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Mexican Jews blend two traditions for Passover feasts

Andrea Abel
Matzo ball soup combines a delicate broth with a hint of zing.

Passover begins at sundown Friday, lasts for eight days and celebrates the Jews' freedom from Egyptian slavery. The holiday is marked by the epic food event known as the Passover Seder, a ritual meal with numerous symbolic foods, singing, the telling of the Passover story, multiple glasses of wine and a table laden with sumptuous dishes.

While I have my favorite Passover foods, each year I like to mix it up a bit, adding newfound global recipes. This year, I'm exploring Mexican Jewish Passover traditions, which turns out to be a lot broader than I imagined. Mexican Jews come from both Ashkenazic (Eastern European) and Sephardic (Mediterranean and Middle Eastern) traditions, each with their own favorite recipes and ingredients — influenced by millennia in the Diaspora.

Though Jews first arrived in Mexico with explorer Hernán Cortés, today's Jewish community arrived mostly in the late 19th to mid-20th centuries fleeing pogroms, World War II or other political and economic strife.

Mexico's current Jewish population hovers a little less than 68,000, with most living in and around Mexico City. Jews of Ashkenazic origin predominate the community. Their Eastern European food traditions — while delicious — tend to be heavy, pale in color, mild in seasoning and rely on cold-hearty produce like cabbage and potatoes. In the words of Mexican Jew Pati Jinich, "Ashkenazi food doesn't flirt with the eyes!" Jinich is the delightful, down-to-earth host of the public television cooking show "Pati's Mexican Table" and author of a cookbook with the same name due in spring 2013 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

In contrast, Mexican cooking bursts with colors and bright, bold flavors. As with any immigrant group, Jews arriving in Mexico blended their recipes with these zesty locally available ingredients. In this case, the Mexican Passover menu might include hints of chiles, tropical fruits or tomatoes — all native to Mexico.

Jinich along with Austin Mexican Jews Rosa Schnyer and Ronit Joselevitz took time to share their family Passover recipes and traditions with me. Jinich grew up in Mexico City. Her grandparents immigrated to Mexico from Poland on her father's side and from Austria and Czechoslovakia on her mother's side. Joselevitz, a UT Plan II freshman, also comes from Ashkenazic roots, though her family moved from Mexico to Texas before she was born.

The gefilte fish a la Veracruzana is a perfect example of melding Ashkenazic and Mexican cuisine that has become traditional among many Mexican Jews, including the families of both Jinich and Joselevitz. Traditional gefilte fish is an acquired taste, usually made with carp or pike and served in a jellied sauce accompanied by grated horseradish. But switch out a strong tasting freshwater fish for a mild saltwater one and add a deeply flavorful rich sauce — well, that's another story.

Jinich says the Veracruzana sauce, which originated on the Mexican Gulf Coast, typically uses tomatoes, chiles and olives, and is served with red snapper. "The Jewish people just took this sauce and used it with gefilte fish," says Jinich, who declares the dish a "big hit."

She developed the matzo ball soup to honor her grandfather. "It is my personal spin on what my grandmother used to make. My grandfather came from Czechoslovakia (where hot peppers are used in cooking). He always added chiles to everything. As an honor to him, I added jalapeños to the recipe," says Jinich, who combines a delicate broth with just a hint of zing to counterbalance the light and mild mushrooms and matzo dumplings.

"Wherever I've made it, that soup has been a great success. It's been served at the Mexican Embassy. It's easy to make too," she adds.

For the chicken with apricot, tamarind and chipotle sauce, Jinich takes a recipe from Mexico's Sephardic Jewish community and adds a Mexican touch: chipotles in adobo (found in a small can in the Mexican or Latin food section in most grocery stores). The combination creates a perfect balance of sweet, sour and warm — but not too spicy — heat. "People always rave about the combination of flavors," Jinich says. "It really is not that hot, even if you add the entire chili."

Schnyer was born and raised in Mexico City, but her family hails from the Middle East — Syria, Egypt and Persia — making her holiday traditions considerably different than those of Jinich and Joselevitz. For example, Schnyer's family never ate gefilte fish. Instead, she shares an Egyptian raisin haroset recipe that her mother makes every year, remarking that the thick, sweet paste closely resembles the brick mortar it is meant to symbolize.

Like many food traditions passed from one generation to the next, written-down recipes, exact measurements and actual cooking instructions can be hard to come by.

"We are all hands-on cooks and rarely, if ever, use recipes," Schnyer admits. Both Schnyer and Joselevitz called their mothers to try to verify quantities and instructions.

Joselevitz admits that she can't make it through Passover without her mom's matzo meal tortillas. Though her family does not eat them as part of the Passover Seder, I can envision the easy-to-make tortillas as a welcome midholiday addition stuffed with fresh guacamole, grilled chicken and pico de gallo or to wrap breakfast tacos.

Happy Passover a la Mexicana!

GEFILTE FISH A LA VERACRUZANA (Veracruz Style Gefilte Fish)

For the fish patties:

1 lb. red snapper fillets, no skin or bones

1 lb. flounder fillets, no skin or bones

1 white onion, about 1/2 pound, quartered

2 carrots, about 1/4 pound, peeled and roughly chopped

3 eggs

1/2 cup matzo meal

2 tsps. Kosher or sea salt, or to taste

1/2 tsp. ground white pepper, or to taste

For the sauce:

3 Tbsp. safflower or corn oil

1/2 cup white onion, chopped

1 28-oz. can crushed tomatoes

3 cups water

2 Tbsp. ketchup

1 tsp. kosher or sea salt, or to taste

1/4 tsp. ground white pepper, or to taste

1 cup Manzanilla olives stuffed with pimientos

8 pepperoncini peppers in vinegar brine (chiles güeros en escabeche), or more to taste

1 Tbsp. capers

For the fish patties: Rinse the fish fillets under a thin stream of cool water. Slice into smaller pieces and place in the food processor. Pulse for 5 to 10 seconds until fish is finely chopped but hasn't turned into a paste.

Turn fish mixture onto a large mixing bowl. Place the onion, carrots, eggs, matzo meal, salt and white pepper in same bowl of food processor. Process until smooth and turn onto the fish mixture. Combine thoroughly.

For the sauce: Heat the oil in a large cooking pot over medium-high heat. Add the chopped onion, and let it cook for 5 to 6 minutes, stirring, until soft and translucent. Pour the crushed tomatoes into the pot, stir, and let the mix season and thicken for about 6 minutes. Incorporate the water, ketchup, salt and white pepper, give it a good stir and add to pot. Bring sauce to a boil. Lower heat to get a gentle simmer as you roll the gefilte fish patties.

Place a small bowl with lukewarm water to the side of the simmering tomato broth. Start making the patties. Wet your hands as necessary, so the fish mixture will not stick to your hands. As you make them, slide them gently into the simmering broth. Make sure it is simmering and raise the heat to medium if necessary to keep a steady simmer.

Once you finish making the patties, cover the pot and bring the heat to low. Cook them covered for 25 minutes. Take off the lid, incorporate the Manzanilla olives, pepperoncini peppers and capers.

Give it a soft stir and simmer uncovered for 20 more minutes, so the gefilte fish will be thoroughly cooked and the broth will have seasoned and thickened nicely.

Serve hot. Yield: About 20 patties.

NOTE: The sauce and the uncooked fish mixture can be made a day ahead of time and stored separately. Before serving, reheat the sauce, form the fish patties and add to the sauce, then continue as instructed.

— Pati Jinich


For the Matzo Balls:

1 cup matzo ball mix or 2 packages of approximately 2 ounces each

2 Tbsp. parsley, finely chopped

1/4 tsp. grated nutmeg

1/2 to 3/4 tsp. Kosher or sea salt, or to taste

4 large eggs

1/3 cup vegetable oil

1 to 3 Tbsp. sparkling water, optional, to make the matzo balls fluffy

For the broth:

2 Tbsp. safflower/corn oil

1/2 cup white onion, finely chopped

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

2 jalapeño chiles, finely chopped, seeded optional, more or less to taste

1/2 pound white mushrooms, wiped clean with cloth, sliced

3/4 tsp. kosher or coarse sea salt, or to taste

8-10 cups chicken broth

In a large mixing bowl, combine the matzo ball mix, parsley, nutmeg and salt. In another small bowl, lightly beat the eggs with 1/3 cup of vegetable oil. Fold the beaten eggs into the matzo ball mixture with a spatula. Add the sparkling water if you want the matzo balls fluffy, and mix until well combined. Cover and refrigerate for at least half an hour.

Bring about 12 cups salted water to a rolling boil in a large soup pot. Bring heat down to medium and keep at a steady simmer. With wet hands, make about 1-inch balls out of the matzo ball mix and gently drop them into the water. Cover and simmer for about 25 to 30 minutes. Remove matzo balls with a slotted spoon and cover to keep warm.

Meanwhile, heat oil over medium heat in a large cooking pot. Add the onion, garlic and chiles and sauté for 4 to 5 minutes, until they have softened a bit. Incorporate the sliced mushrooms, sprinkle the salt, stir and cover with a lid. Steam the mushrooms for about 6 to 8 minutes.

Take off the lid and pour the chicken broth over the mushroom base. Once it is simmering, add the cooked matzo balls and serve. Yield: 20 medium- to large-sized matzo balls (6-8 servings).

NOTE: The matzo balls and the broth can be made a day ahead of time and stored separately. To serve, heat broth and add already cooked matzo balls.

— Pati Jinich


4 cups raisins

1/4 – 1/2 cup sugar

1/2 cup pecan halves

Cover raisins with water leaving about 1/8 inch above the raisins (don't use too much water). Cover with plastic wrap, and soak overnight.

Add 1/4- 1/2 cup sugar to the raisins and soaking liquid.

Cook covered, on low heat for one to 1 1/2 hours, stirring frequently and checking to make sure there is enough liquid.

Puree in a blender, return to pot and bring back to a boil. Cover and simmer on low heat for about 30-45 minutes, stirring frequently until it thickens to the consistency of jam.

Cool and keep in the refrigerator; it will thicken a bit more once cooled. To serve, garnish with pecan halves. Yield: 2 cups.

— Rosa Schnyer


2 cups matzo meal

1 tsp. salt

1 cup warm water

1 Tbsp. vegetable oil

In a bowl, mix matzo meal, salt, warm water and oil until soft dough is formed. Roll into 1 1/2-inch balls. Between two sheets of plastic wrap or wax paper, flatten each ball with a tortilla press or rolling pin to form a tortilla. Preheat a cast-iron griddle or other heavy pan on medium high. Cook tortilla until lightly golden on both sides. Wrap in a cloth towel or napkin and serve immediately. Yield: 12 tortillas.

— Ronit Joselevitz


1 chicken, 4-5 pounds, cut into 8-10 pieces

1 tsp. kosher or sea salt, or to taste

1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper, or to taste

1/2 cup vegetable oil

2 cups water

3/4 cup dried apricots, roughly chopped

3 Tbsp. apricot preserves

3 Tbsp. Latin-style tamarind concentrate (a liquid concentrate available at Fiesta Mart)

1/4 cup sugar

2 Tbsp. sauce from chipotles in adobo

1 or more chipotle peppers from chipotles in adobo, optional

Season chicken well with salt and pepper. Place a large heavy skillet over medium heat and add oil. Once the oil is hot, add chicken pieces skin side down in a single layer. Slowly brown, turning occasionally, until browned evenly on all sides, about 10 minutes a side.

Pour 4 cups water over chicken, raise heat to medium-high, and bring to a simmer. Stir in dried apricots, apricot preserves, tamarind, sugar and chipotle sauce, including 1 or more chipotle peppers if desired for more heat.

Simmer, adjusting heat as necessary, until sauce has thickened enough to coat chicken, about 30 minutes. Adjust salt and pepper to taste, and serve. Yield: 6-8 servings.

NOTE: The recipe can be prepared 1-2 days in advance and reheated before serving.

— Pati Jinich