Latin Chanuka

In December, most Latin households overflow with the traditional Christmas spirit. It seeps out in the form of nativity scenes, advent calendars, and solemn pilgrimages to midnight mass (followed by a joyful Noche Buena). But for the hundreds of thousands of Jewish Latinos, the details of the holiday season, of Chanukah, look quite different, though the spirit remains the same.

The history of Judaism in Latin America dates back to the discovery of the New World. It is believed that conversos, or newly converted Christians of Jewish ancestry, fled Europe during the inquisition and settled in Spanish and Portuguese colonies in the Caribbean and present day South America. Reveling in the mostly tolerant atmosphere of these new lands, converts returned to their original faith and openly began practicing Judaism. This tradition gave way to a strong and growing Jewish population.

Today, there are up to half a million Jewish Latinos living in Latin America. In fact, Argentina is home to the second largest Jewish community in the Americas after the United States, and the sixth largest in the world. In Mexico, the more than 50,000 people celebrate the Festival of Lights by spinning pirinolas, or dreidels, and feasting on sweet fried desserts called bimuelos. Brazil has an estimated 100,000 person Jewish community.

As usual at this time of year, attention turns to the kitchen and the table. As home cooks bustle to prepare their favorite dishes, there are also chefs experimenting with fusion cuisine, combining Latin flavors with the traditions of the Jewish table. One such chef is Julian Medina, chef-owner of Toloache, Coppelia, and Yerba Buena in New York City. Though born and raised in Mexico City, Medina converted to Judaism more than a decade ago when he married his wife, Annie. Now, Medina works to fuse together both of his cultures and, of course, his restaurants serve Mexican-Chanukah menus.

Just in time to help you set your holiday table, here are two fusion recipes from Medina, who is able to seamlessly combine two cultures and many flavors into one delicious dish.

For the Matzoh Tortillas

2 cups fine Matzo meal
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup warm water
1 tablespoon olive oil

For the Brisket

2 pounds lean brisket
1 cup diced celery
1 cup diced Spanish onion
1 cup diced carrots
5 garlic cloves
2 tablespoons chipotle puree
2 cups canned tomato puree
5 sprigs fresh thyme
1/4 teaspoon dried cumin
1/4 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano
1 bay leaf
1 bottle Bohemia beer
1/4 cup canola oil
Kosher salt and black pepper, to taste

For the Guacamole

2 Mexican Haas avocados
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon red onion
2 tablepoons cilantro, chopped
1 jalapeño, chopped
juice of 1 lime
Kosher salt, to taste

For the Whitefish Salad

1 cup smoked whitefish
1 tablepoon mayonnaise
1 tablespoon diced red onion
1 teaspoon chopped chives
1 teaspoon chopped cilantro


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