Tortillas, gefilte fish, guacamole, tzimmes, charoset, chocolate cake and matza. These were the dishes that would adorn the Passover seder table of Mexican-Jewish chef Rafael (Rafa) Zaga’s grandmother, in Mexico City’s Syrian-Jewish community. “She would host 40 people for the seder,” he recalls. “My father has eight brothers and sisters, so there were always lots of little kids running around between the tables.”
The meal also included meat dishes, of course, says Zaga: “lamb shoulder, beef with chili sauce, and the favorite – goat knee. This is a very special dish, because the meat cooks for more than 12 hours with chili and a slightly sweet marinade. It softens to the point that it just melts in your mouth. In terms of texture, it’s a bit similar to another food associated with Passover – tongue. At the seder we would eat goat knee with a corn tortilla and a little avocado, and it was pure heaven.”
Mexican-born Zaga, 26, is the youngest of three siblings; they have many American relatives on his mother’s side. His father’s family came to Mexico from Aleppo, Syria. On Monday night, Zaga will join two other chefs in preparing a six-course seder meal for 80 people, at an event to be held at the James Beard House in Manhattan. The event is a project of the Jewish Food Society, which was founded a year ago in New York by Naama Shefi, an Israeli who lives in the city. Its aim: preserving, documenting and rejuvenating Jewish cuisine by means of its digital recipe and cooking-video archive, pop-up events, food tours and culinary workshops.
While he is being interviewed at Shefi’s home in Manhattan, Zaga is slowly and carefully stirring a pot with shallots, celery, apples, walnuts, pears, oregano, arugula, orange juice, honey and a little wine vinegar – making the charoset, one of the symbolic foods eaten during the holiday meal, according to a recipe passed down for generations on the Syrian side.
“The Jewish community in Mexico is the second-largest in Latin America, after Argentina. There are 60,000 Jews, with the largest concentration in northern Mexico City,” he says, rinsing some crisp endive leaves to serve the charoset on. “It’s quite a heterogeneous community – there are Ashkenazim and Sephardim, and a good number of Jews of Syrian descent, like my family.”
Zaga attended Jewish schools growing up and went on to study at the Mexico City branch of Le Cordon Bleu culinary school before moving to New York, where he now works as a chef in an Italian restaurant.
“When I decided to stay in the United States and wanted to apply for a visa,” he says, “my lawyer told me that I need to specialize in a certain niche, and that’s when I thought of creating distinctive dishes and specializing in Mexican-Jewish food.”
Did you keep kosher at home?
Zaga: “For the seder, yes. The rest of the year, no. I don’t know anyone who kept kosher. It’s counter to all the most basic principles of Mexican cuisine, which mixes meat and cheese all the time. I love lobster and bacon, but I don’t think it makes me any less Jewish.”
Do you feel any special connection between Passover, the holiday of freedom, and the recent events in Aleppo, where your family came from?
“I don’t have any family left in Syria today and I’ve never visited, so my only connection to this heritage is through my grandmother’s food and memories.”
Recipes as stories
This is the fifth year that the James Beard House, the West Village townhouse residence of the late chef, which now serves as the home of the culinary-education foundation named for him, is hosting a seder (last year’s event, featuring Israeli chef Raffi Cohen, was a huge success). Naama Shefi says the idea for this year’s seder – which will feature a reading of the Haggadah, though not kosher food – stemmed in part from the election of Donald Trump.
“I had been trying to think about less well-known Jewish cultures and I thought of Mexico,” she explains. “Before I started working on the project, I didn’t know much about the Mexico City Jewish community and its culinary traditions. Many of the dishes I came to know through my research represent a wonderful integration of Jewish heritage with the influences of local ingredients, such as lime and chipotle. At first glance, the menu for the Mexican seder looks quite familiar – fish patties, kneidlach, brisket – but when you look a little closer, you discover the immigration stories behind each dish and each family, and the fascinating ways in which different local cuisines influenced the cuisine of the Jewish communities in those places. Every recipe is a story, so researching and collecting them is a way to present this complex cultural mosaic that will be lost if there is no effort to preserve it.
“What ultimately convinced me to go ahead was the way the American election turned out. It was a traumatic event for me and for many people, for many Jews especially, I think,” says Shefi. “After taking part in the Women’s March [in New York], I decided it would be right to celebrate Mexico at a time when the president is inciting against Mexicans and building a wall between the countries. Any kind of resistance is important and necessary, even if it comes from a seemingly esoteric place like Mexican-Jewish food.”
Tickets for the event, which range from $130 to 175, sold out two months ahead of time. Shefi says that not all the participants are Jewish, but rather constitute a mix of people who value good food and culture.
Also cooking for the event is chef Pati Jinich, 44, a cookbook author and television star who hosts a popular cooking show on PBS. Like Zaga, she is also an immigrant from Mexico; she currently lives in Washington, D.C.
“I grew up in a middle-class, Mexican, Ashkenazi family,” says Jinich, who also spoke with Haaretz stoveside in Shefi’s kitchen. “My father’s family came from a small shtetl in Poland and fled from the pogroms to Mexico in the early 20th century. My mother’s parents wanted to immigrate to America [from Poland], but they weren’t given visas. Mexico was a lifesaver for them, though they didn’t speak a word of Spanish and hadn’t planned on going there. They arrived at the port of Veracruz and ended up settling in Mexico City.”
Mexican cuisine is very different from Eastern European Jewish cuisine in terms of ingredients and with its emphasis on spiciness. How do you combine these two traditions?
Jinich: “Mexican and Jewish foods have been mixing since the 15th century; there were different waves of immigration to Mexico. The gefilte fish I’m going to make, ‘Veracruz-style gefilte fish,’ is a hot and somewhat different version of a dish that is usually served cold. We cook the fish patties in a tomato-and-chili sauce with olives and capers, and garnish it with spicy green pepper instead of carrot. The taste is very rich, a little spicy. My grandmother used to make two types – cold and hot – every Passover, and she would always ask: ‘Which would you like, the white or the red?’ And no matter what I replied, she would always scold: ‘So you don’t like the other kind? Why did I go to the trouble of making it?’
“Mexican-Jewish food is a splendid example of the way two cultures can enhance one another: The Jewish food doesn’t lose its soul, but it gains new flavors and colors. The gefilte fish I make is still gefilte, but it’s redder and more colorful.”
When Jinich uncovers the steaming pot, the surprising result of this merging of cultures is revealed: Unlike the traditional heavy and sweetish gefilte, the Veracruz variety is lighter and airier.The tomato sauce and mild spiciness of the peppers create a combination that is more reminiscent of chraimeh (a Libyan-Jewish tomato-and-fish delicacy) than gefilte fish. Adds Jinich, “My grandmother would serve it alongside fresh guacamole with caramelized onion and egg salad.”
Jinich will also be preparing a kneidlach soup (a traditional soup made with matzo-meal dumplings), based on her Polish grandmother’s recipe. “It’s kneidlach soup served with jalapeno peppers, parsley and a touch of nutmeg. My grandmother’s family came from a small village in Poland. They were never wealthy and they cooked very simple food, but for the Seder they would host at least 30 people. My grandmother would make tzimmes [a traditional, sweet Ashkenazi stew] with prunes, and two kinds of kugel [a type of baked casserole] – sweet, and savory. There were also several meat dishes, and fruit compote for dessert.
She notes the similarities between Jewish and Mexican culture. “They are both very open, warm cultures with an obsessive need to feed people, especially children and family. In Spanish there’s something called sobremesa: When finish eating, you don’t just get up and go. You keep sitting and talking, drinking coffee, nibbling something sweet. It can go on for hours, all the way to the next meal, and that’s how we spend time together on the holidays.”
Chocolate and chipotle
The third person involved in preparing the Jewish Food Society seder is pastry chef Fany Gerson, 40, also a Mexican immigrant to the United States. One standout dessert on the planned menu: a chipotle-pepper chocolate cake served with tomatillo sauce – made from green tomatoes, a staple of Mexican cuisine.
“My mother was born to a Catholic family but she converted for my father,” Gerson explains. “She wanted her children to enjoy Jewish culture too, although she didn’t send us to Jewish schools and we only went to synagogue on holidays. We were a little unusual for the Jewish community in Mexico. I remember when my sister and I were sent to Jewish summer camp when I was 9: That was the first time in my life I felt rejected. The other kids didn’t like the fact that my mother was a convert and that we didn’t go to Jewish schools. When I moved to America I found that Judaism here is much more open and varied.”
Since arriving in New York two decades ago, Gerson has specialized in baked desserts. She runs a business that supplies Mexican desserts and two doughnut shops called Dough.
Does the timing of this event have special meaning for you?
Gerson: “Definitely. Under the current administration and President Trump, I feel it’s important to show that it’s possible for different cultures to be combined and how different communities can empower one another. The thought that our freedom – whether it’s freedom of movement or freedom of expression – can be taken from us lends our event a sense of urgency. It’s not just about culinary pleasure.”