down to earth
with one’s identity”
– John Tiong Chunghoo, Malaysian poet
Buenos Aires – One of the interesting things about exploring communities is how they’ve changed over time. It’s easy to forget, or simply not to know, when you’re wandering through a neighborhood like Barrio Chino that it hasn’t always been predominately Chinese. In fact, the first Taiwanese market was only opened along Arribeños in 1985, a mere 21 years ago. A few scattered remaining businesses from the “pre-” days remain – a parrilla close the foot of the street, a famous Uruguayan restaurant a couple of blocks along (though the owner of El Pobre Luis jokes that he supports a current legislative move to officially designate the area as a “Chinatown” because he’s “from the East” as well), and, as we discovered last night, a touch of my own roots right in the middle of it all. Juanita Posternak – not a name I’d immediately associate as a nice Jewish lady from the old country (and she was actually born here in BsAs, but her family is from near to mine) – had a nice little house along Arribeños. And, a couple of years before the first store of the soon to emerge Barrio Chino opened its doors, she opened, or closed, her doors – 23 years ago, Mis Raíces, Arribeños 2148, 4784-5100, was born. And that’s how last night found a trio of us noshing on homemade rolls, chopped liver, and delicious pickles in the middle of Chinatown.
Mis Raíces is open, as Ms. Pasternak quipped to me (and it turns out she quips on her website and her business cards), “from Monday to Monday”. Does that mean only one day a week? No, from one Monday to the next. She’ll feed people dinner whenever they want to come, seven days a week – as long as it’s 9:00 and she says yes. By reservation only, don’t just go ringing the bell on the front door. But make the call or send the e-mail, and don’t eat anything the rest of the day before going. Climb the wide steps to the main floor and find yourself in an opened up living and dining room that can hold around 35-40 diners. Order some wine, she’s got a selection. Let her peer at you through her oversized, windshield thick, French-designer glasses, size you up a bit you know. You’ll get asked if you’re Jewish, she needs to know her audience, because she has tales to tell, and food to explain. And you should pay attention, even while you’re popping bites of golf-ball sized knishes stuffed with seasoned mashed potatoes into your mouth. Or spooning down her sweetened, glowing red borscht topped with a drizzle of fresh cream.
You have to pay attention to those moments with her, because she’s only there in the dining room for moments, checking up on you, making sure everything’s okay, perhaps patting you on the head, adjusting the music (the sweeping overture from Exodus perhaps, or tunes from Fiddler on the Roof, or old country melodies…), tilting a painting on the wall, but then back to the kitchen where she and her assistant are busy cooking up the next round of her alta cocina judía. They won’t be gone long – they’ll be back with a rolling cart laden with platters, each containing more – this time gefilte fish, two kinds – boiled and baked – both shaped by hand from her own mix of three different fishes. They’re accompanied by a brimming bowl of beet-tinged horseradish, just the way they ought to be. A little salad of carrots and apples, and a glistening puck of cholodetz, a traditional dish – usually a “calves’ foot jelly”, hers made from chicken bones, tendons, etc. boiled down with a lot of garlic. It’s a textural thing.
The cart returns, this time, were it not so sturdy, it would be groaning under the weight of the first main course, yes, first… (thankfully, Juanita will inquire whether you want a second main course or not, we opted not, good as the food was, it would have been impossible) – braised chicken with three side dishes – nothing light and fluffy you understand – a heap of kasha, mixed boiled wheat grains; farfelech, small round nuggets of pasta that have been roasted; and varenikes, cheese stuffed triangular pastas; all heaped with onion gravy. I see from her website’s menu that had we gone on, there would have been a round of beef and other grains and pastas…
We’re too full to move. Perhaps we shouldn’t have gone two rounds of those homemade rolls with chopped liver and pickles way back at the beginning, but we were schmoozing, you know? And besides, who are we to turn down plates of perfectly cooked, melt-in-your-mouth cheese blintzes that a local newspaper once described as los blintzes de oro, the golden blintzes. Each one is accompanied by her own selection of stewed fruits – apples, plums, and apricots. There’s coffee and tea available, served again with a pour of fresh cream from the pitcher. We’re left to our own devices while the ladies repair to the kitchen and in amazingly short order have all the dishes, pots and pans scrubbed, dried, and put away.
We pay, with a bottle of good wine, a mere 50 pesos apiece, and waddle out into the fresh air, a few moments before midnight.