Capirotada, the Mexican bread pudding and Lenten favorite, drips with Catholic symbolism. But what about its connections to Passover, the Moors, and Ancient Rome?
Today’s capirotada is a grandma dish that’s made as much for its nostalgia factor as it is for its taste. Its core ingredients are layers of bread, sweetened syrup, and salty cheese. From there, the hotly-contested variety of fruits, nuts, and even sprinkles used depends on your abuela’s coveted recipe and your family’s regional identity.
Capirotada takes special status on Lent and Easter in Mexico, although it has declined in popularity in the past decades as strict observance of Lent loosens and families move apart. But a look at capirotada’s history paints a story of a dish that survives changes.
Competing origin stories stake their colorful claims. One legend says capirotada is the product of the newly-arrived and starving Spaniards. After combining stale rations with Aztec tea, the Spaniards reportedly used their resurrection dish to convert the Aztecs.
Another sparsely-sourced legend highlights the Jews of Mexico using capirotada to hide unleavened bread during Passover. It’s certainly one attempt at explaining the allegedly strange inclusion of this simple recipe in the records of the Inquisition.
This dish’s history is as jumbled as the ingredients, but culinary historians say it actually has roots across multiple cultures all the way back to ancient Rome. And as with most things, the wildest legends have kernels of truth.
A Culinary Relic
The Spanish conquistadors decidedly did not create capirotada by combining their pitifully stale bread with the Aztec’s sharp and sweet anise tea in some mythical Thanksgiving-style story. Instead, capirotada is a culinary example of the medieval proverb “all roads lead to Rome.”
On summer days almost 2,000 years ago, Romans were eating sala cattabia, capirotada’s predecessor. This concoction involved soaking bread in water, olive oil, and the vinegary drink posca that Roman soldiers enjoyed. The bread was then layered or mixed with herbs and cheese and finally cooled with stored snow collected during the winter.
True to its many variations today, the dish evolved over the centuries and across cultures. Printed as early as the first century, the sala cattabia recipe in Apicius’s ancient De Re Coquinaria calls for layers of capers, livers, pine nuts, and cucumbers. By 1520, Roberto de Nola’s Libre del Coch keeps the essential layering of bread but adds butter, mutton broth, and partridge to what he calls almondrote
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Spain in the late 15th century was a mess of cultural upheaval. Ferdinand V and Isabella I of Spain drove out the Moors out of Alhambra and Granada in 1492, but the ongoing Spanish Inquisition couldn’t erase the cultural influences. One culinary tradition that stuck was the diverse spice palate of North Africa. Sweeter ingredients like cinnamon in savory dishes are suspected of helping pave the way for the dessert-like capirotada centuries later.
It wasn’t until 1611 that the name capirotada was recorded. Francisco Martínez Montiño, famous chef to Spain’s Phillip II, is believed to have dubbed the dish in his cookbook after the capriote, or conical hats that monks wore. Underneath the dish’s own little cheese cap was bread layers stuffed with pork loins and sausages. The meatless capirotada is a Mexican adaptation that ended up lending itself well to Lent.
Capirotada in “New Spain” took on heightened religious symbolism over the centuries. The ingredients of capirotada lend themselves to a lesson on the Resurrection. The bread represents the Body of Christ, the syrup the blood, and the cheese the Holy Shroud. This tradition helped seal capirotada, now with varied fruits, as Mexican holiday fare.
But capirotada also has history and holiday significance with another group: the Jews of Mexico and Passover.
Passover and the Crypto-Jews of Mexico
Stories around the potential significance of capirotada in Mexican Jewish culture center around the brutal intolerance of the Spanish Inquisition and those who fled and hid from it. Potential clues seem to crop up everywhere.
After all, the capriote wasn’t just a hat for monks but the hood forced upon those on trial as heretics. Some say the Jewish diaspora used bread puddings across the world to hide unleavened bread. And finally, there’s the often-repeated claim that the capirotada recipe is in the Inquisition archives.
History is murky. The religious capriote did have a dual purpose for religious orders and alleged heretics. But the word’s origin, capa, simply refers to a cap, like the cap of cheese on the casserole. And while crypto-Jews—those practicing Judaism in secrecy—tried to hide food practices that would expose them, the evidence doesn’t clearly point to capirotada as a method.
Recipes, and food preparation, were part of the Inquisition and do exist in the records. The Spanish Inquisition (or the Holy Inquisition against Depraved Heresy) targeted conversos or Sephardic Jews who had converted to Catholicism to escape expulsion or death.
Convinced of their false faith, authorities investigated every aspect of their lives looking for confirmation of heresy, including what they ate, when they ate it, and how they prepared it. Not eating eels, cutting all the fat away, or cooking in olive oil rather than lard were just some of many dangerous practices.
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Dr. Hélène Jawhara Piñer, culinary historian and author of Sephardi: Cooking the History–Recipes of the Jews of Spain and the Diaspora, from the 13th Century to Today, says capirotada, by that name, has not shown up in her research of the Spanish and Mexican Inquisition trials.
Jawhara Piñer does argue that Sephardic Jewish families that came to Mexico served a version of capirotada just like other Spanish emigrants. “This is surely a dish consumed by crypto-Jews, mainly in northern Mexico. At the beginning of the 20th century, Jewish families living in New Mexico, who are crypto-Jewish descendants, say that for Passover their families used to prepare capirotada, also known as pan de semita. Pan de semita. Semitic Bread. Bread of the Jews.”
Not to be confused (as is easily done) with other savory and sweet rolls called cemita, or even semita in other regions, Jewish families used layers of soda crackers, syrup, raisins, and cheese to make pan de semita. Once again, capirotada adapted and took on a new name.
Capirotada‘s fans worry that the popularity of this dish is fading and may be left behind. But looking across the centuries, the migrations, and the cultures, it’s just as likely that we’re already adapting capirotada into its next hearty rendition.