By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken
Matzoh ball soup is a favorite of some of our friends in Huatulco. But it is not the be-all and end-all of kosher cooking in Mexico. And matzoh ball soup is not automatically kosher.
Basically, to be kosher in any country, ingredients need to follow three basic principles derived from the Bible. The first principle: Meat and milk cannot be used together in any dishes prepared and served at the same meal (no quesadillas con queso y arrachera). Kosher restaurants in Mexico City are clearly labeled outside as serving either meat or milk – often in Hebrew. The reasons? if you really care about kosher food you can read the Hebrew. And if you are a visitor to Mexico City seeking kosher meals, you may not understand Spanish… so a sign saying carne or leche might not tell you anything.
The second principle: Any food from the sea must have both fins and scales. Almost all fish are kosher but absolutely no other aquatic creatures such as camarones (shrimp), calamari (squid) or pulpo (octopus). Fish is not considered meat or dairy and can be served with either type of meal. So fish (but not meat) tacos with yummy cheese are fine. To produce a kosher dish, fish can be substituted for meat in any non-kosher recipe calling for both meat and dairy products. Of course, fish can also be substituted in any recipe calling for other seafood, such as ceviche. And given the abundance of delicious pescado at the Mexican coasts, fish is often the preferred main dish in kosher Mexican meals.
The third principle: Meat must come from either cud-chewing, four-legged mammals with split hooves (definitely not pig or camel) or birds that most generally don’t hunt other animals or eat road-kill. All mammals and birds used for meat must be in good health and slaughtered humanely by people specially trained to minimize trauma and pain and certified to do so. And while every part of a chicken or other kosher bird can be used, only specifics cuts of meat are considered kosher – hind-quarter cuts are not used in kosher cooking The only difficulty with kosher cooking using meat or fowl in Mexico is that certified slaughtering and butchering only takes place in Mexico City and Guadalajara. However, kosher butchers in both places are more than happy to air-lift orders from coast to coast, and kosher meat is happily being used by cooks from Cabo San Lucas to Cozumel. Boater friends of ours tied up at the Chahue Marina in Huatulco, and their pre-ordered shipment of kosher meat from Mexico City arrived in time to fill their on-board freezer before they set off on the high seas for Australia.
Processed food such as canned goods and packaged ingredients such as pasta also can be certified as kosher if prepared under supervision of rabbis – mainly those in Mexico City or rabbis in other countries for imported food products. Each package that has been approved as kosher has a small mark called a hechsher that identifies the rabbinic council responsible for supervising the preparation of the food. Many hechshers have the letter K in the symbol, such as the KMD from supervisors in Mexico City. Imports from the U.S. often have an O and U, an acronym for the Orthodox Union of American rabbis. Truly amazing is the number of items on supermarket and grocery store shelves all over Mexico bearing one or more hechshers. Many ordinary products, such as Coke Zero, may display a hechsher (why not? it is called zero because it has nothing in it!)
Our personal take on buying processed food in Mexico – kosher or not – is: why bother? Fresh fruits and vegetables, which of course we have in abundance in Mexico, are all kosher once one removes any creepy-crawly creatures hiding in crevices, and also unfertile eggs are kosher. Of course, certain uncommon ingredients such as matzoh meal, needed to make the often-requested matzoh ball soup, are at times essential – but we defy you to find matzoh meal that isn’t kosher.
Wine too, if kosher, has a hechsher on the label. So what makes a wine kosher? The grapes have to be grown and harvested following a stringent set of rules also drawn from the Bible. These rules essentially have little to do with the types of grapes or the taste of the wine and have more to do with environmental protection and human protection, such as allowing people living at a subsistence level to help themselves to grapes from the corners of the field. All wine-makers in Israel follow these rules. And there are wine-makers in virtually every major wine producing country that also do so – but not yet Mexico. In stores in Mexico, some of the wine on the shelves labeled Chile, Spain, or Italy is kosher.
Over many centuries, rules and regulations have been passed by rabbis about how to maintain kosher pots and pans and utensils used for cooking and serving food. The basic rule of thumb is to keep items used for meat dishes separate from those used for dairy dishes. This provides a very good excuse in Mexico to buy two sets of the beautiful pottery that is made here.
If you our reader have followed us to this point, you must be thinking, “Okay, those are the rules, but what are typical kosher dishes?” The answer is, “it depends.” Jews have lived on every continent on Earth and a relatively large number in outer space. Being by necessity an adaptive people, Jews have adapted their cooking to the flavors of the country of residence. In Mexico, using the adaptations previously described, kosher home cooking is pretty much the same as found in any other Mexican home. In fact, for Jewish ex-pats from Canada and the U.S., there are cookbooks in English for preparing kosher Mexican food.
However, although Spanish Jews arrived in Mexico with the conquistadores, a relatively large proportion of the Mexican Jewish population migrated from Eastern Europe around the turn of the 19th century. Russian and Polish dishes prepared by the first generation of Jewish immigrants are still prized today and have become synonymous with the term kosher cooking. In Mexico City homes, one can dine on essentially the same dishes my grandmother prepared in New York City including borscht (beet soup), cabbage soup, knishes (potato empanadas), and rugalach (sweet cornitas with nuts and honey) and, for Friday night, traditional challah or as we say in Mexico pan trenza (braided bread). And, of course, as in Jewish homes all over the world, a favorite dish brought from Eastern Europe is chicken soup with matzoh balls – made with kosher chicken of course. It is served most particularly during Pesach or Passover, which occurs in the spring, somewhere near Easter, but can be served as a special addition to a Friday night meal or at any time. Raise your soup spoons!
- KURSON KOSHER
- Emilio Castelar No. 204 Local G Polanco.
- Tel y fax. 5280-3500
Homero, 1526, Col. Polanco, México, D. F., Tel. 5280-2963
SUPER EMET CHAMIZAL
Av. Stim, 4, Col. Lomas del Chamizal, México, D. F., Tel. 5245-2373 y 5245-2374
Bernard Shaw, 44, Col. Polanco, México, D. F., Tel. 5280-2753 & 5280-1061
- Acapulco 70 PB
- Col. Condesa
- Mexico City, DF 06700
5 de Febrero # 102 Local 4, Centro.
Tel. 1450-3841 & 1450-3842
Temistocles 37, Polanco 11560
Mexico City, Mexico
(52 5) 5282-3058
RESTAURANTE CENTRO KOSHER
5 de Febrero No. 67 Col. Centro tel. 62741046
Temístocles 37, Planta Alta, Col. Polanco, México, D. F., Tel. 5280-1638 /www.metsuyan.com.mx
224, Lomas de Vista Hermosa, México, D. F. Tel. 5570-9646 & 5292-2270
RESTAURANTE EL MEXICANO KOSHER
Fuentes de Templanza, 17, Col. Tecamachalco, Edo. de México, Tel. 5049-3716 & 5294-0555
Bolívar No. 96 1er. piso, entre Regina y San Jerónimo. Tel: 57094834