From Calypso and Callaloo Soup to Klezmer and Kneidel

Trinidadian author and caterer serves up hummus, hallah and Jewish connection

By Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman
eJewish Philanthropy

Goodbye callaloo soup, hello hummus and hallah.

That’s what Nicholas Jagdeo says. 

The United Kingdom-born, Trinidadian author whose debut novel, “The First Jew: The Resurrection of Abraham,” is also the owner of Hummus & Hallah, a catering company specializing in Israeli and Israeli-Caribbean fusion cuisine.

The company’s most popular dish is Trini spicy hummus, chickpea spread doused with culantro (Mexican coriander), lemon juice, olive oil and extra-hot habanero peppers. It also sells mini challah rolls – a replacement for the popular brioche – shakshuka and falafel. The latter dishes likewise include a Trinidadian flare.

Jagdeo, who was in Jerusalem for ROI Community’s annual summit that ran from June 23 to 27, said he started the company in 2017, after returning to his hometown from Tel Aviv.

“There was no Israeli food in Trinidad,” he told eJewish Philanthropy. “We have a lot of Syrian refugees, so there is a lot of Syrian food, like shawarma, but I wanted falafel and hallah.”

The restaurant is kosher without certification and closed on Shabbat. The dishes are rooted in Jagdeo’s Trinidadian upbringing and the recipes he learned from a Yemenite landlady from which he rented a Jerusalem apartment from 2007 to 2009.

Opening Hummus & Hallah was not an obvious career move for Jagdeo, who is currently studying for an M.B.A. in Trinidad and Tobago. He was raised a Protestant Christian on the dual-island Caribbean nation near Venezuela, which has a population of 1.4 million, but only around 200 Jews.  

In 2005, Jagdeo visited Israel with his mother and he fell in love with Israel and the Jewish people. However, he told eJP that he assumed that Judaism was not a religion to which one could convert in modern day. Then, one year later, he saw and picked up a book on conversion to Judaism at a Barnes & Noble bookstore on a trip to NYC. 

“I devoured it on the plane ride home,” he said. “I knew that his is where I wanted to go and what I wanted to be.”

Jagdeo moved to Jerusalem and underwent a formal, Orthodox conversion. Then, he returned home to help fellow Trinidadian Jew Sarina Nicole Bland build the online presence of B’nai Shalom, an informal Jewish organization she started that meets in members’ homes for occasional services and Jewish holidays.

He told how on one visit to Trinidad over Passover he ended up putting on a make-shift Passover Seder at his home with one box of matzah. There was no alternative.

Jagdeo said that the community is small, but there are many people in Trinidad whose grandparents were Jewish, as well as many Conversos, descendants of Jews who converted to Roman Catholicism in Spain or Portugal, particularly during the 14th and 15th centuries.

“When I converted, I had a friend who showed me these ancient, falling apart tefillin,” Jagdeo recalled. “She did not know what it was, she just knew it was Hebrew and a Jewish thing.”

Jagdeo moved to Tel Aviv for a short window, as well, but returned to Trinidad when his grandfather became ill and he became homesick.

“It is my community and my culture, and I feel the most comfortable in Trinidad,” Jagdeo said.

It was when he went back home in 2017 that he started the catering company.

He said that a 2012 ADL study found Trinidad to be “slightly antisemitic.”

“I think there are a lot of stereotypes, just because they come into pop culture, like Jews want money or control the media. But I don’t think the people realize this is antisemitic,” he said.

However, there is a large Muslim extremist community, and the few Jews who do call Trinidad home maintain a very low profile because of a 1990 uprising by the Jamaat al-Muslimeen, a radical Muslim sect.

Jagdeo himself had an experience where he posted a pro-Israel statement on his Facebook page and a local messaged him, “Kill a Jew, enter paradise.” Jagdeo went to the police who promptly identified and arrested the man. 

Will this calypso music-playing convert stay on the island? Yes and no, he said.

“I hope to both launch a startup in Israel and to continue to build, grow and promote the Jewish community in Trinidad,” Jagdeo said.