The Jewish Palate: The Jews of Mexico

Chef Dennis Wasko takes a closer look at the history of the thriving Jewish community of Mexico and how its cuisine has been influenced by its surroundings.

guacamole (photo credit: GOURMETKOSHERCOOKING.COM)
Jews have been living in Mexico since the time of the conquest of the Aztec Empire by Hernan Cortes in 1521.  Many of Cortes’ men were Conversos, Jews who were forcibly converted to Catholicism, yet secretly maintained their Jewish practices.  Many Conversos had joined the expedition in order to escape Spain and the terrors of the Inquisition. Later, more Conversos settled in Mexico. Some secretly practiced Judaism, and others fully adopted their new Christian faith while maintaining the practice of lighting candles on Friday evenings, separating milk and meat, and closing their businesses on Saturdays. Many Conversos were later murdered for maintaining Jewish practices in what became known as the Mexican Inquisition.
It was very difficult for known Jews to settle in Mexico during the Spanish Colonial Period due to the power and influence of the Catholic Church. It wasn’t until the 1860’s that large numbers of German Jews were invited to settle in Mexico by Emperor Maximilian I. In the 1880’s, many Ashkenazi Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia and Romania, settled in Mexico. The first Jewish congregation was established in Mexico in 1885. 
Sephardic Jews also found refuge in Mexico. With the crumbling of the Ottoman Empire in the early 1900’s, wave after wave of Ladino speaking Sephardic Jews fled their homes in a once tolerant Turkey and settled in Mexico. Their links to a Spanish past made it much easier for the Sephardic Jews to integrate into Mexican society. 
Numerous Jews fleeing from the Nazis also found a home in Mexico. They represented the last great wave of Jewish settlement. These Jews came predominantly from Russia and Eastern Europe. Some of these refugees eventually settled in the United States, but many remained in Mexico. 
Today there are approximately 40,000 Jews living in Mexico.  The Mexican Jewish community is thriving. Mexico is one of a handful of countries whose Jewish population is actually projected to grow in the coming years. Most of the Jewish population resides in Mexico City, but there are also large communities in Guadalajara, Monterrey, and Tijuana. Recently, smaller communities have become established in Cancun and other cities.
The cuisine of the Mexican Jews is largely determined by their ethnic background. Mexico is a treasure trove of the best of Jewish cooking. The flavors of the Ashkenazim live side by side with those of the Sephardic and Mizrahi communities. Kosher restaurants are abound in Mexico City, so a good meal is never hard to come by. As is true with Jewish settlers everywhere, native ingredients are integrated into age old family recipes.
One of my favorite condiments for Shabbat lunch is a simple but tasty Mexican-style guacamole. The creamy freshness of ripe avocados pairs perfectly with crunchy vegetables crudités, and is equally delicious shmeared on challah or pita. Guacamole is a nice change of pace from the usual hummus and baba ganoush. Since some of the most beautiful avocados in the world are grown in Israel, try this simple do-ahead tasty snack.
Serves 6-8
4 ripe avocados* (I prefer the Haas variety)
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
2 tablespoons minced onion
1 Jalapeno or Serrano chili, finely chopped, or to taste
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
Juice of 1 lime or more to taste
1 small tomato, seeded and diced small
2 tablespoons Extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and pepper to taste
1.    Cut the avocados lengthwise, remove pits, and scoop flesh into a mixing bowl.  Coarsely mash              with a fork until creamy but with chunks remaining.
2.    Add remaining ingredients except tomato, and mix to combine.  Season to taste.
3.    Add tomato and gently mix to just combine.
4.    Adjust seasoning and serve drizzled with additional olive oil.
*Chef’s tip to picking the perfectly ripe avocado:
A perfect avocado is creamy, smooth, bright green on the inside with no brown spots. It is hard to tell what is on the inside when looking at the black wrinkly skin. Gently press the avocado. It should yield to slight pressure and not have any mushy spots. If you gently remove the tip of the stem from the avocado, the inside should be bright green. If it is black, the avocado will be black on the inside.