Say ‘auténtico’

¡Buenos días! Welcoming authentic Mexican cuisine in Israel.

Sopa Azteca – tomato soup garnished with tortilla, avocado, lemon and sliced dried chilies. (photo credit: DEBI LERNER-RUBIN)
Sopa Azteca – tomato soup garnished with tortilla, avocado, lemon and sliced dried chilies.
(photo credit: DEBI LERNER-RUBIN)
Israel has made it on the international foodie map, with chefs and connoisseurs visiting to sample our dishes and immerse themselves in our culinary scene.
Twenty years ago, no one would have imagined how much our palates would develop. Yet it was inevitable, with all the traveling done by Sabras and the tremendous ingathering taking place. Our melting pot and sir pele (wonder pot, a kitchen utensil from the early days of the state, when few kitchens had ovens) get richer and more diverse every year.
Sadly, we have not had a serious representative of one of the most honorable, nourishing and down-to-earth culinary traditions on the planet. Until now.
Clearly the time is right, as small Mexican-style venues pop up around the country – although, of course, all venues are not equal, and most lack genuine authenticity.
Perhaps you doubt the veracity of my claim. Recall a Jerusalem restaurant many years ago that had chips, salsa and charm. It was a nice effort, but no dice (or cojones). “Ah ha!” you cry, because you can pick up taco shells, tortillas and salsa at the local grocery store. Sure you can, but you do not seriously call that cuisine. It’s at best a quick fix.
Yes, there are packages that say “tortillas,” but folks, if you believe those plastic-wrapped, flourydough circles from Brussels(!) are tortillas, you have been deceived.
Those blue-boxed, stiffly molded, cellophane-wrapped “taco shells” bear very little resemblance to a genuine corn tortilla, a simple bread made from a humble grain, corn.
Maize, magical and beautiful, provided basic sustenance in the Americas long before Amerigo’s name was applied to that great expanse of land. Natives of the Americas cultivated and harvested the grain that sustained them for centuries.
Today, nothing compares to a fresh corn tortilla. Can a microwaved, frozen potato stick compare to a sliced, chilled russet dropped into oil heated to 148.80° until golden and sprinkled with gray Atlantic salt? No contest! But now, for the good news: chefs Luis Cruz and Yittie Lawson, along with their manager Leah Stoffer, present genuine Mexican food through cooking workshops. All three studied the methods and recipes in Luis’s native Oaxaca, Mexico. They now bring their cumulative knowledge to our locale. The result is sublime.
I had the good fortune of attending one of their workshops and will attempt to share some of the flavors through description.
But you really must experience the magic yourself.
UPON ARRIVAL, our host greets us with a glass of “fresh water” reinforced with lemon and chia to refresh us after our journey.
I’ve never had anything like it before; it is delightful.
Introductions are made and more folks arrive.
The workshop begins with Sopa Azteca, a simple (though not plain) tomato soup served with traditional garnishes of lemon, avocado, sliced dried chili (not spicy hot, so don’t worry pale face), coriander and tortilla strips. It is a very effective appetizer, leaving us all hungry for more. So we will prepare the next course. Time to roll up our sleeves and get involved.
We learn about basic ingredients: chilies and corn.
There are three varieties of corn – white, yellow and blue. Corn is the basis for many dishes and takes on many forms. It begins as dry kernels that are intricately prepared, transforming them into a mealy dough called masa.
The process alters the dietary construct of the grain, rendering it far more nourishing.
Tamales are filled masa blankets, actually more like a sleeping bag than a blanket. This is our first hands-on task.
Masa is spread on corn husks, topped with mole (more about that to follow), chicken and more mole. We then fold them, tie them and collect them to be steamed. (I make a real mess folding while others in the group are quite tidy.) Cruz guides us. Along with the food, we are treated to anecdotes and a little history. He tells us stories about making hundreds of tamales for the whole community during celebrations. Tradition! If you have had the pleasure of tamales in situ, you know what an event that is.
MEXICAN FOOD is super sensual.
Each ingredient has a multifaceted personality; the cuisine enhances it and exploits its flavor, texture and perfume.
Mole is a sauce prepared over many hours and stages, with layers of flavor built to achieve a rich, elaborate liquid used in many different dishes. It exemplifies the authentic Mexican dish, seemingly simple yet complex.
Our senses are filled throughout the evening.
While the tamales are cooking, we are introduced to corn-tortilla making.
Lawson offers each of us a whiff and feel of the f r e s h l y ground masa we will use. It is sweet and earthy, pliable.
A wooden tortilla press is explained to us, followed by instructions for using it. Each of us presses at least one tortilla and transfers it to a hot grill, where it cooks in moments. And there they are, simple and perfect corn tortillas! Flash: a childhood memory of a group of women grinding corn and patting masa into perfect discs – the scent of the tortillas cooking in the open air, and the taste, the incredible taste of fresh corn tortillas.
Next, salsa. Out comes a molcajete, similar to a mortar and pestle.
It is cut from rough basalt stone and retains a coarse texture.
Combining roasted tomatoes, onions, garlic, coriander and hot peppers, Cruz demonstrates the manual grinder that blends everything into a bright, chunky salsa. All eyes are fixed on him in an absolute silence that breaks with a group-wide ahhhhhhhh! as the room fills with aroma.
The tamales are now ready.
Steaming and stacked in a bowl, they are presented to us along with the salsa and guacamole.
They are little packages, festively tied. We carefully open the packages, to our great delight. So, so good.
We are served a cocktail. The glass is rimmed, not unlike a margarita. But this is no margarita.
It is rimmed with a ground chili mixture and has chilies in the drink! I like chili and hot stuff but am taken aback. Surprise! It’s really good – and more surprisingly, it is based on beer, which I usually dislike.
Traditionally, barbacoa is meat wrapped in leaves (such as banana or agave) and placed in a fire pit to cook slowly. The meat is tender, flavorful and juicy. Perfect for tacos. Fire pits are not readily available, but slow-cooking methods have been perfected over the years, and Lawson explains how to prepare barbacoa in our homes.
Her barbacoa is everything it should be. It will be a main component of the tacos we are about to assemble and devour.
BEFORE ASSEMBLY and eating, some important basics are explained.
Some attendees are confused about the state of the tortillas to be taco-ed. I give you my version (a harsher form) of the myth-busting.
It’s for your own good.
Please refer back to those blue-packaged things marketed as “taco shells.” In Mexico, where real tacos come from, they are never hard or crispy. Never. Now please, please do yourself a huge favor and forget about those hard shells or the greasy, fried, preshaped thing that can often be found in the US and sold to poor deceived gringos as a taco.
A real taco is a soft tortilla that is filled with meat (not ground beef) and accompanying vegetables.
By the way, it is easy and satisfying to alter most dishes to accommodate vegetarians. Our group had a vegetarian and a vegan; they were not first-time participants and were fully and happily sated by the options presented.
And now, the tacos.
The table is laden with choices to fill our tacos with. Included are salsa, guacamole, chopped white onions, radishes, coriander and barbacoa. Wow! At some point between the tamales and the tacos, mezcal is introduced, another first for me.
Distilled from agave, primarily in Oaxaca, and different from tequila, mezcal has a smoky flavor and strong kick. Served with an orange, it distinguishes itself clearly from its cousin. For dessert, there are bunuelos and a hot cocoa, probably unlike anything you’ve ever had. Bunuelos are made from a wheat flour dough, rolled very thin and fried quickly.
While piping hot, they are topped with a cinnamon, orange and anise syrup that is gently spooned over them.
The hot cocoa was parve, made from a liquid corn base. Yes, it was also very good. Heaven must smell like that dessert. It was, to borrow a phrase from way, far north of the border, to die for.
In addition to the workshops, this terrific trio also does catering and will be opening a restaurant in the near future. And yes, all their services are kosher.
You can follow their activities on Facebook under Mexican Workshops and on Instagram @ mexicanworkshops. 
To participate in a workshop or arrange one in your home, contact Leah Stoffer at 058-404-0287 or Yittie Lawson at