The Jewish Palate: Jews of Corfu

Chef Dennis Wasko takes a closer look at the history and culinary tradition of the tiny Jewish Community of Corfu.

Greece (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In the early morning hours of April 19, 2011, the first day of Passover, two men broke into the only remaining synagogue on the Island of Corfu.  They proceeded to pile about 30 religious books and documents, as well as a centuries old Torah scroll on the floor in front of the Bimah, and set them on fire.  This was the third Anti-Semitic attack against Greek Jews within the last two years.
The tiny Jewish community on Corfu has seen more than its fair share of hatred and violence.  From the very beginning of their habitation on the island, Jews have been persecuted in one way or another.  Anti-Semitic attacks were common in the 13th and 14th century.  Jews were also forced to row on galleys, were summoned on the Sabbath, and were forced to act as public executioners.  In 1406, Jews were forbidden to acquire land and had to wear a “badge” to distinguish them from the non-Jewish population.  In 1622, the Corfiote Jews were confined to a ghetto.
During the 16th century there were two distinct groups of Jews living on Corfu, the Romaniote community who observed the ancient Byzantine Rite (Minhag Korfu), and the combined Italian and Iberian community who observed the Sephardic Rite.  The scholar Don Isaac Abravanel finished his commentary on Deuteronomy while living for a short time on Corfu in 1594.  Sadly, as is so often the case, the two Jewish communities did not get along very well with each other.  The Romaniotes sought special privileges and objected to the Italian community being given the right of permanent residence.  By 1664, all Jews on Corfu were seen as being of equal status. 
Corfu was the center of etrog cultivation during the mid-19th century.  A great scandal erupted when it was claimed that the Corfiote etrog was not kosher due to non-kosher grafting practices.  The scandal greatly impacted the etrog business on Corfu and gave birth to the cultivation of etrogim in pre-state Israel.
The blood libel of 1891 resulted in the emigration of a large portion of Corfu’s Jewish population.  The storm of Anti-Semitism that swept the island lasted for three weeks and resulted in the deaths of 22 innocent Jews.  The alleged perpetrators were acquitted.  During World War I, a second blood libel erupted.  The riots were quelled by the authorities and no one was hurt. 
By 1923, only 3,000 Jews remained on Corfu, mostly small tradesmen who struggled to make a living.  Emigration continued, and by the beginning of World War II there were only about 2,000 Jews remaining.  The Germans occupied Corfu on September 27, 1943.  On June 14, 1944, 1,800 Corfiote Jews were deported to Auschwitz where all but about a 100 perished.   By 1948, there were only 170 Jews on the island.  Today, less than a 100 remain.
The following recipe is very typical of the cuisine of the Corfiote Jews.  Fresh fish abound, and flavors are light and fresh, touched by the sun of the Mediterranean.
Bourthetto (Fish in Spicy Sauce)
(Serves four)
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
4 onions, chopped
6 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon chili flakes, or less to taste
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 cup chopped tomatoes
½ cup water
Juice of 1 lemon
Kosher salt and pepper to taste
4 1-pound whole firm-fleshed fish, such as snapper, cleaned and scaled
1.    Heat the olive oil in a pot over medium heat.  Add the onion, garlic, and chili flakes.  Sauté until the onions begin to turn translucent.
2.    Add the tomato paste and sauté for an additional 3 minutes.  Add the tomatoes, water, and lemon juice.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.
3.    Bring to a boil, reduce heat and add the whole fish to the pot.  Cover, reduce heat to low, and allow to simmer for 20 minutes.
4.    After 20 minutes, carefully remove the fish to a serving platter.  Try not to break the fish. 
5.    If sauce is too thin, allow to simmer uncovered for an additional 10 minutes or until thickened, but not dry.  Spoon the sauce over the fish and serve with rice or potatoes.