With the majority of Jews in the United States being of Ashkenazic or Eastern European descent, there is a specific interest in the ways that Sephardic Jews (those descending from Spain) and Middle Eastern Jews (those with a long history in the Middle East and not necessarily with a Spanish past) prepare their Passover foods. Every year before Passover, Ashkenazim frequently come up to me and ask, “What will you be eating at home this holiday? The Sephardic dishes are always so much better tasting and healthy.” Or, “I wish that I was Sephardic so that I could eat the rice dishes and haroset made with dates, which tastes so much better than the one that we always have at home!” As a result of these questions my own interest grew in learning about the varying customs and food traditions that existed within the Middle Eastern and Sephardic world.
In doing research on the foods prepared in the Sephardic and Middle Eastern world for the Passover holiday, I discovered there are some very interesting variations that make each community unique. For the seder plate itself, the symbolic foods are mostly the same as the Ashkenazic style: a lamb shank, hard-boiled egg, parsley (for the karpas), and salt water. However, in many Middle Eastern countries, such as Egypt, Iraq, and Syria, Romaine lettuce and sometimes radish are used in place of the Ashkenazi horseradish. In Turkish and Greek communities, the ceremonial egg is cooked over a low flame for six hours or more in a large pot filled with coffee grinds and onion skins in order to obtain a reddish-brown shell on the outside, and whites that become a creamy-beige color on the inside. In some Iraqi homes, lemon juice is used in place of salt water, while one woman told me how her grandfather, a Romaniote rabbi from Ioannina (in Greece) would use vinegar. But the biggest variation in ceremonial foods is reflected in the haroset. While the most common Ashkenazic version uses chopped apples, walnuts, cinnamon, and a little sweet red wine, the Sephardic and Middle Eastern Jews rely upon the use of dried fruit as their base. In Morocco the haroset is made of large, soft dates combined with walnuts, raisins, and almonds, which are then rolled into small balls and coated in ground cinnamon. Egyptians use dates as well, but cook them down for long periods of time before straining them into something resembling syrup more than a paste. While growing up, my Syrian grandmother would make two different kinds of harosets: one with dried apricots and ground almonds, and another that shared both Eastern and Western influences combining thick apple butter (a discovery that she happily made while living in the United States) with cinnamon and wine. All in all I learned that the charoset has not only become the center of the ceremonial meal reflecting the unique ingredients available to each region of the Middle East and Mediterranean, but the delicacy where each cook could express her own creativity.
When it comes to the main seder meal, the types of dishes served in the Sephardic cultures vary a lot according to where they are on the map. In the Northwest African country of Morocco, one might find a tagine or stew consisting of olives and preserved lemons, or one that contains lamb with prunes and cinnamon, while in the Northeast African country of Egypt, rice may be served with fresh dill, lemon zest, and green fava beans, a legume that grows in the spring right around the Passover holiday period. In the more Mediterranean regions of Greece and Turkey, vegetables such as spinach, leeks, or artichokes are often sautéed with lots of lemon and garlic, fresh dill, and parsley and served as a side dish. And in Iraq, a country bordering Syria on the east and Iran on the west, stuffed meatballs with a soft shell made with ground rice are simmered with beets for a tart-sweet flavor. Lastly, in Syria and Iran, pistachios are used to make such sweets as macaroons with orange blossom water, or a flourless cake soaked in cardamom syrup.
While much attention is paid to preparing for the first seder night, in Morocco the festivities and food preparations do not end on the last eve of Passover. Celebrated at sundown on the eighth or final day of the Passover holiday (the seventh day for Reform Jews and those residing in Israel), Mimounah is a unique custom observed by the Jews of Moroccan origin to mark the conclusion of Passover. During this celebration any foods forbidden during Passover are consumed as a way of symbolizing “freedom” (sweet leavened cakes and breads) over “slavery” (unleavened matzah). Many of the Moroccan Jews believe that by fulfilling the week-long holiday of Passover, the gates of heaven will open wide (on this last night) so that God may hear the prayers of the faithful and bestow abundance and prosperity in the coming year. On this special night, a festive table is covered with a white tablecloth and adorned with foods representing spring, prosperity, abundance, fertility and overall good luck. Because Moroccan Jews refrain from eating dairy during the Passover holiday (most likely because Kosher for Passover dairy was unavailable at the time) dairy products are the highlight of the post-Passover Mimounah meal, and meat is therefore avoided. A pitcher of buttermilk or milk is placed in the center of the table, along with white candles and a small bowl of flour to symbolize purity. Some hosts will even go so far as to display a live fish swimming in a fish bowl to represent good luck and specifically fertility. In addition, green stalks of wheat, beans, nuts and lettuce leaves are placed on the table to invoke abundance, while several small plates of honey, sweets, fruits and preserves are served to ensure a sweet year. Dishes containing yeast or flour products, including sweet couscous dishes, an assortment of cookies, pastries, and yeast cakes drizzled with oil or leftover seder wine, are the culinary highlight of this festivity. However, so as not to easily forget the story of the Exodus from Egypt, the tradition of eating mufleta, a round crepe-like pancake (reminiscent of the flat matzah) spread with creamy butter and sticky honey (representing the sweetness of liberty and the “glue” that holds the Jewish family and community together) is always observed.
However you decide to celebrate with Passover this year, remember not to forget.