The Jewish Palate: The Jews of Colombia

Colombia's Jewish community is hundreds of years old; mix of Spanish, Portuguese, Turkish, and Ashkenazi communities.

Korah and Material Wealth (photo credit: Courtesy)
Korah and Material Wealth
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Marrano Jews, secret Jews who were forced to convert to Catholicism or be murdered by the Inquisition, were the first Jews to settle in Colombia. The Marranos fled Spain and Portugal in the 16th and 17th centuries. It is believed that some of them settled in Northern areas of Colombia, which at the time was known as New Granada.  Most of these earliest Jewish settlers assimilated into Colombian society.
Observant Jews from Jamaica and Curacao settled in Colombia in the 18th century.  These Jews were not interested in assimilation, and openly practiced their faith even though it was illegal.  Eventually Judaism was legalized and the Jews were allowed to openly practice Judaism and their life cycle events. The government even gave the Jewish community a plot of land to use as a cemetery.   Many of the Jews who arrived during the 18th and 19th centuries were very successful in business and achieved prominent positions in Colombian society, but they were forced to abandon or hide their Jewish identity.
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In the early 20th century a large immigration of Sephardic Jews from Greece, Turkey, North Africa, and Syria settled in Colombia. After the Sephardic Jews, large numbers of Jews from Eastern Europe arrived and after the rise of Hitler in 1933, more than 7,000 Jews arrived from Germany.  The Jewish population of Colombia grew again in the 1950’s and 1960’s. 
Today, most of Colombia’s 3,000 Jews are concentrated in the big cities, with the largest population centered in Bogotá.  The size of the Ashkenazi and Sephardic communities is about equal and there are nine official synagogues throughout the country. 
The unstable economy and rise of violence and kidnappings during the final decade of the 20th century compelled many Colombian Jews to immigrate to Miami and other locations in the United States.  Today, however, with a decline in violence, many of Colombia’s Jews are returning and other Jews from Venezuela are finding refuge in Colombia.
The cuisine of the Colombian Jews is a blend of traditional Jewish recipes and local Colombian ingredients.  Sephardic, Ashkenazi, and German identities are very strong in Colombia, and the Jewish culinary tradition is diverse.  Colombian cuisine is full flavored but mild, and not as spicy or complex as other Latin American Cuisines.  It is delicious, hearty cooking, strongly influenced by peasant traditions. 
The following recipe is for Sancocho de Gallina, traditional Colombian Chicken Soup.  Colombia’s Jews make this soup often as it is easy to prepare, nutritious, and delicious. 
Sancocho de Gallina (Colombian Chicken Soup)
Serves 6 – 8
1 whole chicken, about 3 pounds
3 ears fresh corn, shucked and cut into thirds
2 green plantains, peeled and cut in half and then into 2 inch pieces
½ cup diced red pepper
½ cup diced green pepper
1 large onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 quarts water
6 medium potatoes, halved
1 pound yucca, cut into big pieces (optional)
½ cup chopped cilantro
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1.Place the chicken, corn, plantains, peppers, onion, and garlic into a large soup pot.  Add the water and bring to a boil.  Reduce heat, cover, and allow to simmer for 45 minutes, skimming the surface from time to time to remove scum.
2.Add the potatoes and yucca and continue cooking for an additional 20 minutes or until the potatoes and yucca are tender. 
3.Stir in the cilantro and season to taste with salt and pepper.
4.Serve the chicken and vegetables in large soup bowls and ladle the broth over.