I am often asked whether I feel more Cuban-American than Jewish, or vice versa, and it has always struck me as an odd question. That’s like asking whether I like my right eye better than my left. Sure, if you close one eye, you can still see, but the world looks so much better with both eyes open. That is sort of how I feel about my two cultures. On the surface, it may seem like my Cuban culture is in direct conflict with my Jewish one, particularly when it comes to the pork-friendly nature of Cuban cuisine and the dietary laws of the Jewish faith, but just like seeing the world with both eyes open, I feel most comfortable when my cultures work in conjunction with each other.
Fortunately, there is plenty of common ground between the two. Given the fact that both place a high priority on family and tradition, and get-togethers almost always revolve around food, my family has been blurring the cultural dividing lines for decades. This melting pot approach jumps into high gear around the holidays and other family gatherings. My “Jewban” family has been known to serve a creamy flan during Shavuot, a citrus and garlic-infused Cuban-style chicken for Shabbat, and minty Mojito-scented quinoa during Passover. These incredible dishes aside, nothing holds a candle to my family’s recipe for Ropa Vieja, Cuban comfort food at its very best.
Ropa Vieja, which literally translates to “old clothes,” or as my paternal grandmother would call them, “shmatas,” is the Cuban answer to a traditional Jewish brisket. Both use inexpensive cuts of meat that are slow-roasted until tender and falling apart, but Ropa Vieja takes it a step further, and actually calls for the chunks of meat to be shredded to resemble rags. This may seem like it would diminish the allure of the dish, but as Jewish brisket is usually reserved for the holiday table, a good Ropa Vieja is truly cause for celebration. Additionally, as it is important in the Jewish culture to pass our traditions from generation to generation, most Cuban families have had a recipe for Ropa Vieja for ages.
The recipe I feature originated with my Abuela (maternal grandmother), but was passed to me by my Tia Pipa (Aunt Felipa), both seriously tough culinary acts to follow. And while I have the added benefit of modern kitchen electrics like the slow-cooker, the spirit of the recipe remains the same. The perfume of a traditionally Cuban sofrito, made from garlic, onions, and sweet bell peppers, marries beautifully with the warm smokiness from the cumin. And while the brine-y capers that adorn the meat and add a splash of color may seem like a distinctly Mediterranean choice, they act as a nod to the migration of Spaniards that made their way to Cuba and the other Caribbean islands in days of old.
One bite may make you want to close your eyes and savor the moment, but I challenge you to resist the urge. See the world with both eyes open, and celebrate the diversity that makes Cuban-Jewish families unique.
Ropa Vieja, by Jennifer Stempel of TheCubanReuben.com
• 5-7 lbs. Brisket, trimmed of most visible fat
• 2 onions, divided
• 6 cloves of garlic, divided
• 2 large red bell peppers, divided
• 2 bay leaves, divided
• 4 cups beef stock
• 3 tsp. Olive oil
• 1 Tbs dried oregano
• 1 Tbs ground cumin
• 1 14 oz can diced tomatoes
• 1 8 oz can tomato sauce
• 10 stuffed green olives, sliced in thin rounds
• 2 Tbs capers, plus 1 Tbs. of the brine.
• Salt and Pepper to taste
1. Cut your brisket into 2-inch wide strips.
2. The night before you want to serve, add the brisket, 1 onion, roughly chopped, 2 whole cloves of garlic, ½ a bell pepper, 1 bay leaf, and beef stock to a slow-cooker, and set to cook on low for 6-7 hours.
3. Remove the beef and set aside. Once the beef is cool enough to be handled, use 2 forks to shred the beef.
4. Strain the cooking liquid, and reserve for later use in a medium bowl. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and refrigerate long enough for the fat to solidify on top (about 20-30 minutes). Skim the fat from the liquid.
5. Discard the rest of the contents from the slow cooker.
6. Meanwhile, finely dice the remainder of the onions and half of the remaining bell pepper. The rest of the bell pepper should be sliced in short, thin slices.
7. Mince the remaining garlic.
8. Heat a large pot (dutch oven style) over medium-high heat. Add olive oil.
9. Add the diced onions and both diced and sliced bell peppers, and cook for 5-10 minutes, or until onions become translucent. Add the garlic, and cook for 2 more minutes.
10. Add the shredded beef to the pot, as well as ½ of the now-skimmed stock, the oregano, the cumin, the diced tomatoes, and the tomato sauce. Stir to combine.
11. Lower the heat, cover the pot, and simmer for 30 minutes, or until liquid reduces and thickens a bit.
12. Add the olives, brine, and capers, and cook for 15 more minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.
13. Leave simmering on low on the stove until ready to serve.
14. Serve with white rice.
To read more about Jennifer’s culinary adventures, check out her blog.
My husband, Grant and I have worked together to rear our children in the Jewish faith. We made a conscious effort to place our family in diverse cities: New York, Los Angeles and now the Bay Area – to expose them to a variety of cultures and ethnicities.
What challenges have I really faced? What have I done to remind our children that they aren’t just Jewish but Filipino. What have I done to help them embrace the culture that I grew up in?
Filipino culture is rooted – for the most part – in three major areas: religion, family and food.
I grew up Catholic. Went to Catholic school from high school through college and even after graduating and living in San Francisco I would still attend mass every Sunday. Partly because I knew my Mom would ask if I went and I couldn’t be dishonest with her.
I remember big dinners on Sundays or celebrations where everyone came together and there was always a table filled with almost every traditional Filipino dish you could imagine. Every get together had its share of both family drama and laughter.
So when I think about what I have done to make an effort to infuse my Filipino background with our family – I don’t see challenges – if anything I see similarities.
We stress the importance of our Judaism, especially in a world where we try to explain to our children why we don’t celebrate Christmas when one set of grandparents do, that the Easter bunny will never come hopping by our home, and that matzoh for a whole week can be rather tasty – you just have to know how to bring out the flavor.
We are doing our very best to give our children the strongest foundation we can. With that foundation we stress the importance of being true to who you are – embracing the beauty and traditions of our religion and the legacy of all the Jewish people before us.
We light the candles every Friday and have family Shabbat dinner. We spend time with family and friends over the Jewish holidays – surrounded by food and laughter – creating memories.
A perfect example of how we have effortlessly combined Filipino and Jewish tradition happened on the night of Yom Kippur. I asked the family what they would like for Shabbat dinner and the unanimous vote was chicken adobo – a traditional Filipino dish – with green beans and garlic, rice and of course, a challah.
One would immediately think, “What an interesting pairing…” but it showcases our family off perfectly.
This is who we are.
We are Jewish and Filipino. The integration of both cultures has been a seamless one because we have adopted the same value system from each one. We value our religion. We value our family. And. We love food.
We celebrate our diversity and feel so blessed that our children will grow up being proud of not only being Jewish but being Filipino.
This piece was first shared from the bimah at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos, California.
There’s a not-so-funny joke that goes, “A man walks into a Chinese restaurant and says to the waiter, ‘Excuse me sir, but are there any Chinese Jews?’ To which the waiter replies, ‘No, sir, we just have orange juice, apple juice, grapefruit juice…’”
It’s slightly bearable if the delivery includes an awful impression of a Chinese accent. But there are apparently many people who do appreciate this joke, and they make sure that it makes its way through the grapevine to me, a Chinese Jew.
I enjoy being a Chinese Jew.
I eat plenty of matzo balls and potstickers, I celebrate three New Years, and in high school I crushed my math classes.
I’ve often had to convince people that I’m Jewish, which is amusing and usually results in a new friend feeling like they can connect with me better due to a shared religion. Other than that, I can’t say I really thought about what it meant to Chinese and Jewish while I was growing up.
The only time my Chinese Jewishness got me into trouble was during my dating days in New York. Jewish guys with “yellow fever” would take me on casual dates to casual places, but the second they discovered I was Jewish, things got weird. Suddenly I wasn’t a casual date, suddenly I was the first Jewish girl that didn’t remind them of their mother and do I want to get married.
Speaking of boys.
I recently followed a Norwegian one out to rural North Dakota, population six Jews and about 10,000 Scandinavian descendants. Things are quiet here, people are Midwestern nice, and the small town life is pretty darn wonderful.
For the first time in my life, I feel a bit like an oddball, in a sea of light-haired Lutherans, but people embrace me when I introduce them to challah. North Dakotans love challah! And I love their food too, like Lefse and dessert bars of all sorts.
All of my Challah here is homemade. As are my latkes, kugel, matzo balls… you get the picture. There’s not a deli in sight. Not even a bagel. I do miss bopping down to Zabar’s for babka and bagels, but on the other hand, with the necessity to make everything from scratch comes the opportunity to put my own spin on things and mash up my Chinese/Jewish/Midwesternness.
Brisket in my potstickers, ginger sugar beet latkes, egg rolls with home cured pastrami from a cow that I’ll one day raise…
I’m getting carried away.
Here is an Asian twist on my all time favorite challah. It’s inspired by the scallion pancake.
Makes one large loaf
Basic Challah Dough
Based on Food 52′s Recipe
1 tablespoon instant yeast
3/4 cups warm water
2 tablespoons + 1 teaspoon sugar
3 cups flour, plus more for dusting
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons honey
1/3 cups vegetable or canola oil
Filling and Topping
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
2-3 stalks scallions or green onions, minced
salt, pepper, and red chili flakes to taste
Egg wash: 1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon of water
A few pinches of toasted sesame seeds and black sesame seeds
In a small bowl, proof yeast in 1/2 cup warm water mixed with 1 teaspoon of sugar.
While yeast is proofing, mix flour, salt, and remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar in a large bowl.
In a medium bowl, mix remaining 1/4 cup of water, honey, oil, and eggs.
Once yeast has finished proofing, add it to the flour, followed by the wet ingredients. Mix with a large wooden spoon until dough becomes too thick to stir. Empty dough onto well-floured surface and knead by hand. Knead dough until smooth and no longer sticky, adding flour as needed.
Transfer to an oiled bowl and cover with a damp towel. Let rise for about two hours, or until doubled in size.
Preheat oven to 375.
Divide dough into three equal parts and then roll each part into a 1-foot log. Gently flatten each log so that it is about 3 inches wide.
Brush each with toasted sesame oil and then sprinkle with salt, pepper, chili flakes, and scallions. Roll them up length wise like a jellyroll, and then braid.
Place the loaf on a parchment lined baking sheet and then brush with egg wash and sprinkle with sesame seeds and black pepper.
Bake for 20-25 minutes until the top is golden brown and the challah is cooked through.
If you could only cook three dishes for Shabbat dinner what would they be?
This was the question we posed to culinary historian Michael “Kosher Soul” Twitty, author of the Afroculinaria blog and a Jewish educator. Twitty, who was most recently featured on Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s The African Americans on PBS will be the chef-in-residence at Be’chol Lashon’s upcoming retreat.
The Shabbes table is reminiscent of the way my grandmother would frame occasional Sunday dinners and holiday meals, white tablecloths and candles. So that Jewish esthetic makes sense to me. It engenders respect and sacredness. I would polish candlesticks and set out tablecloths. I’m not great at setting the table but how the food looked was important to my mother and my grandmother. Julius Lester says, “the Shabbes Table is a banquet for God.” The table becomes a crossroads between the divine and earth, a sacred circle. In both the African and Jewish Diasporas, the sacred circle, where multiple parts of ourselves meet, is an important theme. That is what helps make the table be a mizbeach, a holy alter. I find myself cooking for Shabbes with a great spirit of urgency and putting as much kedusha [holiness] as possible. People sometimes forget this ;— kedusha is the greatest spice.
If I could only cook three dishes it would have to be all the parts of who I am.
Number one would be Kasha Varnishkes. I make a mean kasha varnishkes in its pure form with onions browned and a little bit of garlic. Really earthy. I’m not a groats and seed feeder but there is something is very satisfying about a plate of kasha varnishkes. It is brothy, I use 3-4 kinds of onions. The whole garden goes in the broth. So simple and so pleasing.
In Jewish cooking you have foods dictated by text, food that the Torah talks about. Then you have foods that speak to the land of Israel and what grows there. Then you have foods that come from the places we have been, from our diaspora. And then there is identity cooking. The foods that are tied up with your sense of self and the place you are in, where you are and how you are connected to that place.
When I make kasha varnishkes, that is straight up s’htep food. When you can master traditions like that it is a way of saying I’m here. I’ve arrived here and I’m not going anywhere.
My second food would be barbecue beef ribs. Because you can’t get Blacker than barbecue. That is our unique contribution to American cuisine above the rest. It is not a food you make just because you feel like it. You make it for a special occasion. It makes your clothes smell a certain way. Your hands smell a certain way. You plan for it, work for it. And I don’t mean making it in the oven. You marinate it. You rub it. Out comes the hickory. It cooks for three to four hours and then you cut them up and there they go.
Barbecue connects me with my father and my grandfather. Very male food in terms of who made it. A patrilineal dish. We get it passed down to from our fathers, and from their fathers. I make two recipes, one more traditional; marinate forever, rub forever and smoke forever. And the other I call Yiddishe Ribbenes which takes all the flavors from all the parts of the Jewish Diaspora and makes the same flavor profile I grew up with. I like to do both.
For the third dish, I have to say Kosher Soul Rolls. Kosher soul rolls are Black Jewish egg rolls. Instead of cabbage, collard greens. Instead of ham or pork, I use pastrami. One thing Blacks and Jews have in common is loving Chinese food. Deep-fry them, of course.
Can I add a bread? My favorite challah recipe is the Beigel Family Challah from Joan Nathan’s The Foods of Israel Today. It is best challah I’ve ever made or tasted so that’s the one I make. And every time I make the challah the story comes with it. This was a family that survived the Shoah and made their way to Israel. Tribute challah.