So they ask a Jewish boy from Manhattan to write about Jewish food in Mexico? What, you think I should be nice? They call those fluffy pillows from Wendy’s Kosher Bakery bagels? The corned beef sandwich at Klien’s has two measly slices of dry meat in it--two! The pickles are from a jar! And the prices! You could plotz!
Did I go into it with a bad attitude? – you bet. But bubbeleh, I ended up learning something. So nu?
It turns out there is indeed a world of “Jewish Cuisine” in the land of pork and tacos, but it’s not what you’d expect. Nothing to do with Barney Greengrass or the Carnegie Deli, my old haunts in New York.
Instead, I found “Piny” Tacos Kosher, (closed 2012) which offered alambre de hígado (made with chicken liver). I tried schnitzel a la Veracruzana at Restaurante Sinai (Izazaga 118, centro). And the shawarma in pita out at Shuky’s in Tecamachalco (Fuente de Templanza 17, inside the mall) is the best in town (like tacos al pastor with an accent).
I asked every Jewish Mexican I could find (and there are many, around 50,000 at last count) what their food memories are, what they think of as Jewish food in Mexico, and I got a lot of different answers.
It turns out it all depends on where your abuelos come from. Mine were from Russia, as were most in the eastern U.S. They ate gefilte fish, lox, borscht and blintzes. But in Mexico, the original national identity of immigrant Jews is more diverse. It includes Greece, Turkey, Syria, Morocco, Lebanon, Spain, Portugal as well as Russia, Poland and Germany. And that diversity shows (or, at least, did once) in the cooking.
The affable Clara Melameh, librarian at the Centro Cultural México-Israel in the centro histórico, is of Russian-Polish extraction like me. She claims to make the best gefilte fish in town. “Only there’s no one left to eat it.”, she laments. “Nobody alive even knows what it is! My son went to live in Israel, and I’m divorced. I’m going to do all that work--for who?” Invite me, Clara!
The Centro Cultural where Clara works occupies a colonial building on calle Republica del Salvador. A fascinating permanent exhibit chronicles the Diaspora of Jews in Mexico and there’s a whole section devoted to food, mostly about what is eaten at holidays and festivals, which seems to be common to Jews everywhere. Charoses, a sticky mixture of dried fruits, nuts and spices is a reminder of the mortar used by Jewish slaves in the construction of buildings. It’s served from Sana’a to Scarsdale. Chicken soup—or as we used to call it, ‘Jewish penicillin’, is another universal favorite – but it doesn’t differ much from anywhere else, unless you put in chili.
Few of the early immigrants are left in Mexico, and younger generations have assimilated. Mexican Jews don’t intermarry much (only about 10% do, apparently one of the lowest rates in the world ), most go to Jewish schools, and religion remains a strong force. But popular Mexican culture now rules the kitchen. So many traditional Jewish dishes have disappeared, along with the grannies who carefully harbored them. What does remain are a few restaurants and grocery stores catering to people who keep strictly kosher. This means nice clean kosher chickens and beef, a handful of products I would put in the “appetizing” (i.e. New York delicatessen) category, and a lot of other stuff I wouldn’t feed to a starving schnorrer. In my search for my N.Y. roots I found decent pastrami at Kurson Kosher (Emilio Castelar 204, Polanco), and bought a jar of pickled herring at Shuky’s in Condesa. And La Selecta (Julio Verne 90 has decent smoked fish and cole slaw. But forget about the frozen Kosher pizza, the dry kashrut cookies, and the sundry canned products. These are fine for folks who put their money where their mouths are and follow the ancient and respected tradition of keeping kosher. I salute them. But it’s not about fine cuisine, it’s about religious dietary law.
Dyed-in-the-wool chilanga Mathilde Askenazy’s parents were from Spain and Greece. They didn’t know from ‘bagel with a schmeer’. She remembers a dish she calls “chunt”, a sort of a layered bean stew. “Everybody ate it when we were growing up,” she recalls, “every family had its own recipe”. Her sister Klara, fondly recalls an eggplant salad her mother made, but hasn’t had it in years. These dishes, like the delicious chicken with artichoke hearts I ate at the Restaurant Sinai, is typical of the Sephardic Jews and, one could say, of Jewish cooking in Mexico.
The Sephardim are those who left Spain and settled all over the Mediterranean and North Africa. They spoke Ladino, an antique form of Spanish. I was able to locate one of the few books on the subject printed in Mexico, written in Ladino and Spanish: Lo Mishor de lo Muestro: Un Recorrido por la Gastronomía Tradicional Sefaradí. ( Our best: A traditional Sepharidic gastronomic tour). Mouth-watering recipes are culled from the Turkish, Greek, Lebanese and North African lexicon. Here is one, as I’ve adapted and translated it.
Pescado al Horno con T'jine (baked fish filets with sesame sauce)
1 k. firm fish filets (huachinango or sierra)
1 tb. lemon juice
½ ts. salt
¼ ts. mustard powder
¼ ts. ground cumin
3 tb. Tjine (sesame paste)
1 tb. lemon juice
¾ cup water
5 cloves garlic
5 sprigs parsley, chopped
¼ ts. salt
Put all sauce ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth.
Prepare a glass baking dish – rub with olive oil and lay in fish filets, sprinkling with the lemon, salt, mustard and cumin. Bake for about 10 minutes at 180 C, add the sauce and cook for 15 minutes more. Serve with white rice.
So, dahlings, you’ll still have to go to the Big Apple to nosh on a knish or pig out on a humongous corned beef sandwich. But you can get a nice bowl of matzoh ball soup at the Sinai, and even follow it up with a plate of kosher chilaquiles or a shwarma taco. The rest you’ll have to do yourself.
This article was originally printed in Inside Mexico; for more info on Jewish stuff in Mexico see their April 2008 issue: