Rachel Laudan

Jewish Mexican cooking

Until recently Jewish Mexican cooking was unknown outside the 50,000 Mexican Jews, most of whom arrived in the early twentieth century. [EDIT.  Here I am ignoring the Jews who came in the sixteenth century.  That is a whole other and distinct story.]

In Mexico, the search for the Mexican tradition, for indigenous and colonial Spanish traditions, sucks all the air out of culinary commentary and culinary history, something I will be writing more about.  And my friend, Nick Gilman, savvy explorer of Mexico City dining, is ambiguous about the Jewish delis etc  in Mexico, which didn’t match his New York memories.  And he found only one cookbook, a collection of Sephardic recipes.

Outside Mexico, Claudia Roden, who in her wonderful Book of Jewish Food, managed to get as far as India and China, left the Jewish cooking of Latin American countries out of the story (somewhat to the consternation of some of my cuisine-minded Latin-American Jewish friends).

The failure to recognize Jewish Mexican cuisine is changing at least in the United States. And as this branch of Jewish cuisine becomes better known in its own right, there is no need to measure it (or Argentinian or Panamanian or other Latin American Jewish cuisines) against the American.   I wish I could speak about it with more authority but being neither Jewish nor related to anyone in the community I have to rely on others.  Not such a bad fate, actually, given the interpreters coming along.

First came the lovely and exuberant Pati Jinich, determined to make Mexican food a little less a matter of daunting rules, at least as she explained to me when we had breakfast last year.  Ending up in Washington D.C. with her banker husband she has forged a career as interpreter of Mexican cooking, first with classes, then a blog, and now a cooking program on American Public Television.  Many of the dishes she talks about are standard Mexican fare.

Pati does not forget Jewish Mexican dishes though.  Here is an article by Joan Nathan in the New York Times on her Mexican-Jewish classes, including gefilte fish a la Veracruzana. And here she is talking about it on The Splendid Table.

And on her website for the television series (which incorporates her earlier blog) here’s this fantastic tamarind-apricot-chipotle chicken recipe, (presumably derived from a Sephardic dish) now firmly in my repertoire of favorite dishes.  Here’s the story she tells.

My Lali, as we called my grandmother, was an extraordinary cook. I could write down pages and pages listing the dishes she made that I loved. My favorite ones always had a sweet spin to them. The roasted duck with the plum sauce, the chicken paprika with sweet pimientos, the stuffed cabbage with that heart warming sauce…

If I could have my Lali over for Rosh Hashanah next week, I would treat her with the Chicken with Tamarind and Apricots I learned to make from Flora Cohen right before I got married. A cookbook writer and teacher from Syrian ancestry, who like my grandmother, was an immigrant who made Mexico her home bringing along exotic flavors from her birthplace. Flora was known to turn ignorant brides, who did not know how to boil an egg, into competent cooks who could bring bliss to the tummies of their new husbands (hey, at least my husband didn’t starve in those first years…)

And now we have a book by Susan and Alex Schmidt which I’m really looking forward to getting my hands on,  and an accompanying  blog Challa-peño. Here’s their story.

 On that table in the middle of Mexico City, on a Sunday afternoon in 1962,  there sat, nokedli, those Hungarian dumplings, toltotkaposta, my Grandma’s famous stuffed cabbage, or Hungarian chicken paprikash.  Without fail, on the side, there were  hot tortillas, guacamole, bright green serrano chile peppers, and a shallow bowl filled with fresh cilantro leaves.

Excitedly we’d all sit down to eat to the din and clang of Hungarian, Spanish and English being spoken, with Sinatra playing in the background.

So next time you want a change of pace, here’s another of the world’s ever-increasing number of cuisines to try out.


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8 thoughts on “Jewish Mexican cooking

  1. mae

    Some day I hope Ilan Stavans will write about Mexican Jewish food as he’s written about much of his other Yiddish-Mexican background.

    In a Holocaust Museum interview about antisemitism, he said “The Mexican Jewish community is a community of immigrants in more than the simple, traditional sense of the word because there was the mentality, the frame of mind of having arrived but never quite having landed. We were there. We were welcomed. We were grateful to Mexico, to its culture, to its people, but we were different. We looked different. We acted different. We had different last names. We ate different food. ”

    Last year I met him for a few moments and asked about the food traditions there — he said that as a child he had no idea that the latkes with mole that his family ate were different than the latkes eaten by other Jews for Hanukkah.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Hi Mae,

      Thanks for introducing me to Ilan Stavans. I’d not run across his work before but what an interesting person. I am slightly puzzled though about that sense of not belonging, as Mexico being different from other immigrant experiences. I can see why it might be. But then is that sense of not being quite there not fairly common?

  2. Claudia A

    Great post Rachel, I have often thought about this as well. I had Jewish friends growing up but lost track of most of them over the years and thus have no contact with modern Jewish-Mexican cooking. Are there any restaurants that you know that serve Jewish-Mexican cuisine or is it mostly home cooking?

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Hi Claudia, I think it’s mainly home cooking and still at base dependent on the area of origin—Levant, Hungary, Poland, Russia, etc. It’s made less impact on Mexican cuisine than it has on American. I would know more if I lived closer to Polanco.

  3. Adam Balic

    Rachel –

    I made the tamarind-apricot-chipotle chicken dish a few nights ago, delicious. Thanks very much for the link.

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