America, Europe or Asia, Jewish cuisine is a truly cosmopolitan and global phenomenon, so its essence is constantly evolving, an evolution that is always in progress, always in tune with new times, learning about other cultures and food trends because it is part of the Jewish experience involves innovating a millennial practice so that it can endure over time for future generations. For Jews, food will always be memory, tradition and survival – a vehicle for family traditions and social relationships when they are.
My Latin American Jewish dish for you today is this recipe for Fungos with spinach and cheese potatoes. Word fungus comes from Judeo-Spanish or Ladino, and means mushroom. The Iberian Jews who settled in the Ottoman Empire developed this dish by fusing their culinary knowledge from medieval Spain with local ingredients and customs. Now you can prepare this dish in your kitchen wherever you are. Get the recipe.