A Very Merry Jewish-Syrian-Mexican-American Holiday
From tamale-making Christmas parties to a Mexican-Jewish spin on Hanukkah, here’s how one multi-cultural family beautifully blends traditions during the holidays
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The author with her family in the kitchen; photograph by Jenny Marvin
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If you’ve never read the children’s book Jalapeño Bagels, in a nutshell, it tells the story of a little boy named Pablo whose father is Jewish and mother is Mexican. For International Day at school, Pablo must choose a food that represents his culture to present at school, and he is torn on what to bring. Ultimately he decides to take jalapeño bagels, which represent his culturally rich American family. The story reminded me very much of my children and our little familia.
The author's Spicy Serrano Latkes frying in pan for Hanukkah; photograph by Lola Wiarco Dweck
I grew up Catholic and converted to Judaism one month before getting married. Together, my husband and I decided to raise our children with the traditions that were important to both of us, which means we embrace the best of both worlds, especially when it comes to the holidays and food! For Christmas we eat tamales and for Hanukkah we fry serrano latkes and dreidel-shaped buñuelos. Our children enjoy decorating Christmas trees with Abuelita in California, lighting Shabbat candles with Papá on Friday evenings, and reciting a blessing over the challah with Safta and Jido when we are all together. I love seeing how our children connect with both sides of our families in different ways and I hope their appreciation for their Jewish-Syrian-Mexican-American cultural traditions only continues to grow.
Now back to the comida (food)! One of the things I look forward to most during any holiday season is the food because it brings our families together and allows us to pass on rich cultural traditions while also leaving room for new ones to be made, all while creating memories that last a lifetime.
The author making tamales at her Christmas tamaleada party; photograph by Lola Wiarco Dweck
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Mexican Jewish recipes
Now here’s a fun roundup of recipes that incorporate both Jewish and Mexican ingredients and flavors. It includes some family faves as well as new recipes I cannot wait to try this season.
Repurpose leftover brisket to fill homemade empanada dough, and serve alongside a bright passion fruit chimichurri sauce. This dish blends traditional Latin, Jewish, and tropical flavors into one delicious bite.
Churro Challah aka Challo (challa + churro, get it?)
I love the flavors in both churros and challah, therefore if ever there was a bread that represented me, it would be this one!
These croissant-shaped treats are made with a cream cheese dough that is covered in a combination of walnuts, sugar, cinnamon, and golden raisins. The flavors remind me of churros and my suegra (mother-in-law) always has a freezer full of these ready to pop into the oven, much to everyone’s delight. We also make a batch together any time she comes to visit.
Mexican-Style Gefilte Fish (Gefilte Fish a la Veracruzana)
Gefilte fish can be offputting due to its grayish color and unique texture, but it takes on a whole new meaning when smothered with tomato sauce and punctuated with salty olives.
Kosher and Halal Mole-Rubbed Brisket Tamales
The unique spicy-sweet flavors found in mole sauce inspired the brisket rub used in these tamales. You can swap out the lard for olive oil or shortening to keep these kosher, too.
Now here’s a creative twist on the traditional citrus-tequila margarita! And since the wine is already sweet, no additional sugar is necessary to enjoy this creative cocktail.
Mexican Matzo Ball Soup
Reminiscent of albóndiga (meatball) soup, this take on classic matzo ball soup ups the flavor factor by incorporating green chiles, garlic, cilantro, and other herbs. Bonus: You can use the leftover chicken for tacos and enchiladas.
Potato, Sweet Potato and Granny Smith Latkes
Seasoned with ancho chile powder and cinnamon, you can eat these as-is or top them with a thick, chunky, fresh, and citrusy Fennel and Lime Crema or with a rustic and nutty Salsa Macha.
Spicy Pineapple Jam for Latkes
With only three ingredients, I made a spicy pineapple jam that has just the right kick and pairs perfectly with cheese or latkes.
Spicy Serrano Latkes
For anyone who isn’t familiar with latkes, they’re basically small potato patties that are eaten during Hanukkah, the Jewish holiday that celebrates the miracle of the oil burning for eight days when it should have only lasted for one. This is why we eat foods fried in oil, like latkes. They’re typically served with sour cream and applesauce, but I serve mine with fresh pico de gallo, apple salsa, or the spicy pineapple jam mentioned above.
Sufganiyot (Jelly Doughnuts)
A simple spin on the traditional fried Israeli donuts promises to be equally delicious, especially if you swap out the jelly and fill these with cajeta or dulce de leche!
Mexican Christmas recipes
There are several recipes that stand out during our festive family Christmas celebrations each year — tamales are always, always a staple. And we typically serve them alongside fresh beans and potato salad (our American side must be represented, too!). The stars though, are the sides and sweets as you can see below.
These fragile cookies melt in your mouth and contain the exotic addition of anise and a hint of cinnamon. They’re perfect for gifting, too.
These deliciously crispy golden fritters are best when dusted with sugar or dipped in piloncillo (cane sugar) simple syrup. It’s quite a process to make them from scratch, but definitely worth the effort for that extra crunch factor.
Christmas Fruit Salad
The fresh fruit doused in a sweet milky cream is the perfect complement to all of your holiday meals. I simply love the color, too.
The recipe is quite simple, but for some reason nobody can guess what’s in it and everyone always asks why we only make it for the holidays. I ask myself that same question! Consider this a little gift from my cocina to yours.
Ginger and Cardamom Rompope
I have fond memories of my grandfather serving us rompope in tiny beer mug-looking shot glasses. While traditional eggnog can take up to three weeks to cure, rompope takes little more than 30-40 minutes on the stove and a couple hours to chill in the fridge.
Green Chicken Pozole
Pozole or menudo always grace our table during the holiday season and which one we enjoy more is always a topic of discussion: red or green pozole, pozole or menudo — I can never decide. They’re equally delicious and taste like home. Pozole continues to be a festive dish that is prepared on special occasions and hominy is always a star ingredient.
In the midst of the holiday madness, a cocktail (or two) is essential. At our annual tamaleada one year, I introduced this hibiscus sangria. It was a hit and everyone asked for the recipe. It’s perfect for holiday entertaining — especially if you’re looking for something festive that’s easy to prepare for a large group of guests.
Noche Buena (Christmas Eve) Salad
This isn’t a recipe I grew up eating, but surely one I want to try! It combines the earthiness of roasted beets, sweet-tart flavors of apple, and the acidity of orange and pomegranates for a fresh palate cleanser during a rather indulgent holiday season.
Ponche Navideño (Mexican Hot Fruit Punch)
Its rich flavor develops using all natural ingredients from fresh fruits like tejocote (Mexican hawthorne) and guava, to piloncillo, the sweetener. The base and color come from dried hibiscus flowers.
Red Pork Tamales
Pork simmered in a rich red chile sauce is the key ingredient in red pork tamales, which are a staple at our Mexican Christmas table. While laborious to make, they can be prepared in advance, frozen, and then steamed when ready to serve.
More Mexican-flavored articles from this author
Author Lola Wiarco Dweck has written extensively on Mexican cooking. Check out some of the other delicious articles she wrote for Yummly below: