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How Jewish Latin American Chefs are Redefining Jewish Food

July 12, 2022 | by Orge Castellano

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 indispensable to surviving and thriving. Food has never been exempt from the diasporic journey; in fact, it is the linchpin that sustains it. Wherever Jews have migrated, we carry our flavors, textures, and aromas with us. Over the centuries, the Jewish culinary repertoire has evolved into a synthesis of our people's gastronomic and religious traditions while also embracing new ingredients, and cooking techniques from the places that have embraced us and that adhere to and comply with 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 all over the world and has absorbed local customs from a range of places and peoples."

The tastes of Jewish Latin American 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 individuals were not outwardly Jewish but crypto-Jews or conversos protecting themselves from religious persecution, fleeing the horrors of the Inquisition. As a result, they had to hide not just their Judaic ways of living but also their Hebraic foodways for decades, if not centuries.

Soon foreign, strange-looking and strong-tasting ingredients such as corn, potatoes, chilies, bell peppers, avocados, tomatoes, plantains, and others quickly became dietary mainstays and impacted numerous recipes that imprinted nascent Jewish life in these new territories. The evolution of this fusion has become so diverse throughout the years that it varies from community to community. For example, consider my ancestors who settled in Curaçao or Venezuela. Their current cuisine repertoire exemplifies this cultural blend. Traditional gefilte fish is replaced by dishes like the Curaçaoan-Jewish Fried Red Snapper with a spicy vegetable sauce. In Venezuela, my mother would substitute 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 at the close of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries would also significantly impact the region's cuisine. They contributed flavors from their diverse Ashkenazi, Sephardic, and Mizrachi cultural backgrounds. Moreover, Latin America provided these Jewish immigrants with spaces and opportunities to dwell, explore, and work at their leisure; it offered them independence in practicing their Judaism, education, and preserving their traditions and customs.

The culinary synergy resulting in these new gastronomic creations would lead to a rich and vibrant amalgam 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 star specialties in these countries. Lesser known are those dishes of Jewish origin. However, this trend has been changing in the past decades, and plates embody Jewishness, and Latinhood components are more commonplace nowadays than ever.

A new generation of chefs like Tomás Kaliká from Argentina and his renowned restaurant Mishiguene offer his eaters a blend between his distinctive Jewish dishes like varenikes and beetroot hummus inspired by his Polish bubbe and typical Argentinian tones like wood smoke Patagonian beef and pastrami asado (roasted pastrami).

In México, the creations of the Jewish Mexican chef Pati Jinich have gained her James Beard Foundation Award and a place on public television in the US as the host of the popular PBS series Pati's Mexican Table. Jinich's dishes blend Mexican ingredients onto traditional Jewish holiday dishes like her mushroom-jalapeño matzo ball soup and gefilte fish Veracruz-style, a take on the Jewish classic covered in tomato sauce and sprinkled with salty olives.

El Ñosh is another notable example of this fruitful collaboration that exists between Latin-Jewish fusion. The pop-up restaurant created by Eric Greenspan of The Foundry on Melrose and Roberto Treviño of Condado, Puerto Rico's Budatai, features mouth-watering delicacies 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 truly cosmopolitan, global phenomenon, so its essence is continuously evolving, an evolution that is still ongoing, always keeping up with new times, learning from other cultures and gastronomical trends because part of the Jewish experience entails innovating a millenary practice so that it can endure in time for future generations to come. For Jews, food will always be memory, tradition, and survival—a conduit for family traditions and social relationships whenever they may be.

My Jewish Latin American dish for you today is this recipe for Potato Spinach Fongos with Cheese. The word fongo comes from Judeo-Spanish or ladino, and it means mushroom. The Iberian Jews who settled in the Ottoman Empire developed this dish by merging their food knowledge from medieval Spain with local ingredients and customs. Now you can make this dish in your kitchen wherever that may be. Get the Recipe.




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