It’s amazing how far a recipe can travel. Debby Kaplan Pearlman is known for her biscochos, crumbly little wreath-shaped cookies flavored with vanilla. “You know how every culture has a dry, not very sweet cookie that gets dipped in coffee or tea or wine?” asked Debby. “This is the Sephardic version of that cookie.” According to Debby, every Sephardic family has a jar of these in their kitchen, and each has a subtly different version. “It’s five ingredients, and if you mix them up right and roll them a certain way they really are delicious.”
Though Debby grew up in Beverly Hills, the cookie traveled far to become her go-to morning treat. She learned the recipe from her mom, Perla Capelluto Kaplan, who was born in Zaire, in the Belgian Congo. Perla was one of a sizeable community of Sephardic Jews from the Island of Rhodes in Greece who moved to the African country. They left the Grecian island to outpace the Nazis, who were already marching across Europe. “The story I know is that someone from Rhodes was working in Belgian Congo, and he said it’s safe for Jews here,” said Debby. “So most of the Jews from Rhodes moved en masse to Zaire.” Those who did not, said Debby, including her mother’s aunt, perished in concentration camps.
After living out the war peacefully in Belgian Congo, many of the Jews left to escape civil unrest, and dispersed mostly to Capetown and Brussels (an uprising in Congo eventually led to independence from Belgium in 1960). Perla, then a teenager, joined an aunt in Atlanta, Georgia. That’s where she met her husband, Debby’s dad, who was from Birmingham, Alabama. They all eventually moved to California.
The Island of Rhodes, says Debby, has been home to a Sephardic Jewish population for hundreds of years. She says it’s still home to the oldest Sephardic temple in Europe, where her niece from their very large and tight-knit extended family was recently bat mitzvahed. “The Rhodes Sephardic, you know how in every religion there’s a hierarchy? We think we’re the best ones,” laughs Debby.
“To me it’s comfort food, I love it when my house smells like my aunts’ house”
“There was a pride in being from Rhodes, and then being in the Belgian Congo,” says Debby. She learned many of the traditional recipes, including the biscochos, from her own family and from other “Rhodeslie” who lived in Los Angeles. “There was a big Rhodes contingency of Jews here who knew my grandmother,” says Debby. “My mother would take them to the doctor and took them to get their hair done. To thank my mom they would cook for her, the foods from her childhood.” Eventually, Perla learned how to make all of their recipes, and so did Debby and her sister. “To me it’s comfort food, I love it when my house smells like my aunts’ house,” says Debby. “I make the food for dinner parties and people can’t believe how good it is, but it’s peasant food. People go nuts! I can eat it every day.”