‘Jewish con Salsa’ event mixes matzo balls with tortillas

At the recent “Jewish con Salsa” event at Ole Mexican Grill, a restaurant known for authenticity, diners were treated to what was, for the most part, a fusion menu: zesty tortilla soup with matzo balls that would have made bubbe kvell, crispy potato latkes accompanied by mole poblano lentils. And instead of roaming mariachis, a cantor crooned Argentine salsa in Yiddish and brought the house down with a medley from “Fiddler on the Roof” in English, Spanish, Hebrew, and Yiddish.

The evening was the second of its kind from The New Center, a local Jewish cultural organization. Featured guest Ilan Stavans, professor of Latin American and Latino culture at Amherst College, and a prolific author on topics ranging from language to Yiddish literature to Jewish-Hispanic relations, worked with Ole executive chef Erwin Ramos to develop a menu based largely on the food he ate growing up in Mexico. Although the menu mixed Jewish and Latin American food, and included dishes and ingredients from Argentina, Venezuela, Brazil, Peru, Uruguay, Cuba, and Mexico, Stavans conceded that the meal leaned Mexican because, “It was my two bubbes who taught me to eat good Jewish-Mexican food.”

Between courses, Stavans presented some background on Jewish-Latin American history and culture, and Cantor Elias Rosemberg of Temple Emanuel in Newton, who was born and raised in Argentina, entertained the group with an eclectic mix of tunes from a range of cultures.

Characterizing the evening as “mixing food with schmooze . . . and music to accompany the whole schmear,” Stavans told assembled diners that Latin America has a stable — if relatively small — Jewish community. The largest concentration is in Argentina, the smallest in Cuba. The scholar grew up in a little Jewish enclave in Mexico City and attended Yiddish-speaking school. During his childhood in the 1960s and ’70s, he never experienced anti-Semitism directly, but said he always felt a vague threat of it.

By contrast, Rosemberg recalled that in Buenos Aires in the ’70s, children in his neighborhood stopped playing with him when they found out he was Jewish and at times, he and his brother had rocks thrown at them while they were waiting for the bus to their Jewish school.

In a telephone interview before the dinner, Stavans explained, “When I was little, there were all sorts of what I thought were typical dishes. Looking back, they were neither Mexican nor typically Jewish.” It wasn’t until he was living in the United States, in the ’80s, that he realized, for example, that not all Jews accompanied their potato latkes with mole, the traditional sauce made with about 20 ingredients, including a variety of chile peppers and chocolate. Now, invitations to Hanukkah parties at his home in Amherst are hugely popular, largely for this unique combination.

Stavans has traveled throughout Latin America studying Jewish culture and views “Jewish con Salsa” as an opportunity to make the “Jewish-Latino fusion” come alive. He collects recipes in his travels and noted, “There is no one Latino cuisine. There is no one Jewish cuisine.”

In addition to the soup and latkes, the Ole menu included a bright jicama salad with citrus fruits, pineapple, green beans, and pickled red onions. Stavans explained that for Mexican-Jewish kids, “Jicama was the equivalent of peanut butter and jelly.” When he came home from school, he recounted, he typically ate jicama — a crunchy, slightly sweet root vegetable — sprinkled with salt and lemon juice.

Pescado a la Veracruzana, fish in tomato broth with capers and olives, is from the south coastal region of eastern Mexico and incorporates ingredients and cooking methods from Spain. It is often served in Mexico for Passover. Beef piramide, sirloin marinated in adobo and grilled, is a dish Stavans’s mother made for him — the recipe for which she told him she had gotten directly from the Aztecs. The guava in an apple-guava cake dessert, he said, is more common to Caribbean countries than to Mexico.

The meal-plus-commentary provided plenty of food for thought. More than one guest may have driven home humming tunes from “Fiddler on the Roof.”


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