I was sitting at a hotel cafe in the Dominican city of La Romana, when the waitress slid my breakfast plate in front of me. It was a plato típico, the standard Dominican breakfast that came free with my stay. Looking down at the heavy mix of mashed mangú (plantain), fried eggs, slices of deep-fried cheese, and circular slabs of crispy, fried and strangely addictive salami, it seemed the last thing I should be eating on a sweltering day. I’d only been in the DR for a few days, but I knew by now that this was breakfast. It was served everywhere, almost every day, and it was downright delicious.
Salami was served almost every day, and it was downright delicious
Salami is a Dominican staple. It’s eaten cubed in spaghetti with tomato sauce, stewed with peppers and onions, tossed in rice and sliced thick and deep fried. I’d been served it every one of those ways over my trip. It was extremely tasty, but I was still a little baffled. How, I wondered, had a processed meat become such a staple?
Some of salami’s popularity is due to cost: it’s cheap. Another reason is environmental. Unreliable electricity and a lack of refrigeration put fully-cooked proteins in high demand. But when I asked an American doctor who’d worked in the DR for decades about the salami craze, he said that there was another reason, one that involves two dictatorships, deep racism, human ingenuity and World War II.
Over the years, I asked both Dominican friends and strangers about the cryptic lead, but no one knew what I was talking about. It wasn’t until I overheard talk of a small Jewish community in the northern city of Sosúa that I had a real trail to follow. That tip led me to the Sosúa Virtual Museum, an online historical archive of a small community of settlers in Sosúa as told through its current and former residents, their children, and its creator, Sylvia Schwarz.
Schwarz explained that she is the child of European Jews, but she grew up in the Dominican Republic. When her parents, Egon and Hildegard, moved to the DR in 1947, they were trading one regime for another – but this one wanted them there.
European Jews were trading one regime for another – but this one wanted them
At the 1938 Evian Conference, a convening of the leaders of 32 nations and numerous private organizations to discuss the hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees fleeing the rapidly spreading Nazi regime, Dominican dictator Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina stood out as the only world leader willing to accept a significant number of those seeking asylum.
But his reasons were political, not humanitarian. Trujillo had massacred tens of thousands of Haitians over six days in October 1937, an event English speakers call the ‘parsley massacre’, Dominicans call el corte (the cutting) and Haitians remember as kout kout-a (the stabbing). Regardless of name, it was a vicious attempt at the same sort of ethnic cleansing that was happening in Europe, and Trujillo was in serious need of a positive public relations boost.
Trujillo was obsessed with whiteness. He saw the island of Hispaniola as a physical polarisation between light and dark, and his mission was to keep the darkness at bay. Known for powdering his own skin to appear whiter, Trujillo saw the exodus of Jewish people from Eastern Europe in the time between Hitler's rise to power and the closing of the borders as an opportunity to further his racial agenda. At the conference, Trujillo agreed to accept up to 100,000 Jews into his country, hoping that they would procreate with Dominican women, who would then give birth to lighter-skinned babies.
This was an opportunity to survive that couldn’t be passed up
Despite these dark motives, his offer was an opportunity to survive that couldn’t be passed up. The DR issued approximately 5,000 visas to European Jews between the Evian Conference and 1944, but due to travel issues, political tensions and some uncertainty about relocating to the Caribbean nation, fewer than 1,000 Jews ever made it to the DR. Those that did were given land and livestock, and the opportunity to start rebuilding their lives.
Egon and Hildegard met as refugees in Shanghai in 1938. He had fled Vienna and she, Berlin. They spent nine years in China, including time in a Japanese-run concentration camp, before being granted visas to the DR. By the time they arrived in 1947, the Dominican Republic Settlement Association (DORSA), a programme of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), had built a small but thriving community on a former banana plantation in Sosúa on the island’s northern coast. It was nicknamed El Batey, a Caribbean term for the residential areas where plantation workers live.
Like Egon and Hildegard, many of the refugees were successful professionals in their home countries, and the community quickly became economically powerful. CILCA, a dairy cooperative, and Ganadera, a meat cooperative, were created and funded by DORSA, but their success was built on the tenacity and business savvy of the settlers. By pooling their expertise and bringing in consultants from Europe, they were able to create high-quality European-style cheeses, butter that was voted the nation’s best, award-winning sausages and salamis that were sold around the country under the name Productos Sosúa (Sosúa Products).
Dominican food is a mix of Spanish, African and indigenous Taíno influences. Beans, stews, and starches like rice, plantains and yucca form a foundation that is absorbent and easy to build upon. Sausage certainly existed in the DR before the Jewish community arrived, but by offering cooked salami similar to bologna, they were able to capitalise on the novelty of their products while also meshing with the existing cuisine.
After you almost died of hunger, you don't care if it's Kosher or not
A mixture of beef and pork, the salami made at Ganadera was by no means Kosher, and many of the Jewish families who settled in Sosúa raised pigs. "They didn't stay Kosher," Schwarz said of her parents. "After you almost died of hunger, whatever you can find to eat you eat, and you don't care if it's Kosher or not."
By the 1960s, the Sosúa community was selling millions of dollars USD in meat and dairy products each year. Their salami, especially, became so popular that other processed-meat businesses, like Dominican-owned Induveca, still a leader in the country today, also began to thrive. But even as the Jewish community grew in influence, they tended to keep together in tight-knit religious and cultural communities that still exist today (much to Trujillo's chagrin).
As the years passed, most of the Jewish settlers left for the US, Israel or their home nations. But the Productos Sosúa factory, a small synagogue, a Jewish cemetery and a few Jewish families remain in the city that sprung up around them as the small town of Sosúa transformed into a tourist destination. Even Schwarz left in 1995, after her quiet street turned into a bustling thoroughfare.
Although Productos Sosúa was sold to Mexican multinational Sigma Alimento in 2004, the Dominican staple’s roots in the small Jewish cooperative and the flavours they popularised can still be tasted in almost any kitchen in the country.
So, eight years and countless slabs of fried salami later, I finally had my answer. Today, the history of the Jewish settlers, of DORSA, Ganadera and Productos Sosúa has almost been forgotten. Most people visit Sosúa without knowing that what is now the main tourist section (and still called El Batey) was once tilled by Jewish homesteaders. But every Dominican – and every person who has sat down to a Dominican breakfast – has tasted a little bit of the mark they left on one of the only countries in the world that was willing to take them in.
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