Growing up in South Florida, Cuban cooking was familiar to me. I first encountered it at the home of my best friend from high school, Beatrice “Bebe” Valdés Paz, where something exotic and aromatic was always cooking. Spices like cumin and coriander as well as sofrito (onion, garlic and green pepper) scented the warm tropical air as dishes like black beans and rice, arroz con pollo (rice with chicken) and plantains bubbled and sizzled away in her family’s kitchen.
Not too long ago, while digging through her family history, Bebe discovered that her maternal grandfather, from Spain, was also Jewish, and she has been on a quest to learn more about Sephardic cooking ever since.
Inspired by Bebe and her family, I connected with Becky Cohen of the Cuban Hebrew Congregation – Temple Beth Shmuel in Miami. It wasn’t long before I found myself at Samy and Gladys Sapayo’s dining room table. Samy, a chef, recently self-published a cookbook, Mi cocina sefaradí, cubana y española (My Sephardic, Cuban and Spanish Kitchen, available only in Spanish), edited by Benito Garcia, of his family’s Sephardic and Cuban recipes.
Surrounded by autographed pictures of the late Celia Cruz, a family friend who loved Samy’s pollo relleno a la cubaña (Cuban-style stuffed chicken), I sat down with Samy and Gladys and sampled some of the dishes from his book.
We started off with Samy’s homemade aceitunas negras aliañdas (marinated black olives), along with a fresh ensalada de piás sefardí (Sephardic white bean salad). Then we tasted almodrote de berenjena sefardí (Sephardic eggplant and cheese casserole) and espagueti sefardí al horno (Sephardic baked spaghetti), both paired with a delicate vino tinto (red wine).
For dessert, Gladys brought out cascos de guayaba con queso crema (guava shells with cream cheese) along with her speciality, compota de futas secas (dried fruit compote, soaked in little Manischewitz, of course!).
After all that food, we needed to get out of the house so we drove to Calle Ocho for café con leche (coffee with milk) and pastelitos (pastries) at the famous Versailles where we continued talking about Samy’s culinary journey from Turkey to Cuba to Spain and now Miami.
Samy’s parents grew up in a small town in Turkey and traced their Jewish ancestry back to Spain. Samy’s father, Jacobo, fell in love with Samy’s mother, Esther, the first time he saw her. The story goes that every time he saw her, his heart pounded and he would swoon. After a while, he noticed that he wasn’t seeing Esther around town the way he used to. He looked all over, but could not find her or her family anywhere.
Brokenhearted, Jacobo set off for the “Land of Opportunity,” New York City. In the city of infinite possibilities, whom did he bump into? None other than his old friend from home, Esther’s brother! When he discovered that Esther had gone to Cuba, Jacobo was on the next boat there. Esther was thrilled and surprised to see him, and they were married within six months. They raised their three children, Israel, Dora and Samy, in Cuba, where Jacobo Sapayo owned a grocery store.
Growing up, Samy remembers his parents making Turkish dishes like borrecas (cheese-filled pastries) and yaprakes (stuffed grape leaves). His father also cooked Sephardic Passover dishes for the rabbi at Guantanamo naval base.
As a young man, Samy was married and divorced twice and had children of his own. He finally found his way to Miami where he met his wonderful wife of 34 years, Gladys, who is responsible for getting Samy to cook (because she did not) and for convincing him to write his cookbook. She wanted to make sure that the Sapayo family recipes and stories are passed down to his children and to the Sephardic Cuban community at large.
During my visit, and in the cookbook, they served up a family-style Sephardic feast spanning Turkey, Spain, Cuba and now Miami. The swirl of spices like saffron and cumin reminded me of my own wandering ancestors’ journeys, and how we have all come together as members of a much larger Jewish family.
Top photo: Almodrote de berenjena sefardí (Sephardic eggplant and cheese casserole) (Photo by Roberto Koltún for El Nuevo Heraldo)