Spain isn’t the easiest place to find Jewish food, perhaps for one reason above all: pork. It’s everywhere. Pigs’ legs dangle in market stalls and restaurant windows, and ham is nestled atop nearly every dish. In one courtyard restaurant in the southern city of Cordoba – home to the towering rabbinic figure Maimonides, no less – a friend and I ordered what we thought was a vegetarian soup, only to find it delivered to the table draped with thick slices of ham. Mentioning it on the menu must have seemed redundant to the proprietors.
But despite the country’s preponderance for pork, Spain, with its rich and troubled Jewish history, has Jewish culinary roots that go back centuries. In some cases, Jews were marked by the dishes they prepared; adafina, a traditional Sabbath stew of meat, chickpeas, fava beans, onions, garlic, cumin and other spices was occasionally used to identify Jews during the Inquisition. In one case in 1570, Inquisitors recorded a maid testifying that she witnessed her employer cooking “mutton with oil and onions, which she understands is the Jewish dish adafina.”
Another sweeter dish also has origins with the Jews of Spain: sponge cake, known in Ladino (the Spanish-Hebrew hybrid language of Sephardi Jews) as “pan de Espana,” which literally means “bread of Spain.” Historian Gil Marks writes in the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food that the cake was first baked in Moorish Spain around the year 1000 and eventually became popular throughout Europe. One good reason the airy cake has had staying power in the Jewish community – its adaptability for Passover, when matzah meal and potato starch can stand in for the flour with excellent results. Between store-bought and homemade varieties, sponge cake remains one of the most popular desserts on seder tables.
Today, the food of Jewish Spain has gained a certain cache among culinary “it-sters.” Maimonide of Brooklyn and La Vara, two restaurants in, you guessed it, Brooklyn, both opened in 2012 and draw on the cooking and philosophy of Spanish Jewry. Maimonide of Brooklyn, named after the Cordoban scholar (without the “s”), is a vegan restaurant whose owner was inspired by selections of the rabbi’s writing championing the health benefits of eating fruits and vegetable. And La Vara, owned by a daughter of Jewish-Argentine immigrants and her Spanish husband, celebrates the chickpeas, artichokes and sweet desserts beloved by Jews of medieval Spain.
In Spain, the memory of the country’s Jewish heritage is visible mostly in monuments and historic districts: the whitewashed walls of Seville’s Jewish quarter, the preserved synagogues of Toledo, the statue of Maimonides in Cordoba. My traveling companion in Spain was the descendant of a long line of Sephardi rabbis who originated in Toledo. We reached Toledo from Madrid, after climbing through winding hills and then up many narrow staircases. In our eagerness to see the city’s synagogues, we didn’t realize we were visiting on the Feast of Corpus Christi, when – believe it or not – the synagogues were closed! Though we may have missed out on some of Spain’s Jewish heritage sites and had to fight our way through pork-laden menus, it’s we can find remnants of the cuisine of Spanish Jewry right here at home.