Finding the Flavors of Morocco in Venezuela
A canopy of chamomile, rosemary, and lavender hung drying from the ceiling, perfuming a stone patio where almost a dozen diners gathered on a balmy evening in February. The herbs weren’t just for decoration. Estrella Benmaman uses them to season the meals she serves guests in her home on the southern outskirts of Caracas, Venezuela. This particular evening’s four-course menu included cream of pea with mint, roasted red peppers, grilled eggplant, fish encased in a sugar-dusted phyllo shell, and oriza, a wheat stew that Sephardic Jews have been eating since at least the 13th century.
While guests sipped on a homemade welcoming liquor tinctured with lavender, they were unaware of the rising tension just behind them in the kitchen. It was almost 8 p.m., and Benmaman was running late. Conversation came to a stop as she hurriedly mixed yogurt and sliced cucumbers, adding salt here, tossing in mashed garlic there, while keeping an eye on the stew bubbling on the stove. Laura Marcano, her assistant, was awhirl with activity, washing dishes, refilling a tray of small glasses, and updating Benmaman on last-minute seating rearrangements. They conferred over which of the five starters, served mezze style as a first course, should go in which type of serving bowl until a woman’s voice was heard over the pleasant thrum of friends catching up on the patio: “Where’s Estrella?” It was time to greet her guests.
On the last Thursday of each month, Benmaman, 54, turns her home into Paladar Estrella, serving the Moroccan recipes that she grew up helping Mama Mery, her Fez-born grandmother, prepare. Paladar literally means “palate” in Spanish, but is also used to describe an underground restaurant that is run out of a home; the concept was popularized in Cuba. Relying on Instagram and word-of-mouth to bring in customers, Benmaman has transformed her home kitchen over the last five years into one of the most unique culinary experiences in the city, flourishing just as Venezuela has descended into what has become its worst economic crisis.
She has done so by offering a product that is intimately intertwined with who she is: a Jewish Venezuelan woman of Moroccan descent. It sets her apart from the rest of the food scene in which concepts such as using fresh, locally sourced ingredients and modern techniques to update traditional comfort food have taken off but are still being applied to mostly the same type of fare Venezuelans are already familiar with. Building from a base of her grandmother’s recipes, Benmaman has expanded her cooking to include Moroccan classics that were not part of her Sephardic family’s culinary traditions and added her own Venezuelan twist to create a kitchen that could have only sprung from here.
Though she does not keep a kosher kitchen, that melding of traditions with local adaptations firmly roots her in centuries of Jewish cooking. “It’s a new creation but an old story,” said Jennifer Abadi, author of A Fistful of Lentils. “The Jewish community takes with them the foods that they grew up with, that they always prepared, and then over time, it changes a little bit depending on where they are living.”
Benmaman always liked feeding guests. It’s how she grew up, with her aunts and uncles and cousins gathering at Mama Mery’s Caracas home for Shabbat. One day as Benmaman was hosting a lunch for friends, one of the attendees asked her why she didn’t do this for money. Recently divorced and mostly working as a visual artist, she needed to generate an income. She began working as a private caterer, but it wasn’t until she focused on the food she grew up with that she developed the purpose and commitment that would be needed to sustain a new business inside a teetering Venezuela. “This is my way of honoring my family,” she said when we met a few days before the February dinner.
Moroccan Jews began arriving in Venezuela in the 1800s. These existing networks turned Venezuela, “of all the countries in the Spanish-speaking world, into a central destination,” said Aviad Moreno, a fellow at the Center for Israel Studies at Ben Gurion University.
Benmaman’s family’s journey to South America is typical of this migration: Spasms of violence leading up to Morocco’s independence coincided with an economically booming Venezuela. By the early 1950s, her grandmother, Mama Mery, was living in Tangier with Estrella’s mother and three younger children. Older daughters lived in Israel, Canada, and Venezuela. The sister in Venezuela was the happiest, so the family reconstituted itself in Caracas.
“Outside of the house, I was Venezuelan, but inside my home, there was a different type of food, a different way of speaking,” said Benmaman. The family spoke Haketia, the Moroccan version of Ladino. Dinner was meatballs with cumin, stuffed zucchini, or couscous accompanied with sugar and cinnamon. Meals always included cured limes—a local adaptation since lemons aren’t available here. “I didn’t feel much belonging to either of the two until finally, well, I found my place.”
It doesn’t surprise Benmaman that she has found her place in the kitchen. “Paladar is my identity,” she said. Her earliest memories are of being sat on a stool in the kitchen and being given something to keep her hands busy, whether it was peeling garlic, separating rice, or washing lentils. As the matriarch of a family with seven children and several waves of grandchildren, Mama Mery was always cooking. “There are certain scents that when I smell them no matter where I am, I remember Mama Mery and her sofrito. Olive oil, garlic, and paprika, everything started with that.”
Those are the basic building blocks of the main course served that evening in February. Hours before her guests arrived, Estrella lit the gas stove in her kitchen and began with her grandmother’s sofrito. That evening, she treated guests to oriza, a whole-wheat stew adorned with sweet potatoes and caramelized onions for sweetness. It was once a family favorite typically reserved for special occasions.
By 7:30, her guests started to filter in. They walked through the arches leading from the home’s main room to the patio. Marcano served each guest lavender guaripita, a cordial Benmaman steeps with herbs. Guaripita is an alcohol distilled by Afro-Venezuelan communities on the Caribbean coast, typically mixed with passion fruit and lots of sugar. Benmaman likes to add aromatic herbs instead such as lavender or lime and chile. Creating the perfect alchemy between sweet and savory imbues everything that comes out of her kitchen. Her friends call it her “Moroccan touch.”
Meanwhile, Benmaman hovered over rows of small serving dishes, filling them with pickled, roasted, and grilled vegetables. She heard a guest call out her name and took a second to transition from exacting chef to amiable host. Monica Rabellino, a 49-year old who used to work in public relations, has brought five friends with her and wanted to introduce them to Benmaman. She recently attended a Paladar lunch for the first time and was so smitten with the experience that she returned the very next week with her own group of friends.
“This is totally different,” said Rabellino in a phone conversation after the dinner. “Anywhere else, you always know who you’re going to run into. Here, it’s hidden. You don’t know who is going to be at the next table.”
Her favorite dish was the pastel, a phyllo pastry that Benmaman always serves as her second course. At this dinner, it was stuffed with fish tinged with cumin and other savory spices. She sprinkled the golden puff with powdered sugar just before Marcano whisked the plates away. Moments after the dish was served, Benmaman appeared at the head of the table to explain that she didn’t grow up eating pastel. It was considered Arabic food in her home. It was only as an adult that she learned to prepare it. “It’s like the jewel of Moroccan food,” she explained. “I can’t not make it.”
Another of Benmaman’s most popular main courses was originally forbidden by her grandmother: Harira, a spicy tomato-based soup filled with a variety of legumes and usually topped off with lamb, is considered traditional to the region. Benmaman had to go to Morocco to learn how to prepare it. Mama Mery, who died in 2009, forbade her daughters to eat it because she said the meal is what Muslims ate to break the fast during Ramadan. Benmaman happily offers it to guests, enjoying the delicious interplay between such seemingly opposing spices as ginger, cinnamon, cumin, and turmeric all in one pot.
The evening’s main course was oriza. It’s a simpler, less exotic dish than harira but for Benmaman it’s what most excites her about her kitchen and the journey into her past that it represents: “It’s a beautiful feeling when I discover something in Morocco or see something in a book that I ate in my home.” She once found a recipe for oriza in a cookbook that said it stemmed from a 13th-century Andalucian manuscript. While exalting the history, she allows herself license to alter the recipe in anyway her palate sees fit at the time of cooking. This evening that meant topping the thick stew with perfectly caramelized onions and including chunks of beef.
The February dinner at Paladar cost $12, effectively putting it out of reach for all but either the richest in this city or the rapidly dwindling upper-middle class who were able to sock away dollars when oil prices were historically high about a decade ago. Even in those rarefied circles, spending has diminished. Benmaman reduced her price in the last year, despite the fact that ingredients cost more and are harder to source; people couldn’t come otherwise, she said. Ultimately, she must change her prices each month, according to exchange fluctuations and monthly inflation rates.
The last pastel on that February evening was the first she’d ever served in which she made the phyllo from scratch. Her typical supplier no longer makes it because flour is too hard to regularly find. She is also learning to make her own couscous because the price has risen so much. “It’s always an adventure,” said Benmaman. “I have a dinner in four days but I started shopping last week because I have to go to 14 different places to find everything.”
I had come to speak to her about food and family traditions, but Venezuela’s financial crisis permeates everything so that every conversation ends there. Nearly all of her family has left to escape a crisis that is now not only marked by one of the highest rates of violence and inflation in the world but has sucked the nation’s most impoverished into a full-fledged humanitarian emergency.
After hundreds of years in the Maghreb and more than 60 years in the tropics, her family has once again joined a larger exodus. More than half of Venezuela’s Jewish population is estimated to have left in the past 15 years. Her parents, aunts, and uncles are dispersed among the very countries that in the 1950s were deemed less desirable. Both of her daughters joined their father in Peru after graduating high school.
But Benmaman can’t bring herself to leave, not the house that her father built or the business that emerged from stories created in this place. As long as Paladar can sustain her, she will remain.
“For years, my family has been telling me to leave, and it feels like the whole world has left,” she said. “But I don’t know how to do it. Despite being a child of immigrants, I don’t know how it’s done. How do I close this house up and go somewhere else?”
She then answers her own question: “I bring my work with me in my hands. So I can do it,” she said. “But not yet.”