Prior to being cookbook author and host of the James Beard Award-winning PBS series Pati’s Mexican Table, Pati Jinich was a political analyst. The relevance of this information became crystal clear the moment she began talking with The Forward about her new cookbook, “Treasures of the Mexican Table”.
“Food has the capacity to open doors; tear down walls, ”said Jinich, who was born in Mexico City, lives outside Washington DC and is Jewish. “Even if we come from different worlds or have different perspectives, put a plate in the middle and it brings down those walls. The kitchen is the noblest state because it allows these conversations to take place.
In international relations, the term “soft power” is used to describe the practice of soft coercion through diplomacy and culture rather than military force, which is considered hard power. It’s not necessarily a concept you’d expect to discuss with a cookbook writer, but Jinich brings it up to emphasize his point. “Soft power is art, culture and food,” said Jinich, “and it can be just as – if not more – effective. “
Concrete example: Tuesday Taco.
“People who don’t like Mexicans or immigrants, they now have Tuesday night for taco night,” she said. And with “Treasures of the Mexican Table,” Jinich intends to introduce audiences to a range of dishes that go far beyond tacos, which North Americans can cook any night of the week.
“Here are 150 other recipes that have been foods passed down for generations and are here to help you solve your Wednesday night; to give you more items in your repertoire, ”she said. “You learn the tools, techniques and ingredients, and it turns out that when you cook some of that in your kitchen, you learn about other cultures. “
Mexico is made up of 32 states, and even Mexicans don’t necessarily see the breadth of their myriad cuisines, which differ greatly from region to region. Jinich attempts to highlight many of them in “Treasures,” pointing out that while people refer to “Mexican food” as one thing, it is rather incredibly complex and varied.
“People don’t know about the diverse cultural landscape that makes traditional and classic Mexican cuisine,” Jinich said.
She then listed various waves of immigration that have taken place over the centuries: The Spanish colonized Mexico for hundreds of years and brought with them 300,000 enslaved Africans.
Jews began arriving in the 1500s and continued to emigrate after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in the 1800s, during the pogroms of the early 20th century, and with the World Wars. There was a Chinese wave and a Japanese wave, when these populations were shunned in the United States. More recently, Lebanese and Syrian communities have arrived. All of them have enriched the culinary landscape.
There are also foods that existed before the arrival of the Spaniards, bringing in pork and beef, milk and cheese. “There are all of these dishes that have spanned the centuries and have been a treasure trove of dishes that are not what you expect when you think of Mexican cuisine,” said Jinich.
These include pre-Hispanic recipes such as tok seel, from Yuketan, in which white beans are cooked with herbs and pumpkin seeds, and chulibul – green beans cooked with corn and roasted pumpkin seeds, which Jinich calls “one of the most luxurious and delicious dishes I have ever had”.
Both are meatless. Compare them with recent arrivals like arab tacos, which she describes in the introduction to the book as “an exquisite fusion of Mexico and the Middle East, the gift of Lebanese immigrants to Puebla”.
As Jinich well knows, another exquisite mix is that of Mexican and Jewish cuisines. While his parents were born and raised in Mexico, Jinich’s paternal grandparents were from Poland, his maternal grandfather from Czechoslovakia, and his maternal grandmother from Austria.
“We grew up eating all Jewish foods on Friday nights,” she said. “The matzo dumpling soup and the freshly made challah, all Ashkenazi Jewish foods, and they were always spiked with Mexican ingredients or techniques. “
The guacamole was combined with an egg salad and nestled in corn tortillas. The matzo dumpling soup was served with typical Mexican toppings like cilantro and lime. Salsa macha and guacamole were mixed with gribenes and onions, then spread on challah slices or folded into hot corn tortillas.
“I really think the Mexican Jewish community loves Mexican food and has found a way to weave what we have inherited into what we have found.”
For Chanukah, Jinich recommends his churros recipe, also known as Cinnamon Sugar Fried Dough, which could certainly be considered a distant relative of the more traditional Hanukkah treat, sufganiyot. And instead of or in addition to latkes, there are fries codzitos, “from the word maya kots, which means small rolled up taco. These are filled with chicken and topped with grated cheese, which is certainly optional. The recipe makes 18 pieces of fried party dishes.
Indeed, any number of dishes in the “Treasures of the Mexican Table” would brighten up the holiday table. Many more could be easily incorporated into the weekly meal rotation. With its large collection of generally easy recipes, the cookbook highlights foods from merged communities, ancient cultures and everything in between. In doing so, it extends a bridge to home cooks beyond the Mexican border.
In the introduction, Jinich writes, “I always tell my three boys that Mexican Americans are doubly blessed. We have two countries … With this double blessing, however, comes a double responsibility: to represent the place where we come from … and to be worthy of the place to which we belong now. Shedding light on the foods we cook and sharing the recipes we have brought to the world is the best way for me to do it. “