In Argentina, although Passover comes in the fall, the celebration is much like that observed by Jews in the United States, and the food is similar to Eastern European dishes, but with a South American flair.
Argentina has a Jewish population of more than 250,000, making it the largest in Latin America. Their ancestors immigrated from Poland, Russia, Syria, Turkey and North Africa in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Most of the immigrants spoke Yiddish, formed settlements such as Moisés Ville and Villa Clara, and became gauchos (cowboys).
When we traveled recently to Buenos Aires, which boasts a rich Jewish life that mostly centers on the Once district (pronounced OWN-say), we made plans to take a guided Jewish heritage tour.
We visited the city’s oldest synagogue, the Congregacion Israelita de la Republica Argentina, which also features a small Jewish History Museum. Dedicated in 1932, the Byzantine-style synagogue is known as Templo Libertad because it is located on the Plaza Libertad.
We also toured AMIA (Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina), a center that serves as the headquarters for much of the city’s Jewish community, and a Holocaust memorial installed in the Buenos Aires Metropolitan Cathedral. The cathedral’s Commemorative Mural is dedicated to Holocaust victims as well as those murdered in terrorist attacks on the Israel Embassy in 1992 and AMIA in 1994.
After the tour, our guide, Claudia Hercman, explained that her friend Miriam Becker, a well-known journalist who writes about Jewish food, wanted to meet us.
We made arrangements to meet Becker, a lovely woman with a warm, engaging smile, who writes for several Buenos Aires newspapers.
She explained that her father, who came from Russia at age 10, grew up enjoying only Argentine cooking, and her mother arrived from Romania when she was 20. Becker grew up experiencing foods from both worlds.
She became a journalist after graduating from the University of Buenos Aires with a psychology degree. Her first job was writing about public events for the newspaper La Nación. But when she was given an assignment to write a feature story about food, she knew immediately it was her calling.
Her most recent cookbook, “Pasión Por la Cocina Judia” (Passion for the Jewish Kitchen), is filled with traditional and Jewish holiday recipes.
Whether she has a good day or a bad day, Becker is happiest when she is in the kitchen. Like many Argentine Jews, she makes everything herself for the Pesaj seder. Her family gets together on the first two nights of the holiday, and food is either plated in the kitchen or served buffet style.
Gefilte Fish and Chicken Soup With Matzah Balls (Bombitas de Harina de Matza) are staples on her Passover menu, but Becker often adds a cup of chopped, cooked spinach to her matzah balls. They can also be made bite-size, similar to gnocchi, boiled and served in a tomato sauce.
Inspired by her mother’s recipe, Becker’s Polo La Pascua Judia, chicken baked in orange juice with dried fruit, is a perfect Passover main course that feels both traditional and exotic.
She prepares a Honey Torte for dessert, but doesn’t sift the matzah meal, preferring a granular texture that gives it an unmistakable Passover identity.
BOMBITAS DE HARINA DE MATZA (MATZAH BALLS)
2 cups matzah meal
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 cups hot water
1/3 cup olive oil or nondairy margarine (melted)
1 tablespoon minced parsley
In the large bowl of an electric mixer, blend the matzah meal, 1 teaspoon of salt, a pinch of pepper and the water. Add the oil, stir until combined, and let the mixture rest for 20 minutes.
Add the eggs to the matzah mixture, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Season with additional salt and pepper to taste. Make small or medium-size balls with moistened hands. Slide them into boiling chicken soup or salted water. Cover tightly, reduce heat to a simmer and cook for 30 minutes.
To serve, spoon matzah balls into warm soup bowls and ladle chicken soup over them.
Makes about 20 matzah balls.
POLO la pascua judia (PASSOVER CHICKEN)
1 (4-pound) chicken, cut into eighths or quarters
Salt and pepper
3 cups orange juice
2 teaspoons dried thyme
3 bay leaves, crumbled
2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
1 pound mixed dried fruit (prunes, apricots, peaches and pears)
3 tablespoons honey
3 tablespoons sugar
Fresh or dried thyme, to taste
Preheat the oven to 375 F. Season the chicken with salt and pepper, and place in a roaster.
Heat 1 cup orange juice and pour over the chicken pieces. Sprinkle with thyme, bay leaves and parsley. Cover and bake for 1 hour, basting frequently.
Place the dried fruit in a saucepan with the honey, sugar, remaining 2 cups orange juice, salt and pepper to taste, and thyme. Bring to a boil and simmer until it becomes a thick sauce, adding liquid if needed.
Remove chicken from the oven, and add the dried fruit with sauce. Return to the oven and continue baking for 20 minutes or until chicken is cooked through and tender when pierced with a fork.
Makes 6 to 8 servings.
LEICAJ DE PESAJ (PASSOVER HONEY TORTE)
6 eggs, separated
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup honey
1/2 cup matzah meal, plus small amount to dust pan
1 tablespoon lemon zest
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup ground almonds
2 tablespoons sugar mixed with 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon, for garnish, optional
Preheat the oven to 325 F. Brush a 10-inch tube cake pan with oil, dust with matzah meal, place on a baking sheet and set aside.
In the large bowl of an electric mixer, add the egg yolks with 1/3 cup oil, 1/2 cup sugar, honey, lemon zest and vanilla, and beat well. Set aside.
In another large bowl, beat the egg whites with the remaining 1/2 cup sugar until firm peaks form.
Pour the meringue over the egg yolk mixture and, using a rubber spatula, gently but thoroughly fold the beaten egg whites into the egg yolk mixture along with 1/2 cup matzah meal and ground almonds.
Pour the batter into the prepared tube pan and bake for about 50 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Remove from the oven and invert the pan onto a wire rack to cool. With a sharp knife loosen the cake from the sides and center of the pan and unmold onto a cake plate.
Sprinkle with a mixture of sugar and cinnamon.
Makes 12 servings.
For more information about Claudia Hercman’s Jewish tours of Buenos Aires, visit instyleargentina.com.ar.