NEW YORK, Nov. 13 (JTA) — When people think of Cuba, they picture shortages. There’s little oil for frying food or candles, similar to conditions in ancient Israel, when the Maccabees defeated the Syrians. There are no potatoes or boniatos, Cuban white sweet potatoes, which were once grated into latkes and kugels. Basic commodities, such as milk, eggs and malanga — an indigenous tuberous vegetable — are hard to obtain. But things were not always this way.
Picture Chanukah before Fidel Castro’s Communist revolution in January 1959. While latkes sizzled, holiday candles twinkled in balmy air. Jews were free to celebrate the miracle of how a one-day supply of oil stretched for eight days.
The island was dotted with luxury hotels, nightclubs and restaurants. Escaping winter chill, wealthy tourists flocked there to sunbathe and gamble.
“In the forties and fifties, there was so much prosperity, the Jewish community flourished,” says Tina Wasserman, Reform Judaism Magazine’s food columnist. “The Jewish way of life mirrored the opulent lifestyle enjoyed by many American Jews.”
Cuban Jews were doctors, architects, bankers, shopkeepers and owners of garment factories and hotels. “They employed cooks and housekeepers,” Wasserman says. “They vacationed at fine hotels, attended dances and parties and celebrated Jewish holidays.”
While it’s not known when the first Chanukah was observed in Cuba, Jews played a part in pivotal moments of the country’s history. Luis de Torres, a converso, or Jew forced to convert to Christianity, arrived on the island as Christopher Columbus’ interpreter.
After the expulsion from Spain in 1492, small groups of Jews made their way to Cuba. Centuries later, Jewish pirates prowled the seas off of the island’s coast.
In 1898, Jews from the Dutch Antilles supported Jose Marti, who liberated Cuba from Spanish control. During this period, Jewish traders entered the island’s lucrative sugar cane business. American Jews born in Romania and other Eastern European countries arrived to work for U.S. owned plantations.
In 1904, Cuba’s first synagogue, the United Hebrew Congregation was founded. “Two years later, a building was erected, making 2006 the 100th anniversary of an official Jewish presence on the island,” Wasserman says.
Between 1910 and 1920, an influx of Sephardi Jews came from Turkey. Eastern European Jews, many from Poland, used the island as a stopover on their way to America, a country with strict quotas. Because of the tropical climate and rarity of anti-Semitism, many of them stayed permanently, growing prosperous in the garment industry.
“Because so many Jews came from Poland, Cubans called all Jews Polacos, meaning Polacks,” Wasserman says.
During the forties, the St. Louis, a ship carrying German Jews seeking refuge, docked in Havana, where its passengers were denied entrance. A decade later, Jews were among the diehard Communists who swept Castro into power.
“In the days before the Communist Revolution, everything American was exciting,” Wasserman says, explaining that Cubans were great consumers of American television and TV dinners. “They loved Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. Ingredients such as mayonnaise, Campbell’s Soup and American cheese were readily available.” But this changed rapidly once Castro gained control.
“There were many influences on Cuban Jewish cuisine,” says Wasserman, whose Web site www.cookingandmore.com is a valuable resource of Jewish recipes and cooking tips. While Ashkenazi cooking dominated, Sephardi seasoning flavored food too.
“A major influence on Cuban food came from Spain,” Wasserman says, explaining that the signature dish Black Beans and Rice is a variation of a 900-year-old dish called Moros Y Cristianos. Meaning Moors and Christians, it symbolized the coexistence of the two religions in Medieval Spain.
“Jews in Cuba encountered African and Caribbean seasoning too,” says Wasserman. In the late fifties, Chinese immigrants added soy sauce to Cuban food.
“Onions, green bell peppers, cumin and pork were prevalent in Cuban cuisine,” Wasserman says. While most Jews enjoyed popular local dishes, religiously observant Jews tweaked recipes to avoid pork.
During the 20th century, Ashkenazi Jews introduced latkes to Cuba, serving them at Chanukah with dollops of sour cream.
There is little documentation on what else Jews ate at Chanukah in pre-Castro Cuba. Therefore, Wasserman conducted research and interviews to develop recipes calling for ingredients that were prevalent on this lush island, when markets overflowed with yucca root, malanga and guava.
While these ingredients may sound exotic, they can be found in Spanish markets, Whole Foods stores, specialty green grocers, gourmet shops and many supermarkets. Guava is available frozen or in jars as guava jelly.
Before the revolution, 15,000 Jews called Cuba home. Acosta Street in Old Havana, still called “Jewish Street,” used to be lined with kosher bakeries, restaurants and Jewish-owned clothing stores.
But as the new socialist government seized private businesses, 95 percent of the Jewish population fled, mainly to the United States and Israel. Those who remained were either too poor or too old to leave, too assimilated, or too devoted to the revolution’s ideals.
For decades, Castro opposed religious observance, but in 1991, he reversed that policy, allowing Jews to openly worship.
But the collapse of the Soviet Union resulted in the cessation of their support, causing unimaginable hardships. Poverty, unemployment and malnutrition grew rampant.
For that reason, in June Tina Wasserman and her husband co-chaired a medical humanitarian mission to Cuba through the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. They brought medical supplies and clothing to the approximately1,500 Jews suffering cruel shortages.
At the Patronato Synagogue in Havana, a woman making fritters mentioned it was difficult to find potatoes for latkes, so Wasserman suggested using malanga as a substitute. She later learned that malanga is equally scarce.
Inside the Adath Israel Synagogue kitchen, Wasserman became emotional, teaching two women to braid challah.
As Chanukah approaches, she hopes the friends she met in Cuba can scrape together something to fry for the holiday.
“We have Jews living only 93 miles from our shores,” Wasserman says. “They are sequestered in Cuba, left with only fleeting memories of the latkes of long ago.”
Recipes by Tina Wasserman.
YUCCA ROOT FRIES WITH MOJO SAUCE
1/4 cup olive oil
6 large cloves garlic, finely minced
1/2 cup sour orange juice or 1/4 cup orange juice and 1/4 cup lime juice
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1. Heat a 1 quart saucepan for 15 seconds. Add the olive oil and heat for 10 seconds over medium heat.
2. Add the garlic and cook for 20 seconds or until it just starts to get lightly golden. Do not let the garlic brown, or the sauce will become bitter.
3. Add the remaining ingredients and bring to a rolling boil. Be careful, sauce may steam. Cook for three minutes. Remove from heat, adjust seasonings if necessary and chill until ready to serve with the fried yucca or on top of vegetables, meats or fish.
1 large yucca root — approximately 1 pound
Vegetable oil for frying
1. Peel the yucca and slice it in half lengthwise. Remove the stringy core in the center. Cut each half crosswise into 2 inch lengths.
2. Place the big chunks of yucca into a 2 quart pot of salted water and cook over medium heat covered until the pieces are tender — about 30 minutes. Drain on a cloth towel and cool.
3. When ready to fry, add enough oil to a 1 quart saucepan or deep fryer to make a depth of at least one inch. Heat oil to 375F.
4. Cut yucca into 2 inch by 1/2 inch sticks. Pat dry and add to the hot oil. Add no more than 5 or 6 sticks at a time as oil bubbles up and temperature will drop if too many sticks are added at a time. Fry until golden. Drain on paper towels and sprinkle with salt. Eat as is or with the Mojo Sauce for dipping.
Yield: 2-4 servings.
MALANGA-CRUSTED FISH FILLET
(Long and pink tinged, malanga is also called dasheen, cocoyam or taro.)
1 pound malanga root, peeled
2 large cloves of garlic, peeled
2 tablespoons packed whole cilantro, washed and patted dry
2 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup flour
Salt and pepper
1 pound thin fish fillets, such as sole, flounder or tilapia
Vegetable oil for frying
1. Cut the peeled malanga into chunks and place in a food processor work bowl fitted with the steel blade. Pulse on and off until the root is a coarse texture.
2. Add the garlic and process for 5 seconds.
3. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a spatula and then add the cilantro. Pulse until mixture is fairly smooth. Add eggs and 1/2 teaspoon salt and pulse until eggs are fully incorporated.
4. Place mixture in a flat dish or pie plate and let it rest while assembling the remaining ingredients.
5. Place about 1/2 cup of flour in a flat plate. Season with salt and pepper.
6. Heat a 10 inch to 12 inch frying pan for 30 seconds. Add enough oil to come to a depth of 1/2 inch. Heat the oil over medium high heat until hot, but not smoking. Oil is ready when fish sizzles immediately upon contact.
7. Rinse off fish under running water. Do not pat dry. Shake off excess water and then coat on both sides with the seasoned flour.
8. Coat both sides of the fish fillets with the malanga mixture and add to the frying pan. Do not crowd the fish. Cook in batches of 2-3 fillets at a time.
9. Fry fillets for 2 minutes until golden and then flip over and fry an additional 2 minutes or until done. Drain on paper towel and keep warm in a 200F oven until ready to serve.
10. Just before serving, squeeze fresh lime juice over the fillets.
Yield: 4-6 servings.
SALADA DE MOROS & CHRISTIANOS (Cuban Black Bean and Rice Salad)
4 cloves of garlic, finely minced
1/3 cup coarsely chopped cilantro
6 Roma tomatoes, or 1 large tomato, seeded and diced
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 jalapeno pepper, finely diced
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1/2 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
3 ears corn, roasted and kernels removed (approximately 2 cups) or 2 cans of corn, drained
1/4 cup diced red onion
1/2 cup diced red or yellow bell pepper
1/2 cup diced green bell pepper
1 15-ounce can black beans, drained and rinsed
2 cups long grain rice
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Combine the first 9 ingredients in a serving bowl large enough to eventually hold all of the remaining ingredients. Let marinate for at least 1/2 hour at room temperature.
2. Roast the corn over mesquite wood until golden and tender on all sides. Remove from the cob and set aside. If using canned corn, roast at 350 F for about 15 minutes until lightly browned.
3. Have all of your remaining ingredients ready while you cook the rice.
4. Cook the rice according to package directions. When the rice is done, quickly pour it over the tomato mixture. Toss with the remaining ingredients. Add salt and pepper if needed. Serve immediately at room temperature or chill it.
Yield: Approximately 2 -3 quarts of salad
TORTE DE GUAYABA (Guava Cake)
2 cups all purpose flour
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
13/4 sticks unsalted butter
3 tablespoons cream sherry
15 ounces guava paste in a 1/2 inch thick brick
1. Place flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in a food processor work bowl. Pulse on and off a few times to combine the ingredients.
2. Cut the butter into 14 pieces. Place the pieces in the work bowl and then pulse on and off until a coarse meal is formed with smaller than pea-sized pieces of butter remaining.
3. Combine the eggs and the cream sherry and immediately add to the work bowl while the processor is running. Process only until a ball of dough starts to form so that dough does not get too tough.
4. Coat a 9 inch springform pan with non-stick spray. Spread half of the dough over the pan patting even with your finger tips.
5. Slice the brick of guava paste crosswise into 1/4 inch thick slices. Place slices on the dough in a spiral covering as much exposed dough as possible. Paste may be pieced together since it won’t show.
6. Spread the remaining dough over the guava paste, covering the paste completely.
7. Bake in a preheated 350F oven for 30-40 minutes or until cake tester comes out clean and cake is a rich golden brown. Remove from oven and cool completely before serving. This cake tastes better made at least a day in advance.
8. To serve, slice in individual wedges or cut rows 1 inch apart and then, on the diagonal, another set of rows 1 inch apart to create diamonds. Place the diamonds in little paper cups and serve as part of a dessert buffet.
Yield: 1 cake serving 18-20 people, or 3-4 dozen miniature diamonds