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Celebrating Passover With Dishes Of Curacao The Caribbean Island's Jewish Community Has Observed The Holiday Since 1651.

Ethel Hofman and Myra Chanin, For The Inquirer, March 24, 1999


More than 360 days of annual sunshine warm the island of Curacao off the coast of Venezuela. This community of 145,000 with its marvelous blend of cultures and friendship is home to 500 Sephardic Jews - all with strong bonds to their synagogue, Mikve Israel-Emanuel.

These emotional connections are so strong that Curacaon Jews who no longer live on the island continue to financially support the synagogue, considered to be the oldest congregation in the Americas.

It is from the synagogue's popular cookbook that we have put together this year's Passover menu. The menu illustrates how Curacao Jewish kitchens have been influenced by regional foods and spices as well as the island's cooking techniques.

But first, some history about the origins of the recipes.

The original modest place of worship, built in 1651, has been replaced by six larger and more substantial buildings that today cover an entire block in the center of the island's capital.

The superbly maintained present edifice was consecrated in 1732. Visitors enter through massive mahogany doors. Four intricately worked brass chandeliers, each with 24 candlesticks, are still lit on special occasions - at weddings and on Yom Kippur, when synagogue elders wear top hats and tuxedos to services.

The carpet of sand on the floors harks back to a time when Spanish Jews were forced to practice Judaism in secret and hoped the sand would muffle the sound of their footsteps.

The first group of Jews to arrive in the New World docked in Curacao in 1651. They came from Holland, where they had settled at the turn of the 16th century under the protection of the freedom-loving House of Orange. Marinas - Spanish Jews who had publicly converted to Christianity but who secretly adhered to Jewish religious practices and rituals - had fled to Portugal first and then to Holland to escape the Inquisition.

According to a contract between the Dutch East Indies Co. and the Jewish leader, Joao d'Yllan, 12 Jewish families were given land in Curacao's capital city, where they established homes, plantations, a synagogue and a cemetery.

During a recent trip to Curacao, we visited Mikve Israel-Emanuel, interviewed its charming young rabbi, Michael Tayvah, an American who had studied at the Reconstruction College in Philadelphia, and spoke with Ruth and Charles Gomes-Casseres, descendants of the original settlers.

Ruth Gomes-Casseres, one of the preeminent Jewish cooks on the island, supervised the compilation of the synagogue cookbook - Recipes From the Jewish Kitchens of Curacao. Its recipes are unique to the island and offer an interesting and flavor-packed mixture of the traditional and the new.

She points out, "We Jews have also influenced the native island cuisine. Locals who were employed in our homes started to cook some of the dishes they learned in Jewish kitchens."

A typical example?

"Catholics now bake our crisp Panlevi cookies to serve in church."

Because so many of the dishes in this cookbook are particularly attuned to Passover, we've based this year's Passover menu on them, with small changes that make them acceptable to Ashkenazic (Yiddish-speaking Jews and their descendants) as well as Sephardic (descendants of Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal during the Inquisition) Passover culinary customs and practices.

The recipes have been adapted slightly for contemporary Jewish kitchens so that dishes are quickly prepared. Some may even be made ahead and frozen or refrigerated until needed.

The menu:

Charoset Balls (Garosa)

Matzos and Wine

Chicken Soup with Tomatoes (Sopa di Galina)

Fried Red Snapper (Piska Hasa)

Spiced Almond Chicken

Baked Plantains

Hot Cucumber and Radish Salad

Caramelized Meringue Mold

Stuffed Dates

Crisp Sponge Cookies (Panlevi)

The typically Sephardic Charoset, prepared with a mixture of dried fruits, can be made in minutes in a food processor. Rolled into balls or spooned into a container, it will keep a week in the refrigerator or several weeks in the freezer.

The Jews of Curacao serve chicken soup, but with a difference. The rich, flavorful broth is enriched with beef bones and chicken, and flavored by such vegetables as tomatoes and green bell peppers.

In Curacao, Fried Red Snapper topped with a chunky vegetable sauce is as common as and replaces the traditional gefilte fish. Spiced Almond Chicken is crusted with a blend of finely ground almonds and spices before baking. For a more upscale version, hazelnuts or walnuts may be substituted.

Plantains, also known as green cooking bananas, are dense and savory with a mild squashlike flavor, and are as recurrent a side dish in Latin America and the Caribbean as potatoes are in the United States. Make sure they are soft and ripe with a black skin. You'll find them in most supermarkets with a Latino clientele, but if you can't locate them, substitute partially cooked sweet potatoes and then follow the recipe for Baked Plantains.

Be sure to preheat the oven as directed for Caramelized Meringue dessert, then turn it off as soon as the mold is set in the oven. The result is a light, soft, fluffy dessert which marries beautifully with soft berries, such as sliced strawberries.

The Panlevi, crisp sponge cookies, are one of the oldest recipes of Curacao Sephardim. A traditional treat for visiting relatives and friends together with little cups of hot chocolate, they are also served at Brit Milah (the circumcision ceremony). All of the ingredients in these recipes are kosher for Passover.

Charoset Balls (Garosa)

14 pitted dates

10 pitted prunes

8 figs, stems removed

1/2 cup golden raisins

1/2 cup cashew nuts

1/4 lemon, unpeeled and cut in chunks

1/4 cup sweet red wine

1/4 cup honey, or more as needed

2 tablespoons cinnamon to coat

Place dates, prunes, figs, raisins, nuts and lemon in food processor. Chop coarsely. Add the wine and cup honey. Process to chop finely. Mixture should be moist but firm enough to shape. Add a little extra honey if needed.

Transfer to a bowl and refrigerate for 30 minutes. Roll into balls about 1 inch in diameter. Toss in cinnamon to coat. Cover and refrigerate until needed. Makes 25 to 30 balls.

Note: If you prefer, the mixture can be spooned into a serving dish and dusted with cinnamon before serving.

Nutritional data per Charoset Ball: Calories, 63; protein, 0.8 gram; carbohydrates, 13 grams; fat, 1 gram; cholesterol, none; sodium, 2 milligrams.


1/2 (about 1 pounds) fryer chicken, cut into 2 pieces

3/4 pound beef bones

4 stalks celery, thinly sliced

2 medium green bell peppers, seeded and cut in -inch dice

2 large tomatoes, cut in -inch pieces

1 large onion, thinly sliced

1 1/2 cups baby carrots

2 chicken bouillon cubes

10 cups cold water

Juice of 1 lime

4 medium potatoes, peeled and cut in inch dice

Salt and pepper to taste

In a large pot, place chicken, beef bones, celery, green peppers, tomatoes, onion, carrots, chicken bouillon cubes and salt. Add enough water to come about 2 inches above meat and vegetables, 8 to 10 cups. Bring to a boil over high heat, skimming off foam as it forms. Reduce heat, cover and simmer for one hour. Add the potatoes and cook 30 minutes longer until potatoes are tender and chicken meat is falling off the bone. Cool. Skim off any fat.

Discard soup bones (marrow may be diced and added to soup.) Remove and debone chicken, discarding skin and bones. Cut meat into bite-size pieces and add to soup. Stir in lime juice. Season with salt and pepper. Bring to boil before serving. Makes 8 to 10 servings.

Nutritional data per serving: Calories, 191; protein, 10 grams; carbohydrates, 30 grams; fat, 4 grams; cholesterol, 24 milligrams; sodium, 267 milligrams.

Fried Red Snapper (Piska Hasa)

Juice of 3 limes

2 finely chopped scallions

1 teaspoon minced garlic

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 pounds red snapper fillets

1/2 cup matzo meal

Oil for frying

1 medium onion, chopped

1 large red or orange bell pepper, cut in -inch dice

3 plum tomatoes, coarsely chopped

2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

2 tablespoons ketchup

2 to 3 tablespoons water

In a shallow nonmetal dish, combine lime juice, scallions, garlic and salt. Cut red snapper into appetizer serving pieces (2 to 3 ounces each). Add to lime-juice marinade, turning to coat. Refrigerate for 15 minutes. Remove snapper from marinade and toss in matzo meal to coat both sides.

Pour inch oil into a large nonstick skillet and heat over medium high heat. Fry snapper two to three minutes on each side until crisp and cooked through (flakes are opaque when separated with point of a knife.) Drain on paper towels and transfer to a serving dish. Keep warm.

Add onion to the drippings in the skillet. Cook over medium heat until softened, about five minutes. Stir in bell pepper, tomatoes and cilantro and cook until crisp-tender, two to three minutes longer. Add ketchup and enough water to make a thick sauce. Spoon over fried snapper. Makes 8 to 10 appetizer servings.

Nutritional data per serving: Calories, 188; protein, 20 grams; carbohydrates, 12 grams; fat, 7 grams; cholesterol, 34 milligrams; sodium, 210 milligrams.

Spiced Almond Chicken

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1 teaspoon salt

3/4 teaspoon fresh ground pepper

1/2 cup finely ground almonds

1/4 cup matzo meal

2 fryer chickens (3 pounds each) cut in quarters

1/3 cup peanut oil

1/2 cup chicken broth or water

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. In a shallow dish, mix cinnamon, ginger, garlic powder, salt, pepper, almonds and matzo meal. Set aside.

Brush the chicken pieces generously with oil. Add to the matzo-meal mixture and dredge to coat all sides. Arrange in one layer in a large baking dish. Pour the chicken broth or water in at the side of the dish. Cover loosely with aluminum foil. Bake in preheated oven for 40 minutes. Remove foil and continue baking for 30 minutes longer or until chicken is cooked (juices should run clear when a fork is inserted into thickest part). Makes eight servings.

Nutritional data per serving: Calories, 518; protein, 47 grams; carbohydrates, 5 grams; fat, 34 grams; cholesterol, 159 milligrams; sodium, 454 milligrams.

Baked Plantains

3 tablespoons cinnamon sugar

2 teaspoons grated lime peel

2 pounds ripe plantains, peeled and cut in -inch slices

4 tablespoons margarine, melted

1/4 cup orange juice

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray a medium baking dish with nonstick cooking spray. Combine cinnamon sugar and lime peel. Arrange plantains in a baking dish. Brush generously with margarine and sprinkle with cinnamon-sugar mixture to cover all surfaces.

Pour orange juice in at one side of the dish, tilting to distribute juice evenly. Cover tightly with aluminum foil. Bake in preheated oven until very tender, about 40 minutes. Makes eight servings.

Nutritional data per serving: Calories, 207; protein, 2 grams; carbohydrates, 41 grams; fat, 6 grams; cholesterol, none; sodium, 81 milligrams.

Hot Cucumber and Radish Salad

1/2 cup sugar

3/4 cup white vinegar

1 teaspoon white horseradish

1/8 teaspoon salt

2 cucumbers, unpeeled and thinly sliced

1 bunch radishes, trimmed and thinly sliced

1 small sweet onion, chopped

Combine sugar, vinegar, horseradish and salt. Bring to boil over high heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Reduce heat to medium.

Add the cucumbers, radishes and onion and return to simmer. Serve hot or at room temperature. Makes eight servings.

Nutritional data per serving: Calories, 68; protein, 0.7 gram; carbohydrates, 17 grams; fat, 0.3 gram; cholesterol, 0.3 milligram; sodium, 41 milligrams.

Caramelized Meringue Mold

1 cups plus 3 tablespoons superfine sugar (see note)

6 egg whites

1 teaspoon fresh lime juice

1 teaspoon potato starch

Sliced strawberries, for garnish

Preheat oven to 500 degrees. Spray a 6-cup metal or cast iron bowl or ring mold with nonstick cooking spray. Sprinkle with 2 to 3 tablespoons sugar, turning mold to completely coat bottom and sides. Shake out excess sugar. Set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk egg whites until soft peaks form. Add 1 cups sugar gradually, about cup at a time, whisking after each addition. With the last addition of sugar, add the lime juice and sprinkle potato starch over.

Whisk until mixture is glossy and stiff peaks form. Spoon into prepared mold. Cut through with a knife and shake to remove any air pockets. Pour about -inch hot water into a baking pan. Set mold in pan and place in preheated oven. Immediately turn oven heat off. Let meringue cook for two hours. Do not open the door during that time.

Unmold onto a serving platter. Fill center with sliced strawberries Superfine sugar may be prepared by pulverizing granulated sugar in the blender for 1 to 2 minutes.

Nutritional data per serving: Calories, 182; protein, 3 grams; carbohydrates, 44 grams; fat, none; cholesterol, none; sodium, 42 milligrams.