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Tasting Buenos Aires

Jewish food – and life - is flourishing in Argentina’s capital

(Photo: Unsplash)
(Photo: Unsplash)

Jews have been trickling into Argentina since the expulsion from Spain in the 15th century, with thousands settling in Buenos Aires after the Holocaust. Today the city famously boasts the largest Jewish population in South America — and the Spanish-speaking world.

Still, on a month-long visit, the city’s Jewish texture surprised me; not through monuments and memorials, but in everyday life.

Storefronts bear names like Goldstein, Shapiro, Rozenblat, Feldman, and Szpiegel. Smart kosher supermarkets dot fashionable neighborhoods like Palermo and Belgrano. Posters advertise stage shows like Gerardo Roman’s Un Judeo Comun y Corrient — the Spanish-language version of Charles Lewinsky’s controversial 2005 one-man play Just an Ordinary Jew.

A huge mezuzah adorns the doorpost of Cafe Registrado, a hot new artisan coffee spot. In Villa Crespo, I saw Hebrew graffiti — something about a shofar — which I’ve never even seen in New York.

“Jewish life here is alive,” says Salito Gutt, whose Jewish Tours Argentina leads tours around sites both triumphant and tragic. “And we live all over the city, not in a ghetto.” As Gutt noted, synagogues and schools have proliferated. Jewish sports clubs like Hindu and Hakoah are thriving. Kippahs and snoods seem common.

Jewish food is flourishing, too. And it’s a fascinating window into both Jewish and Porteño culture. Arguably the hottest restaurant in Buenos Aires today is Fayer, the new offshoot of a wildly popular “immigrant cuisine” eatery called Mishiguene.

At Mishiguene, open since late 2014, Chef Tomas Kalika has gained global press — and a rabid local following — for rebooted Ashkenazi classics like gefilte fish and borscht. Fayer pushes Kalika’s Jewish-food explorations even further, applying five types of fire-based cooking to Semitic specialties from smoky hummus to roasted cauliflower.

(Photo: Pixabay)
(Photo: Pixabay)

Born in Buenos Aires, Kalika trained in Israel under megachef Eyal Shani, of Miznon fame and inspired, returned to Argentina determined to take the food of his grandmothers mainstream.

“It was very hard in the beginning to do food that competes with people’s emotive memory,” Kalika told me as he darted between tables, chatting up star-struck diners. “People want it to taste like their grandmothers’ cooking. But a grandmother’s cooking is not about perfection. It’s about the truth, and authenticity.”

It’s hard to overstate Mishiguene’s impact on Buenos Aires’ food scene, with its reimaginings of Ashkenazi classics.

Kalika’s borscht, based on his grandma Olga’s recipe, arrives as horseradish-infused beet mousse alongside a shot glass of creme-fraiche “ravioli”.

His gefilte fish, also Olga-inspired, uses the same carp, trout, and hake that she did, but compresses it into elegant little disks, poached sous-vide to intensify flavors. The restaurant’s been an unqualified smash — and a huge crossover hit.

Jorge Szwarcberg has been more straightforward in mainstreaming Jewish food. The former textile executive built and sold a chain of successful sushi restaurants before turning to his lifelong passion project:

“Serving food of my roots,” he told me on the sunny back patio of Schwartz & Berg, the deli he opened in 2016. The deli’s bright-red sign and striped black-and-white facade look right at home in chic Palermo Hollywood, a kind of testament to the hip status of Jewish cuisine here.

Schwartz & Berg’s latkes are standouts, along with its heaping falafel platters and translucent kreplach. A smartly dressed, phone-toting crowd filled the restaurant the afternoon I visited; its popularity extends far beyond nostalgic Jews, Szwarcberg told me.

A ten minute walk east, huge hamsas beckon from giant picture windows on a bustling Palermo street. Hola Jacoba bills itself as “autentica cocina Judia” — authentic Jewish cooking — and its menu delivers with lovingly prepared classics like knishes and cheese kreplach.

“We were the first Jewish restaurant in Palermo when we opened in 2014,” co-owner Andrea Armoza told me. “At the time, my partner and I asked ourselves why no one had done it. We just wondered why Jewish food couldn’t be like Japanese or Mexican — something for anyone who wants to try something different.”

Every one of the restaurant’s recipes came from Armoza’s grandmothers — the Ashkenazi Anita Schojet, and the Sephardi Sara Chamma. “They still visit once a month to talk with our chef and supervise.”

Even fast food gets a Jewish twist here. Buenos Aires is home to the world’s only kosher McDonald’s outside Israel. Inside the Abasto Shopping malls, it was mobbed on the Sunday afternoon I visited with queues waiting to pick up their burgers or Chicken McNuggets.

Comunidad Dor Jadash (Photo: Michael Kaminer)
Comunidad Dor Jadash (Photo: Michael Kaminer)

Once you’re ready to walk off your nosh, you’ll find beautiful sites of Jewish interest. But you’ll need a guide to enter most of them; almost none accept visitors without prior arrangements. Salito Gutt’s company is a good option; tours start at around £120 per person for four hours.

Gutt’s must-sees include Yaakov Agam’s dazzlingly colorful memorial at the site of the 1994 AMIA terrorist attack; the Israeli Embassy Memorial, an austere plaza commemorating that attack; and the compact Jewish Museum, next door to the landmark, Byzantine-style Templo Libertad, itself a breathtaking testament to the resilience of Argentina’s Jews.

My most memorable Jewish moments happened by chance, though. On a walk through bustling Chinatown, I passed a low-slung, clean-lined building with a heavy security fence. Comunidad Amijai, it turns out, is one of Buenos Aires’ most active Sephardic synagogues, with a packed performance calendar, Ladino cultural programs, and a strong activist presence.

The shul didn’t answer my emails requesting information, and a young woman who entered the building slammed the door behind her when I tried asking about a visit. But its presence in what seemed like a random location left an impression.

In Villa Crespo, the historically Jewish neighborhood now creeping toward hipsterdom, I stumbled on Templo Dr. Max Nordau, a Spanish-modernist synagogue whose web site revealed it to be the home of Comunidad Dor Jadash, a congregation founded by Lithuanian, Polish, and Russian immigrants.

And then there was the taxi. On my last day in Buenos Aires, I hailed a cab on Avenida Santa Fe, a rambling commercial boulevard downtown. With his bushy beard, boxy glasses, and baseball cap, the driver looked like any of the city’s Brooklyn-aspirant hipsters.

But something in his Spanish hinted at a different background. After some hesitant banter, I learned he had spent time in Brooklyn — seeking counsel from the late Lubavitcher Rebbe on his childless marriage.

“I got his blessing,” the driver beamed. “After four years, we finally had a daughter.” As we slowed in front of my hotel, he smiled again. “I wonder what message I’m supposed to take from this cab ride,” he said. “I don’t believe in coincidences.”

As a Jewish visitor on a quest of my own, I thought about that too.

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