An Argentine Passover, Then and Now
PASSOVER comes in the fall in the Southern Hemisphere, but even for a gaucho judio in the pampas, the eight-day holiday means what it does for most Jews in the United States: gefilte fish with horseradish, chicken soup with matzoh balls and roast chicken. But there, cooks are much more involved in the preparations. Only recently have they had access to store-bought Passover staples.
Buenos Aires is home to the largest concentration of Jews in Latin America, and Argentina has the seventh-largest Jewish population by country in the world: 206,000. Most came fleeing the pogroms of Russia, although about 15 percent are Sephardic, from Syria, Turkey and North Africa.
Unlike Eastern European immigrants to the United States, however, many of the earliest settlers were farmers. Diego Guelar, the Argentine Ambassador to the United States, said his great-grandfather arrived from Lithuania in 1891 with the Jewish Colonization Association of Paris, a fund established by the philanthropist Baron Maurice de Hirsch to create Jewish agricultural colonies in Argentina. Like a few of these Jewish cowboys, the Guelars stayed on the land, eventually swapping farming for cattle breeding.
From his home in Washington, Mr. Guelar recalled that at his childhood Passovers on a ranch in Entre Rios Province, about 400 miles northeast of Buenos Aires, roast chicken was on the menu, along with Eastern European recipes like potatoes stuffed with ground beef and onions. These are called chremslach in Eastern Europe and albondigas de papas in Argentina. An avocado and lettuce salad replaces the asparagus served in the United States.
Until recently, most Passover dishes in Argentina were made from scratch. Very few of the kinds of products now taken for granted in this country were sold in stores. Ambassador Guelar, who is 48, recalls how on his ranch the gefilte fish was made by hand-grinding carp, whitefish and pike, and then stuffing it into the skin of a large carp.
Today, with more kosher-for-Passover products available, like vinegar and oil, Argentines can eat their roast chicken marinated in chimichurri sauce, a garlicky blend of vinegar and spices. The recipe here is from Naomi Sisson, the wife of the Israeli Consul General in New York, who grew up in Rosario, in the province just northeast of Entre Rios.
Argentina is one of the few countries where kosher butchers provide the beef casings to make kishke, the Jewish holiday dish of intestines stuffed with potatoes, matzoh meal, eggs, chicken fat and spices.
”Once, there were 50 kosher butchers in Buenos Aires,” Adolfo Maleh told me during a recent visit to Argentina. Now, he is one of the 20 or so remaining in the entire country. Mr. Maleh, who is Sephardic, makes beef chorizo at his Carniceria Simon in Once (pronounced OWN-say), traditionally the city’s Jewish neighborhood.
The stores in Once and other neighborhoods now offer packaged products for Passover from Israel and the United States, like cake mixes and tomato paste and soups, as well as the local Yanovsky brand of matzoh and matzoh meal.
Many in the younger generation use these time-saving products, but the old-timers do not. Susana Shalalof, who has cooked for 35 years at Succath David, one of the few kosher restaurants in Buenos Aires, makes traditional Syrian dishes at home for Passover (the restaurant closes for the holiday).
Her stuffed vegetables, from a recipe brought by her parents from Syria, are filled with beef or lamb, rice and pine nuts, seasoned with cumin, allspice and cinnamon and served in a sauce of tomato, tamarind and cinnamon, all ingredients permissible at Passover for Syrian Jews.
Unlike cooks in this country, Mrs. Shalalof, like most Argentines, doubles the amount of beef in her traditional recipes for Passover, and throughout the year.
ARGENTINE ROAST CHICKEN WITH VEGETABLES AND CHIMICHURRI SAUCE
Adapted from Naomi Sisson
Time: 50 minutes, plus overnight marination
1/4 cup kosher-for-Passover vinegar
1 tablespoon kosher-for-Passover ground cumin
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
1/4 teaspoon hot pepper flakes
1 head garlic, cloves peeled and crushed
2 teaspoons chopped fresh oregano
1/2 cup kosher-for-Passover vegetable or olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 3-pound roasting chicken, cut up
2 large bell peppers, diced
3 large tomatoes, sliced
5 large potatoes, peeled and each cut into 6 large chunks.
1. Combine vinegar, cumin, paprika, hot pepper flakes, crushed garlic and oregano in a small bowl. Whisk in oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Pour sauce over chicken, rubbing skin well. Cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerator overnight.
2. When ready to roast, preheat oven to 400 degrees. Grease a large baking pan. Add peppers, then tomatoes. Place chicken, bottom sides up, on top, pouring half the marinade over. Scatter potatoes around chicken.
3. Roast 20 minutes, then turn chicken pieces over, and continue roasting until the chicken is crispy on top, about 30 minutes more.
Yield: 6 servings.