Jewish food in Mexico

Jewish food in Mexico

Teaneck-born cooking prodigy Eitan Bernath explores new tastes and old traditions

Eitan Bernath recites Kiddush as he models a traditional Shabbat lunch on Friday with local Jewish chef Estrella Jafif and her extended family. (All photos Eitan Productions/Tastemade)
Eitan Bernath recites Kiddush as he models a traditional Shabbat lunch on Friday with local Jewish chef Estrella Jafif and her extended family. (All photos Eitan Productions/Tastemade)

When he was growing up in Teaneck, Eitan Bernath’s parents — who still live in town — tried to entice him to eat gefilte fish by calling it “fishy cake.”

Nevertheless, he never warmed to the dish until he was filming “Eitan Explores: Mexico City,” a new seven-part digital docuseries from the Jewish kitchens of Mexico City, premiering May 13  on Tastemade’s Instagram, @tastemade.

In one segment, Mr. Bernath — a 22-year-old award-winning television personality and culinary/lifestyle social-media star — makes Gefilte Fish a la Veracruzana with Mexico-born chef and cookbook author Pati Jinich, host of “Pati’s Mexican Table” on Tastemade and PBS. Veracruzana is a jalapeño- and olive-infused sauce from Veracruz,  usually cooked with red snapper.

“I’m not really a big fan of traditional Eastern European Ashkenazi gefilte fish, so it was very cool making that with Pati,” Mr. Bernath said. “I never knew gefilte fish could be that flavorful.”

From preparing a traditional Shabbat Sobremesa to visiting taco stands, delicatessens, and synagogues in this vibrant Jewish community, the seven episodes hosted by Mr. Bernath reveal a people deeply connected to the spirit of their country as well as to their ancestral roots.

“My goal was to highlight a really unique and interesting Jewish community,” Mr. Bernath said. “In my travels over the past few years, I always try to visit a Jewish community wherever I go, including India and Croatia.

“Mexico City was chosen because it has a beautiful, diverse Jewish community. A wave of immigrants came there from the Middle East, Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and also Europe after the war. So there’s a true melting pot of Jewish culture there.

“What you’ll see in the series is the interesting relationship between their heritage and their home, specifically when it comes to food. They’re bringing Mexican ingredients into their Lebanese cooking or opening Jewish restaurants in Mexico for Mexican patrons.”

Eitan tours the kitchen of Jewish-inspired eatery Niddo with proprietor Karen Drijanski.

Among the personalities he introduces is Estrella Jafif, a native Mexican chef with roots in Lebanon and Cuba, who takes him to her favorite local market on Fridays to shop for Shabbat. The two then cook a traditional Shabbat stew, which they share with a dozen Jafif family members.

Another episode  finds Mr. Bernath  at La Muertita, a tented taco stand run by a non-Jewish proprietor serving local Jews since the 1960s. Over meat-free quesadillas and other vegetarian Mexican street foods, he hears how the eatery banished meat at the request of local Jews, and now the clientele is overwhelmingly from Mexico City’s 40,000-strong Jewish community.

Even the one time when Mr. Bernath assumed that he couldn’t possibly  make a Jewish connection, there was one and he found it, he said.

“I told the producers that I really wanted to go to somewhere food is grown. There’s not much out there about Jewish Mexican farmers, so we decided that this one episode won’t be about Mexican Jews and will just be an interesting way to show how food is farmed in Xochimilco, which is like the Venice of Mexico City with all these gorgeous manmade islands.

“My producers looked for tour guides who own land there and could show us indigenous farming techniques. In their conversation with a guide named Ricardo, it came up that this was going to be for a series about Jewish food, and he said, ‘Oh, I recently converted to Judaism!’

“It was the craziest experience, being on this gorgeous plot of land with vegetables growing in a marsh, where we cooked indigenous food, and Ricardo showed me pictures of him on Simchat Torah dancing with the Torah. To be in this agricultural area of Mexico connecting with someone about Judaism was just like, ‘What’s going on?’”

“Eitan Explores: Mexico City” was executive produced by Jacqueline Lobel, Rachel Kastner, and Daniella Greenbaum Davis.

“When we set out to make this series, we explored many potential destinations across the globe,” Ms. Kastner said. “There are so many unique Jewish communities, with their distinct flavors and rich culinary histories. But once we started digging into the Jewish story of CDMX” — Ciudad de México, Spanish for Mexico City — “we were hooked. The diversity was staggering: tales of Syrian Jews bringing along pots and pans upon immigration to preserve cherished dishes, or Jews escaping Europe and incorporating novel ingredients into their Shabbat tables. It was evident that there were so many stories to discover.”

Ms. Kastner said that once the crew arrived, their hunch was confirmed. “In just one week, we unearthed a plethora of diverse narratives that truly epitomize the Jewish journey of resilience, tradition, and the ability to adapt and contribute to new environments.”

Eitan explores a local produce market within a Jewish enclave of Mexico City with local Jewish chef Estrella Jafif in preparation for Shabbat.

Mr. Bernath said he was happy for the opportunity to showcase the diversity of the Jewish world.

“In American media, Jews with white skin are more prominent, and the general understanding of most Americans is that Jews are white,” he said. “But the concept of Ashkenazi Jews being white is a very modern American thing.

“I don’t identify as white; I think Ashkenazi Jews pass as white. Also, it’s an important tool to combat a lot of the misinformation out there about who the Jews are. The idea of Jews in Israel as white colonizers is just a fallacy.”

Mr. Bernath, who has been to Israel twice since October 7, related how moved he was to accompany and document Ethiopian Jews in Addis Ababa during their aliyah to Israel in May 2023.

“I got really close with a bunch of women from Ethiopia who have lived in Israel for many years and help these families adjust in Israel,” he said.

“One of them told me that when she moved to Israel, it was a huge shock that white Jews existed. That was a mind-blowing moment for me to realize that even amongst the Jewish community — although Jews are such a small percentage of the population — there is so much diversity.”

Mr. Bernath did his first public cooking demonstration at Grand & Essex Market in Bergenfield when he was 12 years old. A product of Yavneh Academy and Frisch Yeshiva High School in Paramus, today he lives in Manhattan and has amassed more than 8.5 million followers across his social-media platforms.

The premiere of “Eitan Explores: Mexico City” will be released exclusively with Tastemade on Instagram on May 13. One episode will be released daily through May 19. The trailer is on YouTube at

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