For Mexican Jewish chef Pati Jinich, Hanukkah offers a way to unite the culinary traditions of her homeland with her family’s Ashkenazi roots. To that unusual combination, she then adds more than a of her own creativity as she brings her culinary creed to North Americans through her popular TV program “Pati’s Mexican Table.”
Consider her Potato, Sweet Potato and Granny Smith Latkes (recipe below), which have Mexican ingredients such as ancho chile powder and cinnamon, or canela, as it’s known in Mexico. Jinich first prepared this recipe for a particularly memorable Festival of Lights in 2013, when it coincided with Thanksgiving. She recommends serving the latkes with her Fennel and Lime Crema, or with her Salsa Macha, the latter a staple of the Mexican state of Veracruz, a historical port of entry for generations of immigrants, including her paternal grandparents.
Now based in the United States with her husband and family, Jinich helps raise awareness of Mexican cuisine to a global audience as host of the award-winning “Pati’s Mexican Table,” which recently premiered its ninth season on PBS and is available on Amazon Prime.
In a post about the distinctive latkes on her website, Jinich wrote that “ever since I can remember, I have felt like I am treading between worlds. The Mexican. The Jewish. The immigrant in the US. Not from here, not from there. Yet, as time goes by, the different parts of my identity feel increasingly solid, in all those worlds and their intersections. It turns out that where those intersections make the most sense is in the kitchen.”
Jinich holds the position of resident chef for the Washington-based Mexican Cultural Institute. She has written two cookbooks about the food of her homeland — “Pati’s Mexican Table: The Secrets of Real Mexican Home Cooking,” and “Mexican Today: New and Rediscovered Recipes for the Contemporary Kitchen” — and is working on a third.
Her expertise includes Mexican-Jewish cuisine, a topic that she discussed with scholar and author Ilan Stavans in a virtual talk, “Pastrami Tacos and Other Latin American Jewish Food,” held by the Jewish Book Council on October 16, shortly after the end of Hispanic Heritage Month.
As Jinich explained to The Times of Israel, she remembered growing up with fusion recipes made by her Polish grandmother, her “Bobe”: A bowl of guacamole with gribenes — or chicken cracklings — on the side, served with challah and a corn tortilla. She would stuff the tortilla with the guacamole and gribenes or have the avocado-chicken mixture on top of the challah. Gefilte fish a la Veracruzana, named for the port city on the Gulf of Mexico, was poached in tomato sauce with capers, olives and caprese peppers, and served on Shabbat and holidays.
Her Austrian maternal grandmother, her “Lali,” made a matzah ball soup with ingredients including mushrooms and jalapeno peppers. The family had numerous pastry options for dessert, with multiple ways to enjoy chocolate. Sometimes they had it in a traditional Mexican style, other times they gave a local touch to babka by adding canela.
Both of Jinich’s paternal grandparents came from Poland, living in the shtetl before fleeing pogroms for Mexico. Her maternal grandfather and grandmother were, respectively, from Bratislava and Austria. In her talk with Stavans, Jinich said that her Austrian grandmother lost most of her family in the Holocaust and found refuge in Mexico. When her grandmother discovered that one of her sisters had survived Auschwitz, she brought her to Mexico as well. This concentration-camp survivor, Jinich’s aunt, founded the first Austrian bakery shop in Mexico City, eventually relocating to the Pacific port of Acapulco. She served Ashkenazi treats such as Linzer tortes and apple strudel to patrons.
The family’s culinary legacy continues in Jinich’s generation: Her three older sisters are all also involved with food.
Judaism comes out of the closet
Mexican Jewish history and cuisine have been influenced not only by Ashkenazi immigrants, but also by Sephardim dating back to the voyages of Columbus and the crypto-Jews, ostensible converts to Christianity who hid their ancestral faith in a Spanish colony where the Inquisition operated for centuries. Following Mexican independence, further waves of immigration came with tensions in the Ottoman Empire, Eastern European pogroms, and the world wars.
“There were different Jewish waves, different cultures,” Jinich said. “Waves of Ashkenazis, Sephardim, Turkish.” It resulted in a “really, really rich, diverse, individual Mexican-Jewish cuisine. Jewish dishes became embodied with Mexican ingredients and flavors, and truly delicious.”
Although the kosher laws remain unchanged from country to country, Mexico is known for its pork dishes and for some, Mexican-Jewish cuisine can involve making a few compromises.
“Some keep kosher, some not,” Jinich said. “Some people keep kosher at home but not outside. There’s all sorts of variety.”
Today, Jinich shares the diversity of Mexican food through her TV show, which she describes as “part travelogue, part in-the-kitchen.”
Each season focuses on a different area of Mexico. She makes in-person visits to meet people with knowledge of the local culinary scene and culture, and then goes back to her home near Washington, DC, to prepare either traditional recipes or her own locally-inspired creations.
In more recent years, Jinich has ventured to less familiar parts of Mexico. This year, she’s exploring the state of Sonora, which includes a section of the US-Mexico border. Last year, she visited another state, Sinaloa, with the goal of helping viewers see beyond current news headlines of narco-violence.
“Sinaloa is known as the land of El Chapo and all of its drug cartels,” Jinich said, referring to an infamous drug kingpin now in captivity in the US. “People do not know it is one of the main producers growing the biggest percentage of food not only in Mexico but exported to the US… There are really hard-working families with traditional, incredible values.”
The way to a man’s heart…
Her work promoting Mexican culture and values is just the latest reflection of a longstanding motivation for Jinich. She wishes to correct misperceptions about her homeland and its people.
After moving to the US to pursue a master’s degree related to her original career plan of becoming a political analyst, Jinich recalled “seeing statements about Mexico — who we are, what we look like, what religion we are, what foods we eat.”
I love research and history. I want to do it through the lens of food
Noting the richness and diversity of Mexico, she saw there was a need for nuance in the discussion.
“I decided the goal, instead of political analysis and policy writing, would be to switch to food writing,” Jinich explained. “I love research and history. I want to do it through the lens of food.”
She began teaching cooking classes, and as she described it, “one thing led to another and I ended up with a cooking show.”
On her show, she initially worked with what she knew — familiar Mexican dishes in familiar locales such as Mexico City, Puebla and Oaxaca. She started getting bolder after receiving critical recognition, with three James Beard Foundation awards and three Emmy nominations. There were also visits to the Obama White House, including helping out with a 2014 celebration of Cinco de Mayo, a holiday that commemorates a 19th-century victory over an invading French army.
“As the series went on, my hunger grew to not only revisit things I know, but to explore, taste and view regions I don’t know, regions and places I had never been to,” Jinich said.
This year, there was an unexpected twist: COVID-19. Jinich and her crew were working in Sonora from late February to the beginning of March.
“I was very lucky, because we filmed the show ‘Pati’s Mexican Table’ right before the pandemic hit the US,” Jinich recalled. “We came back to the US on March 15, the same [day things] shut down… I’m hoping that [because] we typically film in the spring and summer, next year, by the time spring rolls around, it will be a little bit easier to travel.”
In the meantime, she’s working on cookbook number three, which will have 160 Mexican recipes and is scheduled for next fall. Similar to the approach she has been taking recently with her show, the book aims to venture out beyond the familiar.
“I will try to showcase recipes and dishes [people] outside Mexico are not familiar with,” she said. “Even people from different regions of Mexico might not know the treasures each region and city has.”
Potato, Sweet Potato, and Granny Smith Latkes
1 1/2 pounds russet potatoes, about 2
1 1/2 pounds sweet potatoes, about 1
1/2 pound Granny Smith apples, about 1
1/2 cup grated white onion, about 1
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher or sea salt
2 large eggs, well beaten
1/2 teaspoon ancho chile powder , preferably, but may substitute with another dried ground chile powder that you may have handy
Pinch ground ceylon or true cinnamon
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
Fennel & Lime Crema, optional
Salsa Macha, optional
Wash and peel the potatoes, sweet potatoes, apple and onion and grate them, placing them as you go, into a large bowl filled halfway with ice water. After you are finished, let it all sit for a few minutes and thoroughly drain with a strainer.
Wrap all the grated ingredients in cheesecloth or a clean kitchen towel and wring energetically, squeezing out as much liquid as you can.
Transfer to a bowl and combine with eggs, ancho chile powder, salt, cinnamon, baking powder and flour. Mix well.
Fill a large, heavy casserole or skillet with a half-inch of oil and place over medium-high heat. After 3 to 4 minutes, test the oil by adding a teaspoon of the mix. If it bubbles happily all around the edges, it is ready. Working in small batches, to not crowd the casserole, spoon latkes of about 3 tablespoons each into the hot oil. (I use a large serving spoon or my hands and shape them in flattened ovals.)
Cook until the first side is crisp and golden brown, about 4 to 5 minutes, and flip to the other side, letting it crisp and brown as well, about 3 to 4 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack set over a baking sheet. Once you are finished, you may keep them warm in a 250-degree oven, or you may cover and reheat later on.
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