Cuisine of the Sephardic Jews

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Sephardi-style fried fish
Moroccan-style pickled lemons

The cuisine of the Sephardi Jews is an assortment of cooking traditions that developed among the Jews of Spain, Portugal, the Mediterranean (Turkey, Greece, Maghreb) and Arab countries.[1] Mizrahi, who are sometimes called Sephardic Jews, are Jews of origins from countries of the Middle-East, respectively. While there is some overlap in populations due to the Sephardic Diaspora, Sephardic Jews settled in many other countries as well, and this article deals only with the populations originating in the Iberian Peninsula.

Jews in the Diaspora, both Ashkenazim and Sephardim, cooked foods that were popular in their countries of residence, adapting them to the requirements of kashrut. Their choice of foods was also determined by economic factors, with many of the dishes based on inexpensive and readily available ingredients. Meat had to be slaughtered in keeping with Jewish dietary laws, and then soaked and salted. Hence it was reserved for holidays and special occasions. Many Sephardi dishes use ground meat. Milk and meat products could not be mixed or served at the same meal. Cooked, stuffed and baked vegetables are central to the cuisine, as are various kinds of beans, chickpeas, lentils and burghul (cracked wheat). Rice takes the place of potatoes.

History[edit]

Couscous with vegetables and chickpeas

Sephardi Jews are the Jews of Spain and Portugal who were expelled in 1492, many of whom settled in Tunisia, Turkey and the Balkans. The Spanish and Portuguese Jews and Ladino-speaking Balkan, Moroccan, Tunisian, Greek and Turkish Jews are, by this convention, called "Sephardim", while the remaining Jews of Arab countries in the middle east are called "Mizrahim." In this sense, "Sephardi cuisine" would refer only to the culinary traditions of the first group.

Both the Jews of the Iberian Peninsula and the Jews of Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Bulgaria, Turkey, Syria, Egypt and Greece adapted local dishes to the constraints of the kosher kitchen. Since the establishment of a Jewish state and the convergence of Jews from all the globe in Israel, these local cuisines, with all their differences, have come to represent the collection of culinary traditions broadly known as "Sephardi cuisine."

Cuisine basics[edit]

Rice-stuffed peppers

Sephardi cuisine emphasizes salads, stuffed vegetables and vine leaves, olive oil, lentils, fresh and dried fruits, herbs and nuts, and chickpeas. Meat dishes often make use of lamb or ground beef. Fresh lemon juice is added to many soups and sauces. Many meat and rice dishes incorporate dried fruits such as apricots, prunes and raisins. Pine nuts are used as a garnish.

Herbs and spices[edit]

In the early days, Sephardic cuisine was influenced by the local cuisines of Spain and Portugal, both under Catholic and Islamic regimes. A particular affinity to exotic foods from outside of Spain became apparent under Muslim rule, as evidenced even today with ingredients brought in by the Muslims.[2]

Cumin, cilantro, and turmeric are very common in Sephardi cooking. Caraway and capers were brought to Spain by the Muslims and are featured in the cuisine.[2] Cardamom ("hel") is used to flavor coffee. Chopped fresh cilantro and parsley are popular garnishes. Chopped mint is added to salads and cooked dishes, and fresh mint leaves ("nana") are served in tea. Cinnamon is sometimes used as a meat seasoning, especially in dishes made with ground meat. Saffron, which is grown in Spain is used in many varieties of Sephardic cooking, as well as spices found in the areas where they have settled.

Desserts and beverages[edit]

Date-filled ma'amoul

Tiny cups of Turkish coffee, sometimes spiced with cardamom, are often served at the end of a festive meal, accompanied by small portions of baklava or other pastries dipped in syrup or honey. Hot sahlab, a liquidy cornstarch pudding originally flavored with orchid powder (today invariably replaced by artificial flavorings), is served in cups as a winter drink, garnished with cinnamon, nuts, coconut and raisins. Arak is the preferred alcoholic beverage. Rosewater is a common ingredient in cakes and desserts. Malabi, a cold cornstarch pudding, is sprinkled with rosewater and red syrup.(all these dishes and ingredients constitute the adopted dishes of the local population where the Jewish population settled)

Pickles and condiments[edit]

Olives and pickled vegetables, such as cucumbers, carrots, cabbage, cauliflower, are a standard accompaniment to meals. Amba is a pickled mango sauce. Small pickled lemons are a Tunisian and Moroccan delicacy.

Shabbat and holiday dishes[edit]

Shabbat[edit]

Potato burekas at Mahane Yehuda market, Jerusalem

On Shabbat, the Jews of North Africa in Tunisia and Morocco serve chreime, fish in a spicy tomato sauce.

As cooking on Shabbat is prohibited, Sephardi Jews, like their Ashkenazi counterparts, developed slow-cooked foods that would simmer on a low flame overnight and be ready for eating the next day. The oldest name of the dish is "chamin" (from the Hebrew word "cham," which means "hot"), but there are several other names. Its Ashkenazi counterpart is called shalet or cholent. Shavfka is another Sephardi dish that has an Ashkenazi counterpart, namely kugle. Bourekas are often served on Shabbat morning. Pestelas, sesame-seed topped pastry filled with pine nuts, meat and onion, are also traditional.[3]

Sambusak is a semicircular pocket of dough filled with mashed chickpeas, fried onions and spices associated with Sephardic Jewish cuisine.[4] According to Gil Marks, an Israeli food historian, sambusak has been a traditional part of the Sephardic Sabbath meal since the thirteenth century.[5]

Passover[edit]

Sephardi and Ashkenazi cooking differs substantially on Passover due to rabbinic rulings that allow the consumption of kitniyot, which are forbidden to Ashkenazi Jews. Sephardi Jews prepare charoset, one of the symbolic foods eaten at the Passover seder, from different ingredients. Whereas charoset in Ashkenazi homes is a blend of chopped apples and nuts spiced with wine and cinnamon, Sephardi charoset is based on dates and is much thicker in consistency.

Mina (known as scacchi in Italy) is a Passover meat or vegetable pie made with a matzo crust.

Rosh Hashana[edit]

Libyan Jewish fruit preserves for Rosh Hashana

At the beginning of the evening meals of Rosh Hashana, it is traditional to eat foods symbolic of a good year and to recite a short prayer beginning with the Hebrew words "Yehi Ratson" ("May it be Your will") over each one, with the name of the food in Hebrew or Aramaic often presenting a play on words. The foods eaten at this time have thus become known as "yehi ratsones". Typical foods, often served on a large platter called a Yehi Ratson platter, include: 1. Apples: dipped in honey, or baked or sometimes in the form of a compote called mansanada. 2. Dates 3. Pomegranates, or black-eyed peas 4. Pumpkin: in the form of savory pumpkin-filled pastries called rodanchas. 5. Leeks: in the form of fritters called keftedes de prasa. 6. Beets: usually baked and peeled 7. Head of a fish: usually a fish course with a whole fish, head intact.

It is also common to symbolize a year filled with blessings by eating foods with stuffing on Rosh Hashana such as a stuffed, roast bird or a variety of stuffed vegetables called legumbres yaprakes.[6]

Yom Kippur[edit]

Customs for the first food eaten after the Yom Kippur fast differ. Iranian Jews often eat a mixture of shredded apples mixed with rose water called "faloodeh seeb." Syrian and Iraqi Jews eat round sesame crackers that look like mini-bagels. Turkish and Greek Jews sip a sweet drink made from melon seeds.[7]

Hanukkah[edit]

Sephardic Hanukkah dishes include cassola (sweet cheese pancakes), buñuelos (puffed fritters with an orange glaze), keftes de espinaca (spinach patties), keftes de prasa (leek patties) and shamlias (fried pastry frills).

Other specialities[edit]

Baba ghanoush, Baklawa, Couscous, Falafel, Fazuelos, Ful, Haminados, Halva, Hummus, Kibbeh, Kubbana, Kubbeh, Lahoh, Malabi, Ma'amoul, Matbucha, Tunisian Mulukhiyah, Moroccan cigars, Moussaka, Mofletta, Pescado frito, Sabich, Sahlab, Shakshuka, Skhug, Sofrito, Stuffed cabbage, Tabbouleh, Tagine, Yaprah, Almadrote[8]

References[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Cooper, John, Eat and Be Satisfied: A Social History of Jewish Food, Jason Aronson Inc., New Jersey, 1993, ISBN 0-87668-316-2
  • Gitlitz, David M. and Davidson, Dr. Linda Kay, A Drizzle of Honey : The Lives and Recipes of Spain's Secret Jews, St. Martin's Press, New York, 1999, ISBN 0-312-19860-4
  • Goldstein, Joyce and Da Costa, Beatriz, Sephardic Flavors: Jewish Cooking of the Mediterranean, Chronicle Books, 2000, ISBN 0-8118-2662-7
  • Marks, Gil, Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, John Wiley & Sons Ltd., Hoboken NJ, 2010, ISBN 0-470-39130-8
  • Miner, Vivianne Alchech, and Krinn, Linda, From My Grandmother’s Kitchen: A Sephardic Cookbook, Gainesville, FL, Triad Publishing Company, 1984, ISBN 0-937404-23-3
  • Roden, Claudia, The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York, Knopf, New York, 2003, ISBN 0-394-53258-9
  • Sternberg, Robert, The Sephardic Kitchen: The Healthful Food and Rich Culture of the Mediterranean Jews, Harper Collins, 1996, ISBN 0-06-017691-1