By Orge Castellano
This post originally appeared on The Nosher.
Imagine a group of Jews making a slightly different version of challah for Shabbat, matzah for Passover, and doughnuts for Chanukah. A group of people whose ancestors were forced to convert to Catholicism against their will, yet continued to practice Jewish customs underground, even at the risk of being ostracized and tortured for doing so. Meet the Silent Jews.
Sometimes referred to as Crypto-Jews, anusim (Hebrew for coerced ones), or conversos, Silent Jews are descendants of Spanish Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal in 1492. Most left medieval Iberian territories for the Ottoman Empire or North Africa. Others fled persecution and settled in new frontiers in the New World, where many found refuge.
I come from one of those persecuted families who came to South America around 1532 and discreetly practiced Jewish rituals, living in fear of being hunted down by the Inquisition. I only found out that my family was actually Jewish as a teenager, that all our colorful, fragrant, crunchy dishes were deeply rooted in Judaic culinary traditions from 16th-century Spain. That the ingredients and aromas of my mom’s kitchen resembled dishes from the Sephardic gastronomy repertoire.
When the pandemic struck, the combination of lockdown, curiosity, and melancholy led me to knead, mix, and eat plates from my mom’s Jewish inheritance passed on through several generations of women in our family. The kitchen was the right place to honor their sacrifices, bravery, and perseverance to maintain tradition despite centuries of fear and persecution.
My lockdown days soon began to be filled with ingredients such as eggplants, spinach, leeks, and turnips, which mingled with the scents of cinnamon, anise, cardamom, and nutmeg, coming together with dried fruits and legumes.
Arroz con garbanzos (chickpea rice) was one of those dishes. With its characteristic aroma of bay leaf, caramelized onions, and raisins, the dish is cooked with turmeric to provide its signature yellow color. When I was a kid, it was often mixed with a fried egg, with parsley sprinkled on top.