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Shared by Rafael Zaga

A Lamb Recipe From Aleppo Finds New Life in Mexico City

A Lamb Recipe From Aleppo Finds New Life in Mexico City

Family Journey

Aleppo, SyriaVeracruz, MexicoMexico City
New York City
1 recipes
Mexican Stuffed Lamb With Spiced Tomato and Olive Sauce

Mexican Stuffed Lamb With Spiced Tomato and Olive Sauce

6-8 servings3 hours

Ingredients

For the sauce

  • 2 pounds (8 small) roma tomatoes, halved lengthwise and quartered
  • ½ cup tomato paste
  • 3 tablespoons tamarind concentrate
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 small dried chile de árbol
  • 1 large yellow onion, roughly chopped
  • 1½ cups pitted kalamata olives
  • 1 cup fresh cilantro leaves
  • Kosher salt, to taste

For the stuffing

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 large yellow onion, finely chopped
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1½ pounds ground lamb
  • 1 cup long-grain white rice
  • 5 small dried chile de árbol
  • 1 small plum tomato, roughly chopped
  • Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
  • Kosher salt, to taste
  • 2 cups beef broth
  • 1 cup water

For the braised lamb

  • One 3½-pound lamb shoulder
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 4 celery stalks, roughly chopped
  • 2 large carrots, roughly chopped
  • 1 large yellow onion, roughly chopped
  • 3 cups beef broth
  • Kosher salt, to taste

For the potatoes

  • 1 pound small new potatoes, preferably multi-color
  • ½ cup cilantro stems
Recipes
1
Mexican Stuffed Lamb With Spiced Tomato and Olive Sauce

Mexican Stuffed Lamb With Spiced Tomato and Olive Sauce

6-8 servings3 hours

Ingredients

For the sauce

  • 2 pounds (8 small) roma tomatoes, halved lengthwise and quartered
  • ½ cup tomato paste
  • 3 tablespoons tamarind concentrate
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 small dried chile de árbol
  • 1 large yellow onion, roughly chopped
  • 1½ cups pitted kalamata olives
  • 1 cup fresh cilantro leaves
  • Kosher salt, to taste

For the stuffing

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 large yellow onion, finely chopped
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1½ pounds ground lamb
  • 1 cup long-grain white rice
  • 5 small dried chile de árbol
  • 1 small plum tomato, roughly chopped
  • Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
  • Kosher salt, to taste
  • 2 cups beef broth
  • 1 cup water

For the braised lamb

  • One 3½-pound lamb shoulder
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 4 celery stalks, roughly chopped
  • 2 large carrots, roughly chopped
  • 1 large yellow onion, roughly chopped
  • 3 cups beef broth
  • Kosher salt, to taste

For the potatoes

  • 1 pound small new potatoes, preferably multi-color
  • ½ cup cilantro stems

Friday and Saturday afternoon meals with Rafael Zaga’s family in Mexico City sound as if they were pulled from a novel or film — more vibrant and vivacious than life is for most of us. Each week, when he was growing up, his grandmother Esther Cheja hosted Friday lunch and a feast of leftovers on Saturday for 25 family members in her home. Today, in her late 80’s, the feast is still going on for the immediate family of 15 people.

When guests walk in, her table groans with hummus, tahini, avocado with hot habaneros tempered in olive oil and vinegar, homemade pickles, a sauce for lamb made with her own fermented tamarind, olives, garlic, cilantro, and tomatoes, bottles of Coke, beer, Tequila, plates, and silverware. “And then, the food comes out,” explains Rafael, who goes by Rafa.

If you stop by her home on Wednesday or Thursday, all of the female relatives in the family are there helping to prepare. “Cooking, gossiping, cooking, doing each other’s nails…” he says. They’re making stuffed grape leaves that are nestled in a pot with lamb chops, and cordero relleno con papas, a leg of lamb stuffed with onions, garlic, chilies, nutmeg, and rice, and served in that aromatic sauce of tamarind and olives that graces the table. 

His grandmother has been cooking for the family for more than 50 years, serving a unique blend of Syrian and Mexican cooking that’s reflective of the family’s history. In the early 1900s, Rafa’s great-grandparents left their home in Aleppo. Learning that entering the United States would be challenging, the family settled in Veracruz, an area of Mexico along the Atlantic Ocean. But, in the 1920s, they moved to Mexico City, “that’s where my grandparents met after the Revolution,” Rafa explains. “There’s a long lost relative that was actually helping in the revolution...but everything’s very much lost in translation.”

His family settled in Huixquilucan, northwest of the city center. There are nearly 130 million people living in Mexico “and only 50,000 are Jewish,” says Rafa. “And they all live within 20 minutes of each other.” Many of them, like Rafa’s family, which is half Syrian and half Lebanese, came from the Middle East.

With the move to Mexico, came “a whole new wave of flavors for them,” Rafa explains. Locally grown chiles and cilantro wove their way into his family’s repertoire, becoming so ingrained in the family cooking by the time Rafa was little, that it’s as if they were there all along.

When Rafa, a cook at Marea, an upscale Italian restaurant in New York, asked his grandmother if she would teach him to make the lamb recipe, she invited him over, but when he arrived, the meal was already prepared. Fortunately, with Esther’s advice he was able to recreate the recipe in his kitchen and share it with us at our sold-out Mexican Seder at the James Beard House last year, along with a Mexican charoset of apples, celery, oregano, and orange.  

Esther’s lamb dish reminds us that traditions, particularly those in the kitchen, are breathing things. They are not only capable of evolving and adapting to new homes and places, but stronger because of it.

Mexican stuffed lamb with potatoes and tomato-olive sauce
Photo by Dave Katz