The long list of famed Kosher Mexican dishes is a short one. It’s not because Mexican cuisine is inherently incompatible with the laws of kashrut. Rather, its because, for the most part, what Americans think of as “Mexican” cuisine is really just antijitos (essentially snack or street food) often pairing meat and cheese. Perhaps, more importantly, most American Jews know little about the history of Jews in Mexico.
Jews have been in Mexico since the day Cortez landed. While Cortez’s mission did not include any openly practicing Jews, it did include quite a number of Spanish conversos – individuals who, when faced with the Royal edict to convert, die or be exiled chose to convert to Catholicism. Many, if not most, continued to practice Judaism under cover. Indeed Spain’s first Viceroy over Nuevo España was Antonio de Mendoza. Because Mendoza was a common name among Spanish Jews, some historians suggest he himself had a Jewish or converso background. It would be 50 years after Cortez’s landing before the violence of Spain’s inquisition made it to Mexican shores.
Within a decade, King Philip II of Spain established the Kingdom of Nuevo Leon (stretching from the northern reaches of Mexico into South Texas), a colony north of Nueva España to be governed by Luis de Carvajal, a Portuguese-Spanish nobleman born in 1539 to Jewish converts. Both conversos and practicing Jews were welcomed to the new colony. It was a point for which Caravajal would subsequently have to pay with his life.
There would be many subsequent waves of Jewish immigration to Mexico. In 1865, Emperor Maximilian I (there would never be a second as the Empire would only last two years) – a younger brother of Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph – came to power and issued an edict of religious tolerance, inviting German Jews to settle in Mexico. His successor, President Benito Juarez enforced a separation of Church and State, underlining the point.
In 1882, after the assassination of the Czar Alexander II, a significant number of practicing Jews from Russia entered Mexico. Additional waves of Eastern European Jews arrived in Mexico after World War I and after World War II. Amongst those were members of my extended family.
And Carvajal’s legacy—both cultural and culinary—continues to this day. Caravajal’s fate notwithstanding, Jews and conversos had a definite impact on the food of Mexico (and, in particular, Northeastern Mexico). Dishes such as Pan de Semita (an unleavened bread) and Capirotada (a bread pudding) have distinct Jewish or Crypto-Jewish origin as does Cabrito (roast suckling goat). The later is a significant regional specialty in and around Monterrey, Mexico. Many other dishes that are considered typically Mexican—such as Albondigas Soup and Buñuelos—have arguable Jewish origin.
But regardless of whether particular dishes are Jewish in origin, many—if not most—Mexican dishes are susceptible to Kosher interpretation. One such dish—and one I’ve come to love—is birria de chivo. It is a dish that is nearly ubiquitous at roadside stands and restaurants throughout the north and west of Mexico.
Goat meat is slow braised in a rich broth spiked with cinnamon, clove and vinegar, yielding a thick, rich and utterly exhilarating stew. Birria can be made with just about any red meat. While goat is the most classic meat for birria in Jalisco—from whence the dish originates—beef is also common. While goat may be a little bit challenging for the American palate, lamb is less so and is an excellent—and readily available—substitute with a similar flavor profile.
Birria of Lamb Shanks
For the lamb shank “birria”:
5 guajillo chiles
2 pasilla/ancho chiles
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
1 white onion, chopped
1 bulb fennel, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
Freshly ground pepper
1 stick cinnamon (canella)
8 whole cloves
4 whole allspice
¼ inch piece dried ginger
4 lamb shanks
1 tablespoon light soy sauce (optional)
1 shallot, minced
2 tablespoons, grapeseed oil
For the garnish:
1 onion, finely chopped
1 bunch cilantro, stemmed and chopped
At least 12 tortillas
¼ cup dried Mexican oregano
2-3 arbol chiles
- Make the chile paste. Preheat a frying pan over medium heat. Cut the ends off the chiles, removing the seeds as you do so. Toast the chiles in the pan until they “brown” slightly, flip them and toast the other side. Place the chilies in a deep bowl and cover with hot water. Soak the chilies for half an hour until they are tender. Remove the chilies from the soaking water and place in a Vitamix or other high speed blender with the vinegar and process to a smooth paste.
- Cook the “birria.” Add the onions, fennel and carrot to a large heavy pot, season them with Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper. Cover the pot and sweat the aromatics for five minutes. Meanwhile grind the remaining spices thoroughly. Season the lamb shanks with kosher salt and freshly ground pepper and add them to the pot. Strain the ground spices and sprinkle them over the shanks. Cover the shanks with water and turn the heat up to high. Bring the pot to a boil and immediately reduce the heat to a simmer. Simmer the shanks for three hours, until the meat is falling off the bone.
- Make the birria reduction sauce. Combine the shallots and 2 cups of the birria braising liquid in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil, lower heat to a simmer and reduce by half.
- Deflame the onion. Either boil water or run the water in your faucet until it is as hot as it can get. Place the chopped onion in a strainer. Pour boiling water (or hold it under the faucet) for several seconds in order to remove the sulfurous compounds that from the chopped onions.
- Warm the tortillas. Heat a comal or heavy frying pan on the stove over high heat. Using tongs place two to three tortillas on the pan for a few seconds until they soften and just start to char, flip the tortillas and do the same on the other side. Place the tortillas in a tortilla warmer or wrap in a clean dish towel and repeat for the remaining tortillas.
- Plate the dish. Place the onions, cilantro and the oregano in separate garnish bowls. Add the arbol chiles to the oregano. Using tongs, divide the lamb into four to six soup bowls, ladling the broth over the meat. Garnish each bowl with the onions, cilantro and oregano. Serve with the warmed tortillas.