The Jewish Palate: The Jews of Cuba

Chef Dennis Wasko explores how Jews arrived on the Caribbean island and the way their cuisine has been influenced by salsa dancing locals.

Ropa Vieja cuban food 311 (photo credit: Yakir Levy)
Ropa Vieja cuban food 311
(photo credit: Yakir Levy)
No one knows exactly when the first Jews arrived in Cuba, but some definitely arrived after the expulsion from Spain in 1492. Legend holds that there were three Jews among Christopher Columbus’ crew. They were Marranos, forced converts to Catholicism. Chances are that there is some truth to this legend as it would be the best way to get as far away as possible from Spain and the dreaded Inquisition. Other than these spotty accounts, there is little information about Jews on the Island of Cuba until the formation of a large Jewish community in the late 19th century.
During the 16th and 17th centuries many Jews, fleeing Portuguese persecutions in Brazil, immigrated to Cuba. The new Jewish arrivals established trade in Cuba and by the 18th century, Cuban Jewish trade had reached Europe. The Jews were relentlessly persecuted at this time which forced many to assimilate into Cuban society. During the 1880’s, more Jews arrived from the Dutch Antilles and were instrumental in supporting Cuba’s war of independence against Spain in 1898. After the Spanish American War, many Jewish American war veterans settled in Cuba and founded a Jewish congregation in Havana in 1904. These Jews became instrumental in Cuba’s sugar cane and tobacco trade. 
Many more Jews, including Sephardim from Turkey, immigrated to Cuba between 1910 and 1920. Most of these Jews intended to use Cuba as a stop over on their way to the United States, which had a strict Jewish immigration quota at the time. Many decided to stay as Anti-Semitism was low in Cuba at the time and the weather was good. Many of these Jews prospered in the garment industry, and by 1924, there were about 24,000 Jews living in Cuba.Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution had a great impact on the island’s Jews. The Jews were not targeted specifically, but since many were wealthy business owners, they suffered the same fate as most of Cuba’s middle class.  Businesses and assets were seized and nationalized. About 94 percent of Cuba’s Jewish population fled the island after the revolution, with some settling in Israel and others settling in the United States. Most of the remaining Jews lived in Havana. Those who chose to stay did so because they were either too old or too poor to leave. Others were assimilated into Cuban society or believed in Castro’s Revolution.
Despite all of this adversity, Jewish life has continued to survive in Cuba.  The people are poor, and rely heavily on international Jewish aid to sustain them.  Some of these poor were able to immigrate to Israel in the 1990’s during Operation Cigar.  Others are still waiting to make aliya. 
The cuisine of Cuba’s Jews mimics that of the rest of the country, though adheres to the Laws of Kashrut. The following recipe for Ropa Vieja is very typical of Cuban cuisine. The name means “Old Clothes” and describes the final appearance of the dish. The meat is braised until it falls apart and looks like old shredded clothes. This is one of the greatest shredded beef dishes in the world.
Ropa Vieja
Serves 8
4 pounds skirt steak
4 medium onions, coarsely chopped and divided in half
2 carrots, coarsely chopped
3 celery stalk, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
6 garlic cloves, minced
2 Serrano chilies or to taste, minced
2 green bell peppers, seeded and chopped
Kosher salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
10 fresh Roma tomatoes, seeded and chopped, or 2 28-ounce cans chopped tomatoes
½ cup finely chopped parsley leaves
1 ½ teaspoons dried oregano
½ teaspoon ground cumin
1. In a large pot, place the meat, half of the chopped onions, carrot, and celery. Cover with water by 2 inches. Bring to a simmer and cook, uncovered, for one and a half to two hours, or until tender.
2. Turn off heat and let meat cool in liquid for 20 minutes, remove from liquid and set aside. Discard vegetables and strain liquid through a sieve. Return liquid to heat, and boil to reduce by half, about 20 to 30 minutes. When meat is cool, remove any fat and pull into shreds about 2 inches wide.
3. While liquid is reducing, heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Sweat the remaining half of onions, garlic, Serrano chilies, and green peppers until softened, about 10 minutes.
4. Stir in 3 cups reduced liquid and the tomatoes. Simmer for 10 minutes over medium heat.  Season to taste with kosher salt and pepper.  Stir in shredded meat, parsley, oregano, and cumin. Simmer 10 minutes more.  Adjust seasoning to taste and serve.
Serve with white rice.