A surprising fusion food was born when Ashkenazi immigrants to Mexico embraced the local cuisine
GEFILTE FISH smothered with chillies, gribenes with guacamole — it would be hard to think of two more diametrically opposed culinary traditions than those of Eastern Europe and Mexico. One is heavy, bland fare created for cold-weather comfort, the other — hot weather peasant food infused with the heat of chilli peppers, zesty lime juice and the pungency of cumin and coriander. This unlikely fusion cuisine has been created by waves of Ashkenazi Jews pouring into Mexico over the past 150 years, who have embraced the vernacular cuisine while clinging fiercely to their shtetl favourites.
Chef Daniel Ovadia, the son of a Hungarian refugee explains: “We love Mexico for taking us in, and we have embraced everything about the country including its food.”
Ovadia is currently compiling a cookbook of Jewish family recipes while serving in his restaurants in Mexico City all the traditional dishes locals expect when they go out to eat. Tacos, quesadillas and other variations of the tortilla stuffed with meat or cheese, mushrooms or squash blossoms, with spicy salsa on the side and a helping of guacamole.
For the Mexican diaspora, spice has become an integral element of Jewish home cooking: “For the holidays we make the honey cake our parents grew up with, but also gefilte fish a la Veracruzana, in which we substitute red snapper for carp and add chilli and lime,” Ovadia explains.
Visitors to this year’s Gefiltefest may be familiar with this dish as food historian Jayne Cohen revealed there how strongly Latin flavours have gripped the palates of Jewish immigrants who fled south during the 20th century, especially those who went to Mexico.
Cohen explains that these traditions were being carried abroad by Mexican ex-pats like Susan Schmidt, whose Challa-peno blog is a play on the way the name of Mexico’s quintessential chilli is pronounced.
Schmidt, born in Mexico City in 1953, recalls that she has had jalapenos and their spicier relatives on the table ever since she can remember. She serves guacamole spread on home-made tortilla chips and topped with that most Ashkenazi of Friday-night treats, gribenes.
“Mexicans would use chicharron — pork crackling — but as a kosher cook I’ve adapted all my recipes. Ren- dered chicken skin has all the same crisp meatiness,” she says. “As for guacamole and tortillas, they have been on the table for as long as I can remember growing up.”
Her own mother, who arrived from Budapest as a child absolutely hated the first tortilla she tasted: “But pretty soon she learned to love them, while also missing her mother’s Hungarian cooking which I tried very hard to recreate for her.”
Luckily for Schmidt, when her parents decided their children should have an American education and moved them to Los Angeles, she found herself in an increasingly Latino city where Mexican food is deeply cherished.
“So for the observant who don’t want to cook at home, there’s Mexikosher,” she explains of an LA take-out which serves the kind of recipes which have drawn hundreds to her blog over the past five years.
“They seem fascinated by the idea of a traditional Mexican peasant soup like pozole being served with matzah balls Susan Schmidt is deeply nostalgic for Mexico, the country of her birth; Daniel Ovadia, the son of a Hungarian refugee, says has “loves Mexico for taking us in” — my late father’s Friday night favourite,” she explains.
Schmidt, who is still deeply nostalgic for the country of her birth, got her wish that she might meet and marry a Mexican, and her husband’s family remains in Mexico City: “They were Polish from the shtetl, and my motherin-law has also been a big influence on my cooking.”
LA may have Mexikosher, but Brits have Mexgrocer, an online purveyor of authentic Mexican ingredients, some declared kosher. Masa harina, the cornmeal soaked in lime from which proper tortillas are made, and a press to flatten the dough, are the stuff of truly authentic tortilla chips like the ones Schmidt likes to spread with guacamole or the black bean paste which is the favourite of her vegetarian rabbi when he comes to dinner. “Bean tacos and he’s in heaven,” she laughs. “And I’m not averse to taking a couple of cubes of meat from a goulash and wrapping it in a tortilla to make a Hungarian-style taco
myself.” Susan Schmidt’s Challa-peno blog is at mexicanjewish.com; for authentic ingredients
check out mexgrocer.co.uk