Cooking In A Latin-Jewish Melting Pot : Code Switch Growing up in two cultures means eating Jewish chicken soup with lime and cilantro or breading your Argentine milanesa with matzo meal. Jewish families who emigrated from Europe to Latin America around World War II wove local flavors into traditional recipes.
NPR logo Cooking In A Latin-Jewish Melting Pot

Cooking In A Latin-Jewish Melting Pot

Code Switch has been writing about some overlooked cultural interactions that have helped shape Jewish-American identity, including the history of Latino and Jewish cultures.

We began the series last weekend with a conversation on the largely forgotten era of Latin-Jewish fusion music. Today, guest blogger Alex Schmidt looks at how Jewish immigrants in Latin America wove local flavors into their traditional recipes, and vice versa.

Rebecca Lehrer thought that chicken soup with lime and cilantro was the way every Jewish family made it. Courtesy of Rebecca Lehrer hide caption

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Courtesy of Rebecca Lehrer

Rebecca Lehrer thought that chicken soup with lime and cilantro was the way every Jewish family made it.

Courtesy of Rebecca Lehrer

Chicken soup with lime and cilantro: You'd never characterize it as a Jewish comfort food. But for my friend Rebecca, whose mother was born in El Salvador, that's exactly what it was.

My parents were born in Mexico, and their parents were Eastern European Jews. For me, matzo balls in pozole, a spicy Mexican soup, were standard fare on Friday nights. It wasn't noteworthy at the time; it was simply what we ate. It's not until we grew up and reflected on our mixing of traditions that we realized there was something more behind them.

Growing up in Los Angeles, I was surrounded by many other Latin Jewish families with culinary collisions like these. Most of them had followed a similar immigration trajectory: grandparents or great-grandparents leaving Europe before or during World War II, making their way to Latin America — Argentina, Cuba, Peru, Panama and Uruguay — and finally heading north for the U.S. in the next generation.

Sharing a language, a religion and a migration pattern can help you understand another person in an ineffable way. And given Jewish dietary restrictions (no pork or shellfish, no mixing meat and dairy, no bread on Passover), it's not surprising that weird and wonderful food mixes arose in other countries. Our time in Latin America — or wherever Jews happened to alight — sometimes constrained our diets, but also pushed us to be creative with the new ingredients at hand.

I talked with a couple of my Latin Jewish friends about their traditions, and they shared some of their food experiences and family recipes.

Argentine Kigalach

Carina Bien-Willner, in her mother's arms, with her grandmother and siblings in Argentina. Courtesy of Carina Bien-Willner hide caption

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Courtesy of Carina Bien-Willner

Carina Bien-Willner, in her mother's arms, with her grandmother and siblings in Argentina.

Courtesy of Carina Bien-Willner

The grandparents of my friend Carina Bien-Willner were born in Austria and Poland, and immigrated to Argentina in the late 1930s and '40s. Carina was born in Buenos Aires and immigrated to Arizona when she was 5 years old.

As she explains it, Argentine cuisine is "heavy on meat — and more meat." Carina's family ate milanesa de pollo — breaded chicken breast, a staple of Argentine food — but they always coated it in matzo meal rather than bread crumbs. Not only did they prefer it that way, but it was also Passover-friendly, when leavened bread is forbidden.

The puré de papa, mashed potatoes, that accompanied milanesa also had a Kosher twist: Her mother and grandmother would cook it the same way they'd make the filling for a knish, an Eastern European potato dumpling — fried up with lots of onions and no butter or milk.

Coquitos, the Argentine coconut macaroon, became the family's annual dessert during Passover. Around Hanukkah, instead of making potato latkes, Carina's grandmother, Yetka Laufer, would make kigalach — Yiddish for "little dumplings" — and mix in the greens that were otherwise absent from her children's diet. These crispy, dark green, latke-sized patties have little flecks of the onion throughout. The inside is a brighter green, moist and cheesy.


1 white onion, minced
2 pounds of freshly chopped spinach
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon onion powder
4 eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 cup matzo meal
2-3 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese

Sauté onion in olive oil until golden brown. Add spinach, garlic powder and onion powder, and mix together just enough to wilt the spinach. Remove from pan and let cool in a bowl.

Mix eggs, matzo meal, Parmesan cheese, and salt and pepper to taste into the spinach until the mixture turns thick and binds. Add more matzo meal as needed to get the mixture into a semi-thick consistency. Heat oil in a pan. Add mixture into pan a couple of tablespoons at a time and form into latke-shaped patties.

Recipe courtesy of Carina Bien-Willner

Cilantro-Lime Chicken Soup

Lehrer's maternal grandmother, Gerda Guttfreund, still lives in El Salvador. Courtesy of Rebecca Lehrer hide caption

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Courtesy of Rebecca Lehrer

Lehrer's maternal grandmother, Gerda Guttfreund, still lives in El Salvador.

Courtesy of Rebecca Lehrer

Another friend, Rebecca Lehrer, traces her Latin roots to El Salvador. Her maternal grandparents were born in Germany and wound up in San Salvador in the 1940s. Her mother immigrated to the U.S. as a teenager, but Rebecca's grandmother and cousins still live in El Salvador.

Casamiento, a Salvadorian marriage of rice and beans, was always served alongside German schnitzel, breaded meat. Pupusas — a thick corn tortilla filled with cheese, beans or meat — with a dessert of Viennese schokoladenwurst, a log-shaped chocolate pastry, were served at the special Friday night Sabbath meal.

Rebecca says she feels an instant bond with other Latin Jews because of their shared experiences of growing up in many cultures. "You have a global identity — all the fun and flavor of Latin America, along with the traditions of Judaism," she says.

Rebecca documents cultural mixes on her blog, The Mash-Up Americans. Last week, she wrote about one of her favorite food mix-ups: She had always thought that chicken soup with lime and cilantro was just the way traditional chicken soup was made. She found out only recently that most Jews don't flavor their comfort food that way.


1 whole chicken
1/4 cup chopped cilantro (or more, depending on your cilantro preference)
1/4 cup chopped flat leaf parsley
6 cloves of garlic whole or quartered, your choice
1 cup of rice (optional)
3 bay leaves
1 tablespoon of salt or more to taste
20 black peppercorns
5 allspice berries
4 limes, cut in half

All vegetables below should be chopped to your liking, but I like about 1/2 inch cubed to fit in my spoon. Don't do it too fine, this is a hearty soup!

2 large potatoes (or 6 small potatoes)
2 medium onions
2 carrots
4 stalks celery
2 guisquiles (chayote)
3 small zucchini's or yellow squash
1 turnip
1/4 lb of green beans (ejotes) cut in half
Other vegetable options: corn, cabbage, yucca root

Put the whole chicken (with giblets, if that's your thing) and all chopped vegetables in a large pot. Add salt and bay leaves, peppercorns, allspice berries, garlic, cilantro and parsley. Cover with water. Bring to a boil. Bring down to a gentle simmer and add rice (optional).

Cook for 1.5 hours at gentle simmer, adding water when needed to keep everything covered. After 1.5 hours chicken should fall apart with touch of a spoon. Break chicken apart in the pot. Leave the bones — people can pick them out of their bowls.

Add salt and pepper to taste. The longer you cook it, the better it gets, but it can be served after 1.5 hours. Serve with half a lime (and more sliced up on the table) and thick Salvadoran tortillas.

Original recipe from The Mash-Up Americans

Fideos (Mexican Lokshen)

My mom expertly cooks up fusion recipes like fideos, a noodle dish with a smoky, spicy tomato touch. While it's a traditional Mexican dish, noodles are a very common dish in Eastern European cuisine, too, where they're called lokshen. This recipe for "Mexican lokshen" comes from my mom's blog, Challa-peño. (I've previously reported on the origins of the blog and my family's intersection of Mexican and Jewish cuisines.)


3 tablespoons canola oil
1 8- to 9-ounce package of angel hair pasta nests
1 15-ounce can tomato sauce
2 ripe tomatoes quartered
1/8 onion
2 garlic cloves
2 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 – 1/2 teaspoon crushed red chili peppers (optional)

Alex Schmidt's mother, Susan, shows how to make fideos step by step.

Susan Schmidt YouTube

Pour the canola oil into a large pot and warm it up over medium heat. Place the pasta nests in the pot and spread them out in a single layer on top of the oil. Allow the nests to toast to a golden brown. When one side has browned, turn them over with a pair of tongs and brown them on the other side.

When the pasta nests have browned on both sides, break them up with the pair tongs, lower the heat and continue to mix consistently.

Raise the heat to high, and when the pot is very hot, add the sauce from the blender. Bring the noodles in the sauce to a boil, stir well, lower the heat, cover and allow the noodles to simmer for five to seven minutes. You will now see that most of the sauce has been absorbed, and the fideos are cooked. Remove them from heat and transfer them to a serving dish. The fideos will continue to absorb the sauce.

If desired, sprinkle the crushed chili peppers over the fideos, serve very hot and enjoy!

Original recipe from Challa-peño

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