Tropical Rosh Hashanah Chicken

As members of the Mexican Jewish community begin to plan their Rosh Hashanah menus, they discuss recipes for dishes such as gefilte fish and keftes de prasas (leek fritters). Most families preserve the Ashkenazi or Sephardic recipes they brought with them to Mexico. They also incorporate some local exotic ingredients to enhance the celebration. One dish that has made its way to many Rosh Hashanah tables is chicken cooked in a tamarind sauce. Tamarind chicken blends the sour flavors of the tamarind fruit with the complex sweetness of sugarcane and the smoke-dried spiciness of the chipotle pepper. The combination of these ingredients makes for a fun and interesting new year: a little bit tart, a little bit sweet and a little bit spicy.

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Tamarinds. Photo: Mlvalentin.

Tamarind chicken is a Mexican dish that was made possible by the Spanish colonists. Tamarind is a very tart fruit encased in a leathery brown pod. Originally from Africa, it was nicknamed the “Indian date” because it has grown in India for so long. The tamarind was brought to America by the Spanish conquistadors. Its acid notes are tempered in tamarind chicken with sweetness from the sugarcane.

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Piloncillo. Photo: Camilo Sanchez.

Christopher Columbus was the first to import sugarcane to America, planting it in Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic). Once the colony of New Spain was founded, which included what is now the country of Mexico, sugarcane plantations were established. The Spanish colonists learned to tame the tartness of the tamarind with the smoky, caramelly sweetness of the piloncillo. Piloncillo is made from crushed sugarcane. The sugarcane is pressed and its juice is collected in a pot. Then it is boiled and poured into a mold. When the juice dries, it hardens into a cake. Piloncillo has a stronger and richer flavor than brown sugar. For tamarind chicken, the tartness of the tamarind and the sweetness of the piloncillo are accentuated with the smoky heat of the chipotle pepper.

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Chipotle. Photo: User:Carstor.

When the Spaniards arrived, the Nahuatl tribe lived in the area that is now Mexico. They introduced the colonists to the chipotle, a jalapeño pepper that is preserved by drying in smoke. Jalapeños are native to Mexico, and the name chipotle comes from the Nahuatl word chilpoctli, which means smoked chili. Chipotle peppers had been cultivated and consumed for thousands of years before the Spaniards arrived in Mexico. Newcomers to Mexico, including the Jews, have incorporated them into their cuisines. Chipotle peppers add subtle heat to the tamarind chicken.

Chicken in Tamarind Sauce

  • 1 cut-up chicken
  • 1 garlic clove
  • 1/4 cup tamarind paste
  • 2 cups water
  • 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • 1/2 cup grated piloncillo or brown sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 dried chipotle chile
  1. Place the water, tamarind paste and piloncillo in a pot.
  2. Bring to a boil, and then turn off the flame.
  3. Allow the mixture to cool to room temperature.
  4. Pour the tamarind mixture into a blender. Add the garlic, balsamic vinegar, and chipotle pepper. Process until smooth.
  5. Place the chicken in a large glass bowl, and pour the tamarind marinade over it. Mix it well, so the chicken is coated on all sides.
  6. Refrigerate for 1 hour.
  7. Pour the chicken and marinade into a casserole dish. Cover tightly with aluminum foil, and bake at 350 °F for 30 minutes.
  8. Take the foil off, and allow to bake for 10 more minutes.

Adapted from Sonia Ortiz.