Sephardic Passover Food: Not Your Bubbe’s Matzo Ball Soup

Brisket and gefilte fish feature at many Ashkenazic Passover seders in the US, but the foods of Sephardi Jews are inspired by their roots in the Mediterranean.

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Apr 11 2017, 8:53am

For many, the words "Passover food" conjure imagery of gefilte fish and steaming bowls of matzo ball soup ladled by Yiddish-speaking bubbes. For Ashkenazi Jews, this imagery is often spot-on. But across the US and the rest of the world, there are many and varied ways to celebrate with traditional Passover fare. To Sephardi Jews, bubbes and matzo ball soup may feel decidedly foreign.

Food holds perhaps the most important ritualistic role in the celebration of Passover (or Pesach), the commemoration of the Israelites' emancipation from enslavement in ancient Egypt. (For what it's worth, my formal Jewish education ended with my bat mitzvah 18 years ago, so if you require more information on Jewish tradition, consult your local rabbi or the informative 1995 Rugrats Passover episode.)

As Gloria Kauffer Greene says in The Jewish Holiday Cookbook, "[Food] plays a quintessential role at Pesach [Passover], not just a peripheral one as with most holidays. Indeed, the entire celebration revolves around partaking or prohibition of specific foodstuffs." This year it is observed from sundown on April 10 through sundown on April 18, and starts with a seder: "an elaborate festive meal that takes place on the first night(s) of the holiday of Passover." Although families' interpretations or practices may differ, each seder features a seder plate: a collection of symbolic food items that are used throughout the retelling of the Passover story. For the uninitiated, it's also worth noting that the seder demands the consumption of four glasses of wine and requires participants to sit comfortably or slouch in celebration of freedom. Your move, Rosh Hashana.

The seder and the requisite dietary rules observed during the eight days of Passover vary slightly depending on one's ancestry. In the Middle Ages, Jews split into two major groups based on their migration patterns. Most of the estimated 5.5 to 6 million Jews in the United States have Central and Eastern European heritage, and are part of the Ashkenazi Jewish diaspora. According to the Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, 75 percent of the world's Jewish population is Ashkenazi. Sephardi Jews are Iberian descendants, originating primarily from Spain, while Mizrahi Jews are those of Asian or Middle Eastern descent.

Unsurprisingly, much of our collective cultural association with Judaism comes from Ashkenazic culture. Due to the prevalence of Yiddish in pop culture, even many non Jews know what it means to schlep, and that it's better to be a mensch than a schmuck. Yet Yiddish is not traditionally spoken by Sephardim, who have an equivalent language, Ladino, which blends Spanish with Hebrew. Ladino is very rarely used today; it was nearly wiped out during the Holocaust, but there are efforts to revive it in Spain. Sephardic synagogues look different their Ashkenazic counterparts, too, often featuring decorative motifs influenced by the Islamic architecture prevalent in the Iberian Peninsula.

Regarding food, the Torah is very clear on the primary dietary rule for Passover in Exodus 12:14: "You shall eat nothing leavened; in all your dwelling places you shall eat unleavened bread." Both Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews follow this law by banning chametz (leavened grain products, like bread). Ashkenazi Jews also ban kitniyot, which includes rice, corn, all legumes, and many seeds. However, the details of Passover food rules are disputed within denominations and regions. "Ashkenazi Jews don't eat rice during Passover," says Sephardi chef Avi Shemtov, of Boston's The Chubby Chickpea. "For us, though, rice is a Passover staple."

Joyce Goldstein is a cookbook writer and former executive chef at Chez Panisse and her own Square One Restaurant. Her cookbook Sephardic Flavors: Jewish Cooking of the Mediterranean includes a recipe for medina: a mina, or matzo pie, with meat. This recipe originated in the Greek Island of Rhodes. After the Spanish Expulsion in 1492, many Sephardim fled to Greece and formed tight-knit Jewish communities, so their Passover recipes reflect both the customs of the holiday and the local fare. Her pesah typropita is a Passover cheese pie from Hania. Unlike any Ashkenazic recipe, this calls for one pound of mezithra cheese—typically produced on the island of Crete—and a quarter pound of feta cheese.

The Passover recipes in Greene's holiday cookbook includes a traditional fish recipe called pescado con agristada, which is cooked throughout Turkey and Greece. Like many Sephardic holiday recipes, this one was brought in the suitcases and memories of Spanish Jews who were forced to flee, but it is inextricably linked to that history through language.

Although rice is an annual fixture on his Passover table, Shemtov's Passover highlight is charoset, which plays a key role in the seder. The sweet spread made with wine, fruit, and nuts varies widely on Sephardic Passover tables around the world, and often includes dates, which Ashkenazic charoset does not. This makes sense, given the climate and agriculture of these two regions. "The recipe that most embodies the Passover table in my house belongs to my chef father, Yona. His charoset is both very Sephardic and also uniquely his. His secret? Chocolate!"

As Rabbi Rachel M. Solomin notes, many American Jews—and Jews throughout the world—now live a "multi-layered existence." We borrow traditions from each other, and the lines become more and more blurred as the years go on.

Yet the foods that we cook and eat for Passover are representative of our ancestors, almost all of whom have had to flee from one place or another, and the Passover tradition reminds us of that. Sephardim share a common story in the 1492 expulsion from Spain, when tens of thousands of refugees died making their way to safe land.

Today, stories like these can feel both distant and immediate. American Jews may not face mass expulsion in 2017, but religious persecution, antisemitism, and refugee crises still persist around the world. We carry these stories close to us, especially in the foods we make, and each year we celebrate our heritage by coming together at the dinner table to remember them, to talk about them, and even to argue about them—particularly after that fourth glass of liberation wine.