A Little Plantain At the Passover Table

A BEAN soup bubbled on the stove while Rebeca Esquenazi fried plantains for that evening’s dinner and chatted in Spanish with two friends. Palm trees laid a blanket of shade over her second-floor balcony, cooling the hundreds of perfectly crafted burekas and bulemas, flaky pastries filled with feta cheese, spinach and potatoes that she had set out in foil pans. As she has done for the last 36 years, she would send some to friends, saving the rest for her family.

Mrs. Esquenazi, who is Jewish and was born in Cuba, said her family lived in Turkey for centuries before her grandparents moved to Cuba in the 1920’s. ”During the week we eat Cuban food,” she said. ”For holidays and the Sabbath, we eat Turkish Sephardic food.”

Like most Jewish cooks, Mrs. Esquenazi will go into high gear for Passover, which begins on April 16, making Turkish Jewish dishes like chayote with celery, matzo bulemas and a delicious centuries-old Sephardic cake that is made with oranges, dates and nuts. All over Miami, Jews from Latin America show the influence of their upbringing at the Seder table. They may make matzo ball soup or gefilte fish, but they will spice their chicken with cumin or marinate it in mojo, make their kugels with boniato, a Cuban sweet potato, and even serve a Caribbean lasagna, substituting plantains for pasta.

Mrs. Esquenazi, 63, came here in 1966, some years after the Cuban revolution. Throughout the 1970’s, she watched as 90 percent of Cuba’s 12,000 Jews made Miami their home. Now other Latin Jews are making their homes here, with more than 3,000 coming to Miami in the last two years alone, according to Marina Blachman, case manager of the Latin American Migration Project, sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Miami.

”Jews are coming now from Argentina, Peru, Columbia, Venezuela and Brazil,” Mrs. Esquenazi said.

In nearby Fort Lauderdale, the theme of a recent dinner dance for the Latin Jewish community was frijoles con kugel. ”Jews that live in Latin countries eat a lot of beans and they come from Sephardic and Ashkenazic traditions,” said Pepi Dunay, vice president of community relations for the United Jewish Community of Broward County.

Speaking of the beans and noodles served at the dance, Ms. Dunay said: ”This food is symbolic of how the cultures meld. I have seen it personally in food and dance, Israeli dancing with a Latin beat. It is a very interesting cultural blend.”

Ruth Behar, a cultural anthropologist at the University of Michigan who specializes in Cuba, says food takes on a special significance for Jews from Latin America. They have experienced a double exile, first from Europe or the Middle East and then from Cuba and other parts of Latin America, she said. They hold on to old recipes as if they were warm blankets.

At Temple Beth Am in Pinecrest, a suburb of Miami, a cooking program lets members celebrate their cultural diversity. One member, Nancy Joseph, shared a plaintain dish layered with sautéed ground beef and raisins, onion and green peppers that draws on her family’s traditions.

Mrs. Joseph’s grandparents left Poland in the early 1900’s and went to Havana. Mrs. Joseph and her parents were born in Cuba but they moved to Miami in 1959, when she was 4. Soon business opportunities opened up in Puerto Rico and they moved there.

Mrs. Joseph returned to the United States for college, keeping a taste for Latin food. Her mother makes Latin food except for holidays, when she makes Polish dishes, like fruit-stuffed chremslach for Passover.

Some members of the next generation are making their own new traditions or blending the old and the new. Michelle Bernstein, 32, the chef at Azul, who is one of the Melting Pot chefs on the Food Network, often cooks with her Argentine mother.

Born in Miami, Ms. Bernstein grew up in a house with avocado, lemon, mango and grapefruit trees in the backyard and frequented Latin food stores. At their Seder, her family serves the same gefilte fish recipe that her grandmother took from Russia to Argentina, as well as Ms. Bernstein’s roast grouper stuffed with fennel, her mojo-marinated Cornish hens with apple matzo stuffing and a boniato purée.

”All of this is part of me and is what I am,” she said, at her restaurant in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. ”At home, growing up was a beautiful combination of Jewish and Latin. The mood was set around food on the table, whether it was taking care of an illness, crying over a loss, celebrating every emotion. It is very Latin and very Jewish to always bring family and food together.”


Adapted from Nancy Tuchman Joseph

Time: 1 hour 15 minutes

6 large ripe plantains

Vegetable oil for frying

2 medium onions

1 large sweet green pepper

3 tablespoons olive oil

3 cloves garlic, minced

2 pounds lean ground beef

1/3 cup pitted green olives

1/4 cup raisins

1 1/2 to 2 cups tomato sauce

1 cup white or red wine

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

3 eggs.

1. Peel plantains, and cut each into 4 or 5 slices lengthwise. Heat about 1/4-inch of the vegetable oil in a pan, and fry as many slices as can fit in pan at one time. Fry slices for about 2 minutes on each side, or until golden. Remove from pan, drain on paper towels, and blot any remaining oil from slices. Repeat with remaining slices.

2. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Chop onions and green pepper into 1-inch pieces. Heat olive oil in a large pan, and sauté vegetables until tender. Add garlic, and stir-fry for 1 minute. Add ground beef and cook over medium-high heat until meat loses its red color, breaking it up and mashing with a potato masher so mixture is as fine as possible.

3. Reduce heat to low and add olives, raisins, tomato sauce, wine and salt and pepper to taste. Simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Beat eggs in a small bowl.

4. Assemble kugel in a 9-by-13-inch glass baking dish by arranging a layer of plantain slices, meat mixture, and remaining plantain slices. Slices should touch each other but not overlap. Pour beaten eggs on top, and spread over plantains. Bake about 30 minutes or until top is golden brown.

Yield: 10 to 12 servings.


Adapted from Rebeca Esquenazi

Time: 1 hour 15 minutes

3 cups sugar

1 cup vegetable oil, plus more to grease pan

4 whole oranges

1/2 to 1 cup orange juice

6 large eggs

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 cups matzo meal

2 cups coarsely ground walnuts

1 cup tightly packed chopped dates

2 to 3 tablespoons orange liqueur.

1. Make a sugar syrup by stirring 1 1/2 cups of sugar into 1 1/2 cups of water in a heavy saucepan. Bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer, uncovered, for 40 minutes, or until syrup is reduced to 1/3 of its original volume. Meanwhile, heat oven to 350 degrees and grease a 9-by-13-inch cake pan.

2. Coarsely grate rind of oranges. Then juice oranges, reserving juice and peel, and discarding any pith that remains. Combine reserved juice with enough prepared orange juice to make 2 cups.

3. In a bowl, beat eggs with remaining 1 1/2 cups sugar. Add orange juice and oil, and continue mixing. Stir in salt, matzo meal, walnuts, dates and orange peel. Turn into greased pan and bake for 45 minutes or until golden. Cut into 2-inch diamonds in pan.

4. Stir liqueur into sugar syrup and pour over hot cake. Let sit a few hours before serving.

Yield: At least 12 servings.

Photos: MATZO, MIAMI STYLE — Latin-American Jews contribute to the Seder table. (Alex Quesada/Polaris, for The New York Times)(pg. F1); A PASSOVER CAKE TO EAT ALL YEAR — Rebeca Esquenazi’s orange-date-walnut cake. (Alex Quesada/Polaris, for The New York Times)(pg. F6)
(Tags: Pesach, Latin American Jews, Food)


Related Articles

Archive Search

Search the world's largest online archive of material about Jewish diversity.

Archive Search

Search the world's largest online archive of material about Jewish diversity.