When Fany Gersons grandparents left Russia early last century they had no idea their Hanukkah table someday would be filled with chili-spiked latkes.
Its definitely a modern thing, says Gerson, a native Mexican who also is Jewish. And latkes are just the beginning.
The pastry chef and author of My Sweet Mexico (Ten Speed Press, 2010) merges her cultures at every opportunity: the Hanukkah jelly donuts called sufganiot get filled with guava and mango; Mexican coconut sweets called cocadas stand in for macaroons. Matzo ball soup is garnished with cilantro, chilies and limes.
And Passover gefilte fish? Pan-fried in a tomato-chili sauce.
For many people, Mexican food ends at tortillas and beans. But centuries of influence from Spain and its contact with the Middle East have left their mark on the culinary landscape. Especially when it comes to sweets. For Gerson, its a matter of yet more cultures being blended. And deliciously so.
Its not that you go to Mexico and find a baklava, but you find a lot of similar flavors, Gerson says.
Mexican dessert fruits like prickly pear and guava often are dried or made into pastes, like quince and dates in the Middle East. Spanish nuns brought candy-making know how, turning loose their technique on coconut, mangoes and other native fruits, and adding puckery accents such as tamarind.
Breads began to showcase dates, pecans and Asian spices such as cinnamon. Crumbly Middle Eastern semolina cookies show up as almond flour confections called Mexican wedding cookies. And dairy from Spain merged with spices from India to create the now-iconic Latin dessert, rice pudding.
We didnt have dairy before Spain came, and Im not sure that the Spaniards had it before the Arabs came, Gerson says. You see the cultural blend everywhere you go.
Gerson continues to mix and match her cultures, always creating new traditions. For Passover, when bread and other leavened items are forbidden, she concocts a flourless chocolate cake with tequila-soaked raisins.
People said Its not Passover-ish, she says. Its not Passover-ish, but its yummy.