29 March 2009

Food: Mexican flavors Passover

Four years ago, New York City chef Julian Medina of the contemporary Mexican bistro, Toloache, began adding Mexican-flavored Passover fare to his menu, drawing on Sephardic and Ashkenazi traditions and spicing them up.

In the early years, 10 people came to eat. Now 100 people order food for Passover. He also prepares his own creative take on fare for Rosh Hashanah and Chanukah.

This JTA story focuses on Medina and his delicious food. It might even turn into a DNA genetic genealogy story if Medina tests with FamilyTreeDNA.com, as his wife suspects Medina's family has Converso roots. The name is among documented Jewish Sephardic names.

Why would a chef from Mexico City who had dazzled clients at Maya and Pampano, two of Manhattan’s best Mexican restaurants, turn to Jewish cuisine for inspiration?

Although Medina was born a Catholic, he converted to Judaism. Six years ago, when he was dating the Jewish woman who would become his wife, he started spending holidays with her family. It sparked a curiosity about her religion that continued to grow the more he learned about Jewish rituals.

From the beginning he was intrigued by each holiday’s traditional fare as he tasted the foods his future mother-in-law prepared. It wasn’t long before he started seasoning Jewish recipes with the flavors of his youth.

Medina explored Jewish cooking, both Sephardi and Ashkenazi.

“This is what chefs do when exposed to cuisines that excite them -- they conduct research to develop new recipes,” he says. “Food is never static. It changes every day.”

Many of Medina's recipes benefit from these cuisines.
See the link for the recipes for some delicious new ideas: matzah ball soup with cilantro, jalapeno and lime juice, brisket con chipotle pepper, matzah tortillas, matzah tostada Yucatan-style (with achiote smoked sea bass salad and horseradish-jalapeno salsa), roast halibut with cauliflower "latke" and hibiscus chipotle glaze. One recipe not provided is matzah pudding with roasted bananas. I guess you'll have to drop into Toloache to learn about that one. If you do, please send me the recipe!

Medina's wife says she suspects the family has Jewish roots. Many Conversos (those forced to convert to Catholicism during the Inquisition) were among early settlers in Mexico.

The origin of their name is Hebrew and Arabic. Several Jewish families in Spain have carried the surname Medina. In the Spanish province of Cadiz, in the city Medina-Sidonia, it was customary among Sephardim to be named for the city of origin.
Of course, Sephardic genealogists know that many Sephardic surnames reflect geographic locations, not just that of Medina-Sidonia. Pere Bonnin's book, Sangre Judia, lists CADIS (Mallorca, 1391), CADIZ (Jerez, 1266), and MEDINA (Avila, 1409). There is also a MEDINA with a J1 haplogroup (carried by some 28% of Sephardic Jews) in the New Mexico Project at FamilyTreeDNA.com.

Medina might want to consider taking a Y-DNA test.

In any case, the recipes seem delicious.


  1. Anonymous11:16 AM

    I was born in Puerto de Santa Maria Spain next to jerez a town which used to be a jewish community. My moms moms madien name is medina. My whole life family has called me morrana because of my wavy black hair, freckles and dark eyes. My moms grandfather came from a wealthy family in financial business. As a teen I began to eat kosher and keep the sabbath as I read the old testment. My husband and I are making a trip to israel with his father who leads tours and works to teach christains about Jews because they are gods chosen people. What are the chances I am Jewish?

  2. Hi, Mercedes. You need to do some research on your family. You can also do DNA genetic genealogy tests with FamilyTreeDNA. If you match with families that are today Jewish, that's a pretty good clue as to your own background. Genetic studies have shown that at least 20% of Spain's population has Jewish origins, although most researchers think it is much more than that. When you consider the mass conversions forced on the Jews of Spain throughout history, there are many descendants of Jewish families today. Pere Bonnin's "Sangre Judia" lists MEDINA as being confirmed as a Jewish name in the city of Avila in 1490. Also check out listings for MEDINA at SephardicGen.com and Sephardim.com, both with name search engines. Research is important and DNA testing may provide many more clues. You may want to test a brother of yours or a male sibling of your father to get the Y-DNA links, while you can do the mtDNA for your maternal side. Good luck!