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Matzah ball soup: a new take on a Jewish classic

To embrace her Jewish heritage and Mexican upbringing, Fany Gerson adds spicy chillies, avocado, coriander and lime to her matzah ball soup – a perfect twist for a Passover Seder.

Matzah ball soup is a dish with elements that trace back to the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew bible. Biblical Israelites carried matzah – unleavened bread that resembles a large, thin cracker – out with them from Pharaoh’s Egypt during the Exodus, when the Jewish people were liberated from slavery. Jews, under instructions from God, have eaten matzah ever since during the Passover Seder (held this year on 22 April through 30 April), a symbolic, ritual feast that includes a retelling of the biblical story.

Like so many historic, cultural foods, it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment when Jews started grinding matzah to make the matzah meal used for the balls eaten in the soup. But the Yiddish name (kneidlach) points to Eastern Europe, where you can find similar bread dumplings, like the German Knödel. Instead of using day-old bread, however, Jews mixed matzah meal with eggs, water and schmaltz (typically goose or chicken fat) before cooking the balls in hot water. The matzah balls would then be served in chicken soup, creating what many lovingly refer to now as “Jewish penicillin”.

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It is the quintessential dish of Ashkenazi Jewry (those with roots in Central and Eastern Europe), served during Shabbat (the sabbath) and Passover. Besides its ancient ancestral connection, the soup is a soul-soothing comfort dish that many Jews remember fondly from their childhood. That’s certainly the case for Fany Gerson, founder of the New York City-based catering company and food truck, La Newyorkina.

Gerson grew up in Mexico City, which today has a small population of Jews. The first-known Jewish settlers in Mexico were Conversos, or secret Jews, fleeing the Spanish Inquisition in the late 15th through early 16th Centuries. Over time, the community grew, especially with waves of immigration in the 19th and 20th Centuries from the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Gerson’s great-grandmother, for example, emigrated from Ukraine in 1926. That Eastern European Jewish culinary legacy continues through Gerson.

“I’ve always loved the soup,” she says. “And my grandmother had it often, not just during the High Holidays.”

Gerson grew up eating a clear, flavourful chicken broth and small matzah balls that were very hard – a stark contrast to the larger, fluffier variety popular at most Jewish-American delis.

“You could almost eat [the matzah ball] with a fork and a knife,” she said. “But [my family and I] love them.”

Gerson became familiar with the New York-style matzah ball when she moved to the city. At first, she thought the delis didn’t know how to properly make matzah balls. Over time, she realised that maybe it was her grandmother who had the unique spin.

Instead of shunning one style over the other, Gerson developed her matzah ball soup a la Mexicana. She blended Mexican flavours such as chillies, coriander and avocado in a traditionally Ashkenazi Jewish soup to embrace both traditions.

As for the matzah ball itself, she says, “It took a long time to get that texture that I wanted. It’s kind of a cross between both [firm and fluffy], and the size as well.” For the best results, Gerson likes to have her eggs at room temperature and adds in a combination of parsley, cilantro, dill and chives. But she’s not a stickler about the herbs. “Sometimes I only have two of them,” she says. “And that’s okay.”

Gerson prepares her broth ahead of time, maybe a day or two before she’s planning to make the matzah balls. It makes meal prep all the more manageable when all you have to do is make the matzah balls and add the garnish.