Semana Santa Food Traditions, According to These Chefs
Chef Yadi Garcia & Omi Hopper of Cooking con Omi share their Semana Santa traditions.
By Janel Martinez | @janelm
Semana Santa celebrations take place across Latin America and the Caribbean, merging centuries-old Catholic traditions with home-grown customs unique to each country. Though the week-long observance, which begins on Palm Sunday and ends on Holy Saturday, derives from Spain, many of the practices, like food traditions, contribute to the regional identity at home and across the diaspora.
“For me, Semana Santa has become something much bigger [than religion],” says Chef Yadira Garcia, Loisa’s Head Chef and Educator. “It's about passing down our ancestral traditions and upkeeping them, and now I've gotten to the age where I see that I get to be the keeper and passer on of those things.”
The Bronx-born, Dominican-American chef has vivid memories of the meatless dishes her mother would prepare each Friday during Lent — a common practice for those who observe it — as well as through Semana Santa. Having been vegan and pescetarian in the past, Chef Yadi believes that this time allows for la comunidad to return to many of the plant-based and seafood-centered recipes they’ve grown up enjoying. In her household, it was dishes such as berenjena guisada (stewed eggplant), niños envueltos (rice and eggplant or mushroom-stuffed cabbage rolls), and bacalao guisado con guineítos (stewed codfish with green bananas) that were regulars throughout the Lenten season.
For Chef Omallys Hopper, widely-known as Chef Omi of “Cooking con Omi," it isn’t Semana Santa without caldo santo. The traditional, coconut-based soup with fish/seafood, cilantro, garlic, onion, peppers and tubers hails from Loíza, Puerto Rico and is one she connects with her abuela, who would always make the dish during this time. “It's one of those dishes that my grandmother would receive me with when I would go back and visit the island,” says Chef Omi. “She would receive me with that with a little glass of milk. If you know, you know.”
Viandas con bacalao, or root vegetables with codfish, is another recipe that reminds the Next Level Chef contestant of her grandmother. “I grew up in my grandmother's finca. She literally had all those vegetables in her backyard,” she says, with a smile. “She had the yuca, the malanga/the yautía. She had all the plantain. The bacalao was probably the only thing she ever had to go out and buy. She had all the peppers, and onions, and garlic, and all the things.” Chef Omi’s four sons now enjoy her favorite dish, too.
There’s another Semana Santa treat that’s an irresistible favorite: habichuelas con dulce. As writer Johanna Ferreira shares in a piece for Loisa, the rich, creamy bean-based dessert is a passed-down family recipe that marks the holiday. Chef Yadi notes that though habichuelas con dulce is a globally-recognized dish, it’s very personal to every family. “Food is always so tied to how we upkeep our generations and pass down memories,” adds the food justice leader, who is now her family’s go-to source for habichuelas con dulce.
She’s turned her family’s recipe into a delicious plant-based version, using coconut sugar instead of regular azucar and swapping out cow’s milk for almond milk, and adding in a little bit of condensed coconut milk. The star of Food Network’s Naturally Yadi! uses what she describes as the abuelita method of preparation, soaking the red kidney beans, and using whole spices, such as whole star anise, cloves and cinnamon sticks for their medicinal benefits.
With Semana Santa in full swing, there’s no shortage of family memories to be rekindled as kitchens fill with savory and sweet smells throughout the widely-celebrated holiday. As families continue to preserve age-old recipes and adapting them as desired, future generations will enjoy these beautiful culinary traditions.