Are there really Jews who live full-time on the Cayman Islands? Why was I surprised when the reply was a resounding “yes!” I grew up in the only Jewish family on the Shetland Islands. The only difference: Grand Cayman has a thriving Chabad. For my family, the Greenwalds, there was no rabbi, no synagogue, no other Jews—none of the support system that makes up a community.
In 2022, the islands drew 1,027,668 visitors from around the world, according to the Cayman Islands Department of Tourism. While the busiest months are March and April, there’s no bad time to go, though there is the threat of hurricanes during the fall. (Last September, Hurricane Ian skirted the Cayman Islands, causing some minor damage but leaving Grand Cayman intact.)
More than that, I was thrilled to learn that between 500 and 600 Jews live on Grand Cayman, the largest of the islands. There, the Chabad Cayman Jewish Community Center is led by a young, vibrant Rabbi Berel Pewzner and his wife, Rikel. In the 10 years they have been working and living on Grand Cayman, there’s now a synagogue, Jewish cemetery, Hebrew school, teen club, adult learning programs, Shabbat and holiday services and programs, and plenty of kosher food. A mikvah is planned to be built on the premises. Chabad has become the “go-to” destination for islanders and where tourists are assured of a warm welcome.
My friend and fellow traveler, Charlene Powery, gave me an insider’s taste of the Cayman culinary experience. Growing up in the Caymans, her family entertained us with traditional dishes. Gena Wilson, a talented cook, uses avocados from her backyard; velvet on the tongue with the delicate aroma of the tropics, some weigh in at three pounds each. With plantains, pumpkins, breadfruit and local spices in a score of dishes, there’s no doubt why the Cayman Islands have been dubbed “the culinary capital” of the Caribbean.
In the recipes below, sweet cherry tomatoes are layered on a bed of sliced avocado, dressed lightly with pesto and red-wine vinegar. For Avocado Vichyssoise, don’t skimp on the lemon juice to retain the delicate pale-green appearance. This soup may be prepared four to six hours ahead of time and refrigerated. Gena uses coconut oil in cooking much as we use vegetable, canola and olive oils. Coconut oil is mostly made up of saturated fats, so it becomes solid at room temperature (feel free to substitute another favorite oil if this is a concern). Stewed beef is popular, especially during New Year’s holidays. Beef chuck is browned in coconut oil, dredged in spices and slow-cooked until the meat is soft enough to be shredded. It’s a good make-ahead dish to refrigerate or freeze. Plantains, a substitute for potatoes, are available in local supermarkets and easy to prepare. Slice, salt lightly and fry until crisply browned. Although Gina uses fresh pumpkin for her Pumpkin Bread, I substituted canned pumpkin (do not use canned pumpkin-pie mix). If using fresh pumpkin, boil 1½ cups cubed pumpkin for 25 minutes or until soft. Drain well and purée in a food processor. Cool before using.
Enjoy a taste of the Caymans!
Stewed Beef, Cayman-Style
Avocado Vichyssoise (Dairy)
*Do not add butter or seasonings to the baked potato.
*Fresh parsley or dill may be used instead of mint.
*Slice or chunk around peeled avocado. Discard the pit.
¼ cup fresh squeezed lemon juice
1 ripe avocado, peeled and cut into chunks
1½ cups vegetable stock
½ baked potato, peeled and cut into chunks
1 green onion, thinly sliced
⅓ cup sour cream
½ teaspoon cumin
2 tablespoons fresh mint, finely snipped
salt and white pepper to taste
Place avocado chunks in a small bowl. Pour lemon juice over top. Stir to coat and set aside.
Into a blender jar or food processor, place the stock, potato, onion, sour cream and cumin. Lastly, add the avocado and lemon juice.
Process at medium-high speed until smooth. Pour into a bowl. Stir in the mint.
Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Cover and chill.
Avocado Salad (Dairy)
*Tricolored cherry tomatoes make a colorful salad. Tomato wedges may be substituted.
*Freshly squeezed lemon juice instead of lime juice.
*Prepared pesto is almost always dairy. Usually, Parmesan cheese has been added.
2 tablespoons prepared pesto
1 tablespoon red-wine vinegar
2 medium avocados, peeled, sliced and pit discarded
¼ cup freshly squeezed lime juice
½ medium cucumber, peeled and cut into ½-inch dice
1½ cups cherry tomatoes, halved
¼ small red onion, thinly sliced
In a small bowl, stir together the pesto and vinegar. Set aside.
Toss avocado with lime juice to avoid browning. Place on a serving dish.
Arrange cucumber, tomatoes and red onion on top. Drizzle with pesto mixture.
Fried Plantains (Pareve)
*Plantains look like large bananas but have thicker skin. The color ranges from yellow to green to black. Though cooked as a vegetable, it is classified as a fruit.
To peel: Chop off the ends and then gently score the skin in the middle and peel.
2 ripe plantains, peeled
½ cup coconut oil
½ teaspoon kosher salt
Slice the plantains at an angle into half-inch thick slices. Lay in one layer on a plate. Sprinkle lightly with salt.
Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Add the plantains. Cook for five to seven minutes on each side until nicely browned and cooked through.
Drain on paper towels.
Stewed Beef, Cayman-Style (Meat)
*I added half a cup of pitted black olives.
*Coconut oil is solid at room temperature.
1½ pounds beef chuck, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 teaspoon turmeric
¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper
½ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
about ⅓ cup coconut oil
1 large onion, sliced
1 teaspoon bottled minced garlic
2 scallions, snipped in 1-inch pieces
4 to 5 baby carrots, sliced ¼-inch thick
1 cup kosher beef broth
Season the beef with turmeric, pepper and salt, and then sprinkle with flour.
Heat the coconut oil in a large heavy pot over medium heat. Add the beef, onion, garlic, scallions, carrots and beef broth. Stir to mix.
Cover tightly. Reduce heat to simmer. Cook for four to five hours or until the beef is soft enough to be shredded. Check often stirring occasionally. If needed, add a little more broth or water.
Shred meat with a fork.
Serve with fried plantains.
Pumpkin Bread (Pareve)
Makes 2 loaves
*To soften hard brown sugar: Place in a microwave dish. Cover with a moist paper towel. Zap on high in 20-second increments, breaking up lumps as you go.
*May bake in two 9x9x2-inch-square baking pans.
*Measure the oil and then molasses. Molasses will then slip out easily from the measuring cup.
*To substitute for Chinese Five Spice, use a mixture of cloves and cinnamon.
½ cup water
½ cup coconut oil
½ cup vegetable oil
1¼ cups molasses
1 cup canned pumpkin
1 cup brown sugar
1½ cups all-purpose flour
1½ cups whole-wheat flour
½ teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons Chinese Five Spice
1 teaspoon nutmeg
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Spray 2 loaf pans (approximately 9x5x3 inches) with nonstick baking spray.
In a large bowl, whisk eggs till fluffy. Add water, oils, molasses, pumpkin and brown sugar. Stir well.
Add the remaining dry ingredients, mixing until the batter is smooth.
Fill loaf pans about ⅔ full.
Bake in preheated oven for 45 to 60 minutes or until a toothpick inserted come out clean.
Cool for 15 minutes before turning out onto a wire tray to cool completely.
Ethel G. Hofman is a widely syndicated American Jewish food and travel columnist, author and culinary consultant.