Guava + Cream Cheese on Matzoh and other Forays into Latin-Jewish Cuisine

by Jayne Cohen

Passover comes to Santiago, Chile, in autumn, “at the beginning of the school year,” recalls Marjorie Agosìn. “It’s a lot like Rosh Hashanah then.” Pomegranates and purple-green figs filled the silver dishes on her grandparents’ snow-white table, set up outdoors and stretched to serve the large, extended family that included her 20 cousins.

Agosìn, professor of Spanish and Latin American Studies at Wellesley College, author, poet and human rights activist, describes Seder nights in Chile filled with music. “There was so much singing, from the beginning on. Some traditional songs, like ‘Had Gadya,’ familiar in the United States, but many, many others—Israeli songs that we learned at school.” And the music continued through dinner. “Our cook often played Chilean folkloric songs on the guitar for us during meals.” At the Seder, she serenaded the family with these tunes.

At her Seders today, Agosìn, a poet, weaves her great-grandmother’s exodus from Nazi Vienna to asylum in Chile into the Haggadah retelling of the flight from Egypt. 

But there is one area in which Chile has not touched her Seders at all: the menu. Besides the peaches and other local, seasonal fruits and the Chilean wine, her family enjoys much the same food, from haroset to dessert, that her great-grandparents would have eaten in Central and Eastern Europe.

The Passover story of exile and exodus echoes throughout Diaspora history: a tale eternally retold of wandering Jews in search of a home that could be a homeland. In her new home, our metaphoric traveler unpacks the age-old traditions that link her with Jews all over the world. And sometimes—whether slowly and subtly or within just a generation or two—customs and tastes inspired by her new locale will enrich those ancient traditions and create new memories to pass on.

Jews have sought refuge in Latin America beginning with the conversos who arrived there at the start of the 16th century, but because the Inquisition in the New World lasted into the 19th century, most—if not all—of the early Jewish immigrants either converted to Catholicism or assimilated. Not until the latter part of the 19th century did Jews begin arriving in significant numbers: Ashkenazim from Europe, Sephardim from the Ottoman Empire and, later, refugees from the Holocaust. How did this exodus to Latin America influence celebrations of Passover, holiday of our ancestral Exodus? And have the bold flavors and richly varied produce of these countries found their way into the Passover menu? I asked Jewish women with Latin roots—a few living in Latin America, others here in the United States, and some who travel back and forth between the two—to share their family stories. 

When Marta Olchyk’s guests—Jews from Venezuela, Cuba and the former Soviet Union—gather around her Seder table in Miami today, they talk about “the exoduses in their lifelines,” she says. Marta, who left Cuba at 21, begins her own family exodus story with her parents’ flight to the island to escape the Nazis. “My mother didn’t know how to cook; she hadn’t learned because her side had been killed during the Holocaust,” she explained. “My father’s mother would stay home the whole week, grinding fish and cooking so she could send gefilte fish home to her daughter and eight daughters-in-law. Her house was small, so everyone would come together there for the blessings, then walk home to have their Seder in their own house.”

“My baked gefilte fish,” Maria Kaminsky says, “that’s the smell of home, of my mother. I can change another recipe, but not a Jewish one, because in a couple of years, it wouldn’t taste Jewish anymore.” From her house in Houston, she speaks longingly of Buenos Aires, where she was born and raised. But it is the Yiddish world there for which she aches. In Buenos Aires, the largest Jewish community in Latin America, “we still keep up the traditions,” she explained. “We still have Yiddish theater there, and young people there still speak Yiddish.”

Clara Salomon’s Haggadah is written in the Spanish she grew up speaking, along with Hebrew. But her traditional Seder menu at her home in Lima, Peru, reflects solely the foods of her Turkish heritage, with a nod to the Ashkenazi roots of her husband: The two cold fish appetizers include one Sephardi-style, napped with either an egg-lemon agristada or tomato sauce, as well as a classic gefilte fish with horseradish (the Yiddish chrein, spelled jrein in Spanish).

And while she may use the rice and beans from her native Cuba to stuff her Thanksgiving turkey, Nieves Olemberg, president of the Inter-American Chapter of Hadassah in Miami, insists, “I wouldn’t use Cuban foods on Passover. Of course,” she adds, “Ashkenazim can’t eat rice and beans then, anyway.”

Ruth Behar (photo by Monroem (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons). Inset: Behar as a child posing in front of the Patronato, the Jewish community center located half a block from where her family lived in Havana. 

Ruth Behar, a cultural anthropologist, filmmaker and author of books such as An Island Called Home: Returning to Jewish Cuba (Rutgers University Press), agrees. “In my own family, the Latin American influence is expressed most vividly at the Thanksgiving meal,” with Cuban dishes like picadillo and coconut flan supplementing the turkey at her mother’s apartment in New York City. Though her mother makes guava hamantaschen, “Passover cuisine, from what I’ve seen at home and among other Cuban Jewish families,” she says, “does tend to be more traditionally Jewish, whether Ashkenazi or Sephardic or a combination”—except for good, strong Cuban coffee.

Behar, who left Cuba for the United States at age 4, suggests that there are generational differences: “My grandparents didn’t integrate Cuban food into their cuisine…But my mother, who was born in Cuba, did cook Cuban (kosherizing by using things like beef fry in her tamales)… I, in turn, have tried to mix Ashkenazi, Sephardic, and Cuban cooking, plus cuisines I’ve picked up in my travels, including Spanish and Mexican.” While her own Seders include a mix of Sephardic and Ashkenazi dishes—echoing the different backgrounds of her parents’ families—she sometimes adds plátano tentación, plantains baked with brown sugar, to her menu. And during Passover week, she is fond of spreading thick guava paste and cream cheese on matzoh. Although she’d been eating timba (as the combination of guava and cheese is known) since she was a little girl, it was on a research trip to Cuba that she learned from the Jewish community in Camaguey how good it is on matzoh—especially when made with the local cow’s milk cheese and fresh guava.

Local cuisine definitely makes its voice heard at the Passover table of several Mexican families. Some Latinas I spoke to have suggested that this may reflect a special relationship the long-standing, stable Mexican-Jewish community enjoys with its host country. Fany Gerson, a Mexico City–born pastry chef deeply proud of the culinary traditions of her native country, explains it differently: “Maybe Mexican food is simply so tasty that they needed to translate that into traditional dishes…[it’s] probably the most rich and varied within Latin America.”

Fany Gerson

Fany Gerson

First, there is the tortilla question. Some, like Gerson’s family, avoid it because, as she points out, “although it is neither leavened nor is it bread, it was the bread for us in Mexico.” But for other Mexican Jews, rabbinically certified tortillas are available for those who eat corn during the holiday, and there are wheat-based tortillas made from matzoh meal dough. “There is nothing like a brisket taco with salsa verde,” says Sandra Ciklik, a chef from Mexico City who now makes her home in New York.

Homesick for those Passover tortillas—and even more for her family—Hermosa Hagami one year turned her grandmother’s Mexican recipe into new bagels for the holiday. It was the first Seder she remained at home in Texas, unable to return to her family in Mexico, where more than 100 relatives usually gather for Passover. 

“My grandmother says we are as close as the little grains of a pomegranate: We fit together; you have to break us apart to separate us,” Hagami explains. “I missed them so much that I couldn’t stop crying as I listened to my mother reading me the recipe on the speakerphone from Mexico.” With all the tears, she missed the step about adding oil, so hers came out crunchy. She transformed them into special Passover bagels, which she now makes every year for her Jewish and non-Jewish friends.

Even icons of Ashkenazi cuisine are up for tweaking by Mexican cooks. Ciklik’s family cooks with traditional schmaltz, but when it comes to gefilte fish, they prefer it Veracruz-style: served warm with a sauce of tomatoes, onion, green olives, jalapeños, capers and cilantro. Gerson’s gefilte fish is also eaten warm, spiced with both guajillo and chipotle peppers, then pan-fried.

In Gerson’s and Ciklik’s homes, Jewish chicken soup is accompanied by classic Mexican garnishes: chopped onion, cilantro, sometimes chopped chile or tomato. The broth gets a brightening with Gerson’s squeeze of fresh lime; Ciklik’s mom foregoes the classic dill, flavoring her broth instead with the Mexican herb epazote and cilantro. And matzoh balls pack some heat in Ciklik’s aunt’s recipe, which calls for spiking the batter with green serrano chiles, along with cilantro.

Mexican flavors have found a welcome in many of Hagami’s Syrian family recipes, as well. She incorporates chipotle peppers in adobo sauce in her kibbee and enlivens her cucumber-tomato salad with serrano chiles and lime juice. 

Michelle Bernstein ( photo by Gio Alma)

Michelle Bernstein (photo by Gio Alma)

Born in the United States, Michelle Bernstein’s Latin-rooted cuisine takes flight on American wings. “Food at other families’ homes never tasted as good,” says the chef-owner of Michy’s [now Cena] of Miami, explaining the profound influence her Argentine-born Ashkenazi mother had on her cooking. Growing up in Miami, fluent in Spanish, Bernstein, winner of a James Beard Award developed a palate steeped in other Latin flavors too, especially Cuban. “Thanks to my mother,” she writes in her book, Cuisine à Latina (Houghton Mifflin), “I had a built-in comfort level with cuisines that were foreign to most Americans.” She blends these influences to create vibrant recipes not only for her restaurant, but also for the Seders she prepares with her mother.

“My mom never made her own gefilte fish, so I’ve taken it over,” Bernstein says. “I use whatever fish is freshest, like snapper, and simmer the balls briefly in a broth with a ton of root vegetables, Cuban ones, like yucca and boniato.” For a fresh, lighter taste, she adds a jot of sherry vinegar.

Root vegetables enrich her chicken soup, too, which she has called “the history of my palate in a bowl.” A reworking of her mom’s recipe, it includes chayote, root vegetables like malanga or parsnips, freshly poached chicken, loads of dill and the airiest mini-matzoh balls.

“My mother taught me to look for ways to enhance flavors,” Bernstein explains. So she marinates Cornish hens in a heady mojo bath of toasted garlic, citrus juices and chiles before roasting them. Ensalada Rusa, a cooked vegetable salad lightly bound with mayonnaise, is a wildly popular side dish in Argentina. Her mom’s sprightly riff, a Seder staple at the Bernstein home, substitutes beets for the classic potatoes and includes a generous amount of fresh dill.

And always there is a richly seasoned brisket, braised super-slowly and allowed to rest overnight in its gravy so it can drink back all the juices given up during cooking. While usually there is a mantle of sautéed wild mushrooms to finish off the brisket, Bernstein sometimes quickly chars the meltingly tender braised meat on the grill, then serves it with a zesty Argentine chimichurri sauce.

As such intoxicating aromas retell the stories of Latin-Jewish exodus, we are once more reminded, in the words of every Haggadah, “Let all who are hungry come and eat.”

Jayne Cohen writes and lectures extensively on Jewish cuisine and culture. Her most recent book, Jewish Holiday Cooking: A Food Lover’s Treasury of Classics and Improvisations (John Wiley), was finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award. In 2015 she led a program at Gefiltefest, London’s annual Jewish food festival, entitled “Tortillas con Schmaltz: A North American Explores Jewish Kitchens South of the Border.” 

Originally published in spring 2009; updated spring 2016

Ideas For A Seder Muy Sabroso (very tasty)

Remembering a spicy but delicious haroset she once tasted, Fany Gerson suggests adding some ground chile, like ancho or guajillo, to the fruit-and-nut paste on your Seder plate. Bring Mexican flavors to your traditional menu, she suggests, by seasoning brisket or chicken with tamarind. Or serve salsa verde (a sauce of tomatillos, white onion, serrano chiles and cilantro) along with sliced avocado as an accompaniment to brisket, adds Sandra Ciklik.

Ruth Behar proposes the dairy-free coconut flan her mom sometimes serves for dessert at Seders: the recipe substitutes canned coconut in syrup for milk or cream. Another excellent, simple, very common Cuban dessert, she adds, would be grated coconut in syrup, freshly made. And papa rellena—mashed potatoes filled with picadillo (well-seasoned ground meat), formed into balls and then fried—would also be perfect for Passover, she points out.

“Remember tradition, but don’t be afraid to include the flavors you really love,” says Michelle Bernstein. Foods like brisket “need attention. Don’t be afraid to give them the care they deserve—try marinades, especially using citrus, like sour orange and lime, to really lend a lot of flavor.” And lastly, she advises, “If you only make three things really well, then that’s all you should do, rather than a bunch of mediocre dishes.”

—Jayne Cohen