Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish holiday marking the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, began at sunset Saturday. And for chef Reyna Simnegar, it also marked the beginning of eight nights of “balagan,” the Hebrew word for mess or chaos!
Simnegar lives in Brookline, Mass., but she was born and raised in Venezuela, is Jewish and married to an Iranian. So her Hanukkah menu is infused with Persian spices and a Latin American spirit.
Instead of traditional potato latkes, she opts for some made from sour apples or eggplant. Simnegar also makes the traditional deep-fried jelly doughnuts, known as soofganiot. But while most people fill them with jelly, Reyna offers an alternative, using her mother’s recipe for crema pastelera, a dairy custard from Venezuela.
‘Anything And Everything Fried’
Simnegar says she’s able to meld all of her culinary influences together with one simple ingredient: canola oil.
“Anything and everything fried fits into the holiday–which is fabulous, because anything fried is delicious,” says Simnegar.
Simnegar points out that while potatoes are the most traditional latke ingredient, Jews from all over the world use all sorts of ingredients. Her Persian-inspired versions call for apples and eggplant.
Discovering Her Jewish Roots
Simnegar was raised Catholic in Venuzela. While she didn’t discover her family’s deep Jewish roots until she was 12 years old, Simnegar says there were plenty of clues in her family’s most loved recipes.
“My grandmother has an obsession with eggplants,” she says. “Eggplants are really, really rare in South America. Until I found out that it was actually Marrano Jews, these are the hidden Jews of Spain, that brought the eggplants with them from Europe to the Americas around the 1600s which is when my family came to Venuzela.”
‘My World Completely Changed’
Simnegar met her future husband, a Persian Jew, when she was 18-years-old. She says that even then, she loved to cook and was inspired by her mother-in-law’s Persian cooking.
“She sees beauty in everything she does in the kitchen,” says Simnegar. “I wanted desperately to learn everything from her.”
This segment originally aired on December 21, 2011.