Saturday, February 27, 2021

Adapt and Adopt: The Evolution of Latin American Jewish Cuisine

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Jayne Cohen started her Zoom lecture on Latin American Jewish cuisine by offering the viewing audience “virtual” snacks: “How about matzo balls with cilantro and jalapeño? Or empanadas with pastrami asado? Or matzo with a shmeer of cream cheese and guava jam?”

Cohen suggested these foods may sound like “the inventions of a chef on the Lower East Side, or maybe mashups from a trendy L.A. food truck.” But they’re neither. She said they originated in Latin American Jewish kitchens and “are still being eaten today.”  

Titled “From the Inquisition to Mishiguene Restaurant: The Latin American Jewish Food Story,” Cohen’s July 22 one-hour live presentation was produced by the Center for Jewish History, a New York organization that brings together five Jewish institutions. 

Cohen’s lecture briefly touched on the early centuries, when the few Jews — and secret Jews — living in Latin America, which was colonized by Portugal and Spain, hid their food practices from the Inquisition, which had migrated along with colonizers, determined to root out any vestige of non-Christian heresy in the New World. 

By the mid-19th century, most of Latin America had gained independence, Jews were free to practice their religion and many (mostly Ashkenazi but also Sephardim) had immigrated to the New World and settled in countries from Mexico to Argentina and everywhere in between. 

Much of Cohen’s lecture focused on a Buenos Aires restaurant called Mishiguene (pronounced mee-SHEE-ge-neh.) That’s right, like meshuggeneh, Yiddish for crazy. It’s become extremely popular, and not just among Jews. It has won awards as one of the best restaurants, of any type, in Latin America.

Cohen said there are about 400,000 to 500,000 Jews now living in Latin America. The countries with the largest Jewish population are Argentina, Brazil and Mexico, in that order. Many Latin American Jews have migrated out of Latin America and Cohen said there are about 60,000 to 150,000 Latin American Jews now living in the United States. (Full disclosure: My wife and I fall into that category.)

Cohen said that the Sephardic Jews who immigrated to Latin America tended to adapt quickly because most knew Judeo-Spanish, similar to Spanish and Portuguese. Moreover, those who had lived in North Africa and the Middle East were used to spicy foods, making it easier for them to adopt the cuisines of Mexico and Brazil. As a result, jalapeños as well as native herbs and spices found their way into traditional Sephardic foods like chreime, a long-simmered spicy fish stew with tomato sauce, a Shabbat specialty. 

Much of Cohen’s lecture focused on a Buenos Aires restaurant called Mishiguene (pronounced mee-SHEE-ge-neh.) That’s right, like meshuggeneh, Yiddish for crazy. It’s become extremely popular, and not just among Jews. It has won awards as one of the best restaurants, of any type, in Latin America.

Daniel Altszyler, who lives in Buenos Aires, told me that “Mishiguene is like cutting-edge restaurants in Israel. Little plates as starters, like baba ghanoush and hummus, then family-style plates for sharing: latkes, tzatziki, borekas. Everything we ate there was delicious and prepared with a great deal of sophistication. I’d call it ‘futuristic Jewish food.’”

Mishiguene’s menu features dishes and products from the Balkans, North Africa, Turkey, the Ottoman Empire, Arab countries, the former Soviet state of Georgia, Israel, the U.S. and Argentina. The menu also includes house-made corned beef on pletzel (bialy), as well as bagels and lox. Mishiguene’s menu, which seems a mishmash, is actually a well-thought-out amalgam of foods from places where Jews have lived and/or are living now.

In the last minute of Cohen’s lecture, she posed a number of interesting questions but provided no answers. These questions are fascinating and important, and they deserve to be answered, which I’ve done, based on my experience. 

Jayne Cohen: “What might the food choices of Latin American Jews say about their identity as both Latin Americans and as Jews?”

Roberto Loiederman: Both of my parents were born in Argentina, and my mother made typical Argentine dishes like empanadas and flan. But she also made Jewish foods she’d learned from her mother, like chicken soup. She’d skim shmaltz from the soup and mix it into matzo ball dough, as well as into the flaky crust for knishes, which were filled with mashed potato and sautéed onions. 

If you are what you eat, then what were my parents — Argentine or Jewish? Clearly, both. My mother made traditional foods from “the old country,” while adopting the dishes, produce and culinary techniques of Argentina, the country where they lived.

JC: “Does the decision to adopt ingredients and recipes from a new homeland indicate how safe and comfortable people feel there? Or how long they intend to stay? Or is it a matter of how distinctive and overwhelming the indigenous food culture is?”

RL: Definitely the latter. Over the last 50 years, Argentina’s Jewish population has been reduced by half, due to emigration during economic downturns and the Dirty War (1976-1983). Jews have periodically not felt safe in Argentina, yet we have always relished local foods and continue to prepare and eat those same foods. For my wife and me, one of the sustaining desserts during the pandemic has been Argentine-style flan and dulce de leche.  

JC: “In some countries, do the food choices reflect generational changes, with more fusion cuisine developing in second and third generations?” 

RL: Certainly. Jews raised in Mexico, for example, became accustomed to piquant foods early on. Luis Shein, who was born and grew up in Mexico City, has memories from the 1950s, when his Polish grandparents made holiday wine and kishke just as they had done in Europe. But he also said that with the years, those customs were replaced by kosher foods that were “Mexicanized” with spicy condiments. 

JC: “Jewish cuisine has often been considered a marginalized ethnic cuisine, foods that, with few exceptions, would only appeal, mostly, to Jews. Why might this be changing now, even in such traditional communities like Buenos Aires?”

RL: If you’ve been to Israel in the last 20 years, you know how drastically Israeli food has changed and how its popularity has spread, due in part to the international status of Israeli superstar chefs like Yotam Ottolenghi. Just as Israeli food has changed — adopting dishes from all over — so too what is thought of as Jewish food has changed, which is why one can go to a Spanish-speaking country, the southernmost in this continent, and eat Arab-style baba ghanoush and Turkish borekas in a restaurant whose name comes from Yiddish.

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