Forced to leave Poland and start a new life on the other side of the world in Argentina, Tomás Kalika’s Jewish grandmother Olga surely never imagined her eynikl (grandson in Yiddish) would reintroduce humble Polish recipes at Mishiguene, his restaurant ranked as one of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2017.
Besides family dishes originating in Russia, Germany and Poland, the Jewish Diaspora inspires Kalika. He uses Eastern European Jewish cuisine’s ingredients, and he also revamps hummus, pierogi or varenyky, pastrami, and dishes from Tunisia, Spain, India, Morocco, France, Iran… the list goes on.
Three years after opening Mishiguene, the Buenos Aires-born chef is set to map Jewish cuisine’s migration to all corners of the world with his Proyecto Diáspora, that aims to recognise, study and share Jewish recipes, ingredients and traditions.
The project was born froma a cultural and culinary collaboration with the Argentine TV producer Gerardo Rosín. Still in pre-production stage, but the team aims to have filmed Diáspora the documentary and created a web platform mapping out ingredients, dishes and places around the world by mid-2019.
Culinary Memories to Save
There’s a lot of Spanish and Italian culture in Argentina, but Jewish culture has also been important in the history of the country. "Mishiguene aims to rescue Jewish culinary traditions. I grew up eating my grandmother’s dishes, but obviously they mutated when she came to Argentina because she had to use different products”, Kalika says.
Jewish dishes are simple given the variety and quantity of ingredients used, he adds. “Eastern European Jewish cuisine is modest: take varenyky or varenikes, made from three principal ingredients. These potato and flour dumplings with heaps of fried onion were almost always served at Olga’s table when I was growing up. I’ve got a clear memory of my grandma’s hands covered of flour, delicately sliding these ravioli round in bubbling water.”
Economics has also played its role in defining Jewish cuisine, according to the chef. “In Europe, butter was always very expensive and we Jews got used to replacing butter with schmaltz. My grandma told me that when she was a child, she’d go with her mother to buy chicken skin and fat from the butcher – because that was all they could afford – then cook it down over a very low heat for several hours until it took on a golden-yellow colour: that was schmaltz. The skin became crackling (gribenes) and was used to season dishes.”
Looking back to understand the present
Jewish cuisine in Argentina isn't the same as it is in the other Latin American countries, either.
"At the first Proyecto Diáspora dinner earlier this year, I cooked with chef Harry Sasson [of the eponymous Bogotá-based restaurant]. One dish we prepared that night was beetroot hummus, but in Colombia he makes it with heart of palm, a surprising and great example of how cuisine, via migration, can become tastier.
Jewish cuisine has mutated and have a new identity now. “And that's what we want to explain. I want to put Jewish cuisine on the map".