Winner of the James Beard/ KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year 2000 and Winner of the Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food 2000.
June 1, 2023
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Mangia Bene

        The Jews remained a cogent people throughout their Diaspora because of their traditions. One of those traditions was their culinary traditions. During Passover, when the Jewish child asks at the Seder dinner "why is this night different from all other nights?" the answer about celebrating the flight of the Jews from Egypt, from slavery, is an evocation of a key moment in Jewish memory. Passover (Pesah) is the great Jewish holiday that celebrates the Jews' liberation from Egyptian bondage. It lasts eight days and no hamez, leavened foods, can be eaten. Because of this dietary prohibition, a great many specialized dishes were created. Tradition requires three kinds of mazzot, unleavened foods, a roast lamb bone, huevos haminados (hard-boiled eggs), and haroset with romaine lettuce, "bitter herbs," and celery leaves. The haroset, a mixture or relish of fruits and nuts, was meant to represent the mortar that bound their people when enslaved by the Pharaohs. The Talmud enumerates a number of vegetables that there was a duty to eat on the night of the Seder. The Mishna, the canonical collection of Jewish law that constitutes part of the Talmud, names five: lettuce, chicory, wild chicory (according to Maimonides), harhavina (Eryngium creticum), and maror, which seems to be Sonchus oleraceus, called in Arabic murar. It is a common weed, widespread in gardens, fallow fields, and roadsides in Israel. The soft leaves are eaten as a salad by the poor, some also eating the juicy root.

    In Jewish dietary laws (kashruth), we get a glimmer of the boundaries of the cuisines of the Jews in relation to their countries. In fact, if we can properly speak of a "Jewish cuisine," we can do so only by virtue of the fact that it developed as a result of kashruth. Hebraic law concerning food is preoccupied with the rigorous codification of meats. The animal shares with the human the same vitality, designated by the Hebrew expression haya, living. The regulation of meat as food among the Jews is a priori, of a certain fundamental value of life throughout the culture. The koshering of food has to do mainly with the removal of blood from the animal in concurrence with the prohibition against its consumption in Leviticus 7:26-27 and 17:10-14. Leviticus 11:2-3 sets out what foods Jews can eat--namely animals whose hoofs are parted and cloven-footed, and who chew the cud. "Unclean" animals, forbidden for eating, are the camel, badger, hare, and pig. From the seas and rivers, Jews were allowed to eat only fish with fins and scales. Most birds were allowed except birds of prey such as eagles, falcons, hawks, and the osprey. Ravens, owls, vultures, gulls and some other birds were also forbidden. Locusts, grasshoppers, and crickets could be eaten but not other insects.

    The role of sacrifice, especially in relation to food preparation, is of paramount importance to Jews. The slaughter of an animal for food was designated by a special verb, hullin. That life was being surrendered was central to the sacrificial ritual and signified by the letting of the animal's blood. "For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it for you upon the altar to make atonement, by reason of the life" (Lev. 17:11). Jews, therefore, were forbidden to eat blood, since life belonged only to God (Lev. 17:10; Gen 9:4; Lev. 3:17, 7:26; Deut. 12:16,23; 15:23). A sacrifice was an offering. The biblical teachings were important in the cuisine of the Jews.

    Wherever Jews appeared in the Mediterranean, they adopted the cuisines of their new homes while at the same time adapting them to conform to their dietary laws. But Jews did have certain predilections that may have derived from Talmudic tradition or were cultural culinary ones. The Jewish affinity for vegetables is attested to in the Bible, and the quintessential Egyptian vegetable mulukhiyya, is still also known as the "Jewish vegetable" (Jew's mallow, Corchorus olitorius). Vegetables were an important part of the diet in medieval times and greengrocers and vegetable sellers are repeatedly mentioned in the Jewish letters that constitute the Geniza documents of the eleventh century in Cairo. Economic factors, such as trade, also played a part in the cuisine of the Jews, for, like everyone else, they ate what was available because (except for grain and spices) little else came from afar.

   The principal cuisine of the Mediterranean Jews can be called Sephardi, as opposed to the Ashkenazi Jewish cooking that resembles the various cuisines of Central, Northern, and Eastern European cooking. Sephardi has come to imply Mediterranean Jewry, but strictly speaking the Sephardi are only the Iberian Jews who immigrated to Greece and Turkey.

In any case, I use the term in its broader sense to mean Mediterranean Jews. Sephardi cooking is characterized by the use of spices, olive oil, rice, pulses, and lamb. A sabbath meal is prepared on a Friday afternoon to bake in a slow oven overnight and is eaten for Saturday lunch. The Ashkenazi call the sabbath meal cholent, while eastern Mediterranean Jews call it hamin and usually make it with beans, fat meat, and potatoes. In North Africa, it is called adafina, dafina, or tafina. Most Sephardi Jews use mutton instead of beef and rice instead of barley. Syrian Jews place the mixture inside a hollowed-out piece of pumpkin or squash. Sephardi and North African spices include whole hot red peppers, saffron or turmeric, and ground coriander seed. Chickpeas are often added to the mixture, and the North Africans frequently throw in a handful of cracked wheat (qamh).

(Photo: Sephardic Spanish sesame rings for the sabbath)