Mexico by way of Eastern Europe

Passover, the Jewish holiday that celebrates freedom from slavery under Pharaoh Ramses, occurred last month. My family is casually Jewish at best– not very observant of ritual but we identify culturally. So it should come as no surprise that when the calendar showed that Passover began on March 26, 2013, my mother invited everyone over for the Passover seder or ritual dinner for that night. Remember I said our family wasn’t very observant? My mother forgot that Jewish holidays commence at sundown the night before.  For some reason that has something to do with the ancient practice of celebrating important holidays for two days in a row (I supposed because in Mesopotamia back in the 2000s BC it was difficult to let everyone know when the actual holiday actually took place, so they hedged their bets), many Jews celebrate with a seder on two consecutive nights. Most of us more non-observant Jews have our Passover dinner the eve of the first day and are done with it. Some, who are more “Jewish” actually plan and attend two seders. So, my mother had inadvertently invited everyone for the second night. The problem became for my husband and me, What to do on the first night of Passover when most Jews celebrate?

A colleague of my husband’s recommended Rosa Mexicano, the Sunset Blvd. unit of the national chain of upscale Mexican restaurants. For Passover dinner? ¡Sí!

There is good-sized Jewish population in Mexico City, mostly descendants of Jews who fled the pogroms in Russia and the collapsing Ottoman Empire in the late 19th and early 20th century. Another wave was made up of those who escaped from Europe and the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s.

The Passover menu at Rosa Mexicano is influenced by the Eastern European or Ashkenazim Jews, but prepared through the filter of modern Mexican cuisine. One of the beauties of the Passover seder dinner is the symbolic foods that are consumed– bitter herbs dipped in salt water (tears) to remind of the harsh existence under Pharoah building those pyramids and unleavened bread or matzo, the hastily prepared provision to sustain them in the desert. Rosa Mexicano’s Passover dinner began with haroset tropical, a delicious version of the chopped blend of fruit, wine and usually almonds that represents the mortar that held the huge bricks together that my ancestors lugged around construction sites in Egypt. This version was a flavorful blend of dates, coconut, tangerine, pomegranate, cinnamon and rose apples. With the haroset came higado picado, aka chopped liver served in chunks with tempura scallions, a clean-tasting salsa verde and matzo.

The appetizer course consisted of a matzo ball posole soup, Jalisco style with chipotlé-marrow matzo balls. There were also tacos de gribenes y juevo de pato, tacos with crispy chicken cracklings (perhaps a nod to schmaltz), caramelized onions, sliced duck egg (eggs, the symbol of rebirth and renewal in spring) and a bright mustard salsa verde. I had the salad of bibb lettuce, spicy beets leeks and walnuts.

You’re beginning to get the idea. We both had the banana leaf wrapped barbecued beef brisket, incredibly moist and tender, cooked with dried fruit tsimmes and baby glazed carrots. Other entree options were a roast saddle of lamb stuffed with quince, jalapeño, pomegrante and cilantro and Passover cholent of brisket, chicken sausage, barley and jalapeño slow cooked and served in a banana leaf. The last entree choice was grilled salmon with tropical fruit mole, black beans, zuchini and roasted corn.There is something about the traditionally heavy, protein-laden dishes lightened with the sweet, spicy flavors of the New World that makes you glad those intrepid Poles, Hungarians, Romanians and Russians found their way to the land of the Aztecs and the Maya.

The sides  were unique and delicious– pomegranate applesauce, kugel, green beans with shallots, jalapeños, and almonds. For dessert there was Grandma Shapiro’s Strudel a la Mexicana– tropical fruit and chocolate chipotlé with whipped cream. I opted for the mango cup with diced mango, homemade vanilla bean ice cream and raspberry sauce. Do not miss the kosher sangría haroset– Herradura silver tequila, cinnamon, fresh lemon, cold-pressed apple and Manischewitz reduction.

The servers at Rosa Mexicano were cheerful and appeared to enjoy being in on an exotic ritual meal. The young man who bussed our table mentioned he hadn’t tasted matzo before and that it reminded him of communion wafers. Yes, they would, wouldn’t they? Wasn’t the Last Supper a Passover seder, after all?

The only thing missing from this lovely meal was company. Stan and I spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out which of our friends– Jewish and non-Jewish– we could bring next year. The Passover holiday and a dinner as rich in tradition and imagination as this one needs to be shared by many people.

Just like Passover dinner at Grandma’s house, at the Rosa Mexicano seder you really felt that all this meal with all its flavor and originality was a labor of love. Chef Jai Kendall spent the month leading up to Passover experimenting with recipes to achieve just the right mix of traditional holiday comfort foods and new taste experiences. And it’s wonderful to experience a holiday we Jews of all persuasions grew up with through the blend of such unlikely influences as the shtetl and the barrio.




One thought on “Mexico by way of Eastern Europe

  1. Nancy Moss

    You are an amazing writer,full of delicious descriptions of interesting foods…I can taste them just reading about them! I also enjoy the fascinating facts you dish up about everyday fare.


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