Crypto-Jewish Brazilian Yellow Stew
I have the most amazing new cookbook – A Drizzle of Honey: The Life and Recipes of Spain’s Secret Jews, by David M. Gitlitz and Linda Kay Davidson. It is full of recipes for foods cooked and eaten by Jews and conversos in the Iberian Peninsula during the time of Inquisition. To my great delight, the book insists on calling these secret Jews, those who pretended to have converted to Christianity for their safety’s sake, crypto-Jews.
The recipes were mostly gleaned from testimony denouncing the Jews during the inquisition. Jews were often identified by cultural signs, such as their culinary customs, and servants would be called to testify on the types of food their mistresses would cook. Testimony against them would often allege that they cut the fat and veins from their meat, salted their meat, would not eat pork, or cooked stews on Friday afternoon to eat cold on Saturday. Even cooking meat in olive oil was seen as evidence of secret “Judaizing,” because most Christians preferred to cook their meat in rendered fat, particularly lard.
Crypto-Jewish women were cited as having myriad creative excuses, such as claiming that they ate cold meat on Saturday because it tasted better cold. Many really did seem to believe that they removed the fat and veins because the meat tasted better that way, or salted the meat in order to better preserve it. We do these things because our mothers did them, and we do not always quite remember why.
Many of the women whose recipes I have here were murdered for cooking these meals. It is a strange feeling, going through this book and reading stories of betrayal and death, each followed by a description of an intriguing dish. Following their recipes feels like a very delicious act of remembrance.
This stew was apparently popular with Jews who fled to Brazil because of Inquisition pressure in Portugal in the 16th century. The recipe comes from the testimony of several servants who denounced the converted descendants of one such immigrant couple, Branca Dias and Diogo Fernandes. The Portuguese Inquisition board came for them in the 1590s, after their deaths, but within their children’s and grandchildren’s lifetimes. A number of their servant girls, then middle-aged women, testified against them for the Inquisition.
One of these serving girls testified that on Shabbas, the Fernandes family ate a special “yellow-colored dish… made from grains, meat, oil, onions, and spices.”
The cookbook authors claim to have done research into the spices used for such dishes in that general place and time to determine what else would be in that stew, as well as looking to other testimony against the Fernandes family. Mango, saffron, allspice, and more. Of course, we vastly increased the garlic, used birdseye peppers instead of the chiles it called for, and threw in some chipotle just for fun. Our version may not be perfectly authentic, but it is perfectly tasty.
Crypto-Jewish Brazilian Yellow Stew
(adapted from A Drizzle of Honey: The Life and Recipes of Spain’s Secret Jews by David M. Gitlitz and Linda Kay Davidson)
2 lbs. beef, cut into 1″ cubes
4 dried Thai birdseye chile peppers, crushed
3-6 tbsp olive oil
15 cloves garlic, chopped
2 bay leaves
2 onions, sliced
2 large mangos, peeled and sliced
1/2 C bulghur wheat
1 1/2 tsp saffron threads
1 1/2 tsp ground allspice
2 tsp salt
1 tsp ground black pepper
1/4 tsp ground chipotle
Heat some olive oil in a large stew pot over medium heat. Fry the garlic, bay leaves, and crushed birdseye peppers for about 3 minutes. Add the onions and fry until translucent, about 5 more minutes. Remove to a plate.
Add more oil if need be, then cook the meat in a single layer until lightly browned on all sides, about 6 minutes. Do it in several batches if you have to. Stir the onion mixture back in.
Add enough water to just barely cover the meat. Bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer, cover, and cook for 1 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally.
Stir in 1 sliced mango, bulghur, saffron, allspice, salt, black pepper, and chipotle. Continue simmering, covered, for another 45-60 minutes, until the meat is tender. If it looks too watery, remove the lid during the last 15 minutes of cooking, and throw in some corn starch or other thickener if you like. I felt no need to do any of this, but you may wish to.
Remove the bay leaves, and stir in the second sliced mango.
As with most stews and curries, this actually tastes better the second day, after the flavors have had all night to meld together in the fridge. It has a bit of a kick to it, but not much. It is intensely flavorful. I can easily imagine 16th century Jewish women cooking this before sunset on Friday night, and leaving the pot covered, nestled by the banked fire, flavors building until they were ready to eat it on Saturday, when they could not cook because of Shabbas.