KINGSTON, Jamaica — In the country known for Jerk chicken, meat patties, callaloo, and ackee and salt fish, Israeli cook and caterer Vered Maoz is getting attention for her pita bread, hummus, shawarma and bourekas.
We’ve come to expect good Israeli food in cities with large Israeli ex-pat communities, like New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Toronto, London and Berlin, but to discover it in Kingston, Jamaica (Israeli population of 15) is a revelation.
Maoz is the only source of freshly prepared kosher Israeli food on the island, and she may be key to growing Jewish heritage tourism to Jamaica. The country has a long, rich and unique Jewish history dating back more than 350 years, and the 200-member Jamaican Jewish community and the Jamaica Tourist Board are eager to share it with visitors.
However, until now, the lack of kosher food has stood in the way of attracting Jewish history and heritage buffs to this Caribbean nation. The thought of packing a week’s worth of tinned tuna and crackers and eating them picnic-style has not surprisingly proved to be a major deterrent to booking a trip. Kosher cruises also have not been able to provide refreshment for passengers alighting for the day at popular tourist spots like Ocho Rios and Falmouth.
As Maoz, 42, tells it, she wasn’t originally looking to bring a taste of Israel to Jamaicans, or to kashrut-observant Jewish tourists. Far away from home, and having discovered that Jamaican food did not tickle her taste buds, she just wanted to keep herself, her husband Yuval, and their four children connected to their culinary roots.
Two of Maoz’s children accompanied her to a Shabbat lunch she catered in early November for visiting Jewish American journalists and members of the local Jewish community. The meal was held at the Jewish Heritage Center of Jamaica, the building adjacent to Jamaica’s only functioning synagogue, Congregation Shaa’re Shalom in Kingston. (An impressive Spanish-Portuguese-style shul dating to 1912, it is one of only five functioning synagogues with sand floors in the world. The others are in Amsterdam, Curacao, Suriname, and St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Island.)
As she watched the crowd enjoy her food, she explained to The Times of Israel how she and her family arrived in Jamaica 12 years ago, and how cooking recipes she watched her Greek-Israeli mother make in Holon, has helped her both retain her Israeli identity and connect with her Jamaican neighbors.
“My husband is a mechanical engineer, and I was working as a medical biotechnology technician, and we were living in Gan Yavne” she shared. “Then, seven years after we were married, the company my husband worked for closed and he got a new job with the construction company Ashtrom, which sent him to Jamaica.”
“We were trying to find Jamaica on the map, but we had no idea where it was,” Maoz laughed. “We were looking for it in Africa at first, and then we saw that it was in the Caribbean Sea. The only thing I knew about Jamaica was that [reggae musician] Bob Marley was from there.”
As a busy working mom in Israel, Maoz had little time to cook. Every Shabbat, the family ate at either her parents, or at her husband’s. But when she ended up in Jamaica without a work permit, she found herself spending hours in the kitchen. At first, she just cooked for her family and their Israeli friends.
“There used to be around 50 Israelis here, but now there are 15 at most,” Maoz lamented.
Word got out about how good her food was, and people started asking her to sell it to them. She tested the waters with her pita, which she bakes in an authentic taboun oven.
“When we were invited to people’s homes, I brought my fresh pita instead of wine as a gift. I wanted to know how people liked it,” she said.
People did like it — so much so that at a Yom Ha’atzmaut party two years ago, 50 of her pitot were consumed within minutes.
“The Israeli ambassador to the Dominican Republic was there and he loved them!” she recalled proudly.
From that point, things took off. “Out of nowhere, I’m selling packages of 10 pitot for 500 Jamaican dollars [$5 USD].” Her main competition, the several Lebanese restaurants in Kingston, started losing customers to her.
Middle Eastern bread was just the beginning for Maoz. Now she offers freshly made hummus, bourekas, tahini, taboule, schug, pickles, vegetarian stuffed peppers and cabbage rolls, among other dishes. Drawing on her family’s Greek heritage, she also makes items like tzatziki, white bean and onion salad, and eggplant and feta cheese salad.
As there is no kosher shechita (slaughter) in Jamaica, Maoz tries to stick with vegetarian and dairy dishes. However, the lack of kosher meat is not the only challenge she faces.
“I can’t work with the Jamaican ingredients,” she declared. “The fruits and vegetables are generally okay, but forget the dry goods.” Jamaican flour is too thick, and don’t even ask about the pudding powder. “What they call instant vanilla pudding is not instant vanilla pudding.”
As a result, Maoz brings over huge quantities of dry ingredients from Israel, including all the basics like baking powder, sugar, rice, couscous, semolina, and even salt. With all the Hebrew labels, her pantry looks like a shelf in an Israeli grocery store. Maoz also makes monthly trips to either New York or Miami to replenish her stocks.
She does all the cooking and baking herself and hasn’t hired any help.
“I don’t like people touching my food. I guess I’m a bit of a control freak,” she admitted.
She also doesn’t want anyone seeing exactly how she makes her food. Although she is friendly with many Lebanese Jamaicans, she doesn’t want the ones with food businesses to know exactly what she is up to. “I don’t want my secrets sold to them,” she said.
Maoz may have started cooking for other Israeli ex-pats in Kingston, but now her customers, who come to her by word of mouth, are mainly native Jamaicans or immigrants from various countries around the world. “An Indian woman recently asked me to cater her Diwali celebration,” she shared. “That’s their big holiday.”
Orders are starting to come in from the Jewish community, and she’s taking it as a sign she’ll be able to start focusing on cooking for customers appreciative of the kosher nature of her food. She’d be pleased to exclusively cater bar mitzvahs and work with Jewish tour groups.
Maoz sees herself being happy in Jamaica for a few more years, at least until her son goes home to join the IDF. In the meantime, she’s got Israeli TV channels, and, of course, her Israeli comfort food.
In 12 years, she hasn’t acquired a taste for Jamaican fare, but living in Jamaica has had its benefits.
“What I like about living in Jamaica is that you don’t suffer from high blood pressure here. Everything moves in slow motion,” she said, speaking quickly and with typical Israeli expressiveness.
“I like Jamaicans. They’re happy, calm people.”