Happy Secular New Year! May 2018 bring you many blessings.
I recently returned from a week-long trip to Mexico City and its surrounding areas, which was lovely in all regards. One particularly attractive aspect for me was the delicious food in Mexico – from the antojitos like tacos and huaraches, to the staples like atole, to the incredible variety of chilies, vegetables, and fish there. It is a food nerd’s dream. And there are a lot of Jewish parallels, a few of which I will point out here.
I am going to skip over the beautiful and complex Mexican Jewish food tradition, which blends old Ashkenazi and Sephardi flavors with common Mexican ingredients. Rachel Laudan and Joan Nathan have already written excellent articles on Mexican Jewish food, and the Ashkenazi-Mexican blog Challapeño is a real pleasure to read. In addition, one of the most famous interpreters of Mexican food in the United States, Pati Jinich, is a Mexican Jew herself – and has written extensively on Mexican Jewish cuisine. There are many delicious things in Mexican Jewish cooking, including gefilte fish veracruzana, where the fish is poached in a spicy tomato sauce, and guacamole topped with boiled eggs and gribenes!
Beyond this cuisine, however, one can see links between “traditional Mexican” and “traditional Jewish foods.” Modern food really began in Mexico, where the first cuisine blending Old World ingredients like dairy and wheat combined with New World ingredients like corn and tomatoes. Several of the world’s most consumed foods – corn, pumpkins, zucchini, peanuts, chili peppers, guavas, tomatoes, black beans, vanilla, and chocolate among them – were introduced from what is now Mexico to the Old World after contact in the early 16th century. Some of these, like corn, arose in Mesoamerica, while others – like the tomato and the peanut – reached the form closest to the most common ones today in Mesoamerica. As a result, there are many culinary parallels between the Mexico from where these plants originated, and the Jewish cuisines of the Old World that took a shine to them. Beyond that, many of the foods introduced from Europe by the Spaniards were those that the Jews took with them on their exile after 1492.
Enough blathering. Let’s go eat!
In the cup, you see atole, a traditional corn-based porridge or drink. It is made from corn hominy flour (masa), which is ground from kernels that have been nixtamalized. While nixtamalization did not cross over to Europe, corn did, and corn-based gruels became common in many Jewish communities. In Romania and Georgia, mamaliga and gomi are common parts of meals.
The tamale, which is also made from corn flour, was delicious too.
This is a huarache – an oblong disk of masa filled with beans, cooked, and then topped akin to tacos or other antojitos. This example here is topped with nopal (cactus), mushrooms, and cheese. Similar topped breads or doughs exist in many Old World Jewish cuisines, such as lahmajun in the Mediterranean or lobiani in Georgia. All are portable and easily consumed with one’s hands – though I, being a klutz, do use a fork and knife with huaraches. Spanish speakers may note that this is also the word for “sandal” – and indeed, huaraches are called that for their sandal-like shape. The word itself for sandal derives from the Purépecha language, native to the Mexican state of Michoácan. I spoke with the cook while he prepared the huarache at a small neighborhood eatery, and he told me that huaraches initially started out as a variant on the extremely delicious tlacoyo prepared by a street vendor in Mexico City, but flatter and crispier than its bulky father. (I also ate delicious tlacoyos.) Surprised by his assertion, I did some research when I got home … to find that he was right! (The link is in Spanish.) Food, as we must remember, is ever-changing.
Here is some fish for sale at the Mercado del San Juan, which is one of the most famous – if by no means the biggest – food markets in Mexico City. Many tourists come for the “exotic” foods like grasshoppers, but what captivated me more were the workaday fishmongers selling sea and freshwater fish to locals. Particularly beloved here are guachinango (red snapper), corvina (croaker), and lenguado (flounder). In Mexico, local Jews do what Jews have done everywhere, and adopted the kosher local fish as their own. Hence the aforementioned gefilte fish veracruzana, and countless fish dishes besides. The way the fishmongers described the fish reminded me of fishmongers in my father’s hometown of Cape Town: brutally honest, but still trying to get you to buy the fish. I am wondering if a guachinango-tamatiebredie might be in order.
Near the fish, I found some squash, or pumpkin (calabaza) for sale. I talked in a recent post about the long Jewish history of and love for pumpkin and squash in all forms, and Mexico is the country where it all started! The native region of the squash is Mesoamerica, and the variety of squash here is nearly unparalleled. As in Jewish communities, squash products find themselves in all parts of the meal in Mexican cuisine, from toasted pumpkin seeds (pepitas), to squash flowers (flor de Calabaza) on tacos and quesadillas, to squash-based sweets.
This beauty is a nopal, or the Opuntia cactus, whose delicious paddles and sweet fruit are a common food in Mexico. The fruit, called prickly pear in English, is also common across the Mexican Southwest. However, many Jews associate prickly pears with Israel – after all, the “sabra” is seen as the essence of the Israeli himself: prickly on the outside, sweet on the inside. Yet all Opuntia are native to the Americas, including those grown commercially in Israel today. Prickly pear was introduced to the Mediterranean by the Spanish in the 16th century, and once there, this cactus quickly established roots in what was an ideal climate. Like many fruits, it was considered “green gold” by Spanish crews – likely to be valuable, and taken back with other plants to Europe and the Old World. Besides, other desert plants’ fruit had been common since time immemorial. Now, five hundred years later, Opuntia is so established in the Middle East and North Africa that it is considered by some a pest. Today, Tunisian and Moroccan Jews make jams from the pears, and Sicilians even make a liqueur! And the fruit itself is enjoyed by Jews in Israel, the United States, and of course Mexico.
This gorgeous nopal is in Tula de Allende, 70km north of Mexico City, which was the site of the capital of the Toltec people in the early post-Classic period (roughly 900-1100 CE). It is well worth a visit.
Ice cream is popular in Mexico as anywhere else – and perhaps even more so. I’m flabbergasted at the number of neverías and heladerías I saw, both in Mexico City and in the provincial town of Tula de Allende. This ice cream, however, is special – it’s made with dulce de membrillo, or candied quince paste! This recipe came straight from Spain, where it probably developed during Moorish rule. It is popular in sweets in Mexico – but also among Sephardic Jews, who serve pastries and cookies with bembriyo. Candied quince is also a traditional Rosh HaShanah and Tu Bishvat food among Tunisian and Iranian Jews, and quince jams and candies remain popular in Israel today. Quince jam was one of the first recipes I made for the blog, and is incredibly delicious.
These little rolls are called conchas, and are a roll topped with a biscuit-like dough. These are vegetarian, though fellow kosher-keepers beware: ask, because sometimes they are made with lard. Beyond that, however, they are oddly similar to the classic bulke challah role of Ashkenazi cooking: sweet, small, and delicious!
This is not so much a culinary influence as a fun little parallel. I went to a mezcalería to try some delicious mezcal. When my drink arrived, it came with some orange slices. I asked the bartender why the oranges had come, and he responded that it is somewhat improper, he was taught, to have alcohol without a bit of food. As it happens, I was sort of taught the same growing up in an Ashkenazi Jewish household, and the same tradition exists with serving zakuski with vodka among Russian Jews. From Die Alter-Heim to Mexico, some traditions persist!
Many thanks – mil gracias – to all those who gave great food advice for Mexico City: Dexter O’Connell, Rachel Laudan, Connie Prater, Atenea Rosado, Mordecai Martin, Tamara Velasquez, Nahime Aguirre, Hunter Owens, Hunter Kennedy, and Yael Wiesenfeld.