The Latin flavors of Passover
Passover is a major Jewish spring festival commemorating the Exodus from Egypt over 3,000 years ago. The Jewish people observe the weeklong holiday by holding a festive meal called a seder, which means order in Hebrew. During the seder, people gather to read from a book called a Haggadah, or telling.
The experience is a communal one. Bound by a collective memory, Jewish people retell their history of the Exodus and are obligated to remember the story of Passover as though they themselves came out of Egypt, not simply their ancestors.
The Jewish people identify with this, not as a tale of years long past, but as a personal story of liberation. Each year, at seders across the world, people recount the tale from slavery to freedom.
World Jewry, comprising less than 2 percent of the world’s population, is spread over nearly 20 countries on every continent, from the Americas and Africa to Europe, Asia and Australia. As is characteristic of other migratory communities, Jewish people have adopted many of the cultural practices and cuisines in the countries where they settled, adding to each their own dietary customs and laws.
Like other Jewish holidays, the emphasis on food is significant. Not just nuances of how the Passover is observed, but regional differences will determine what Jews put on their plate. Although sharing a common history and faith, Jews are broken up into diverse ethnic groups, primarily: Ashkenazi (European), Sephardic (Iberian spreading to the Middle East and North Africa), and Mizrahi (Asian and Arabic).
Growing up in my family home, there was plenty of opportunity to experience unique cuisines from around the globe. My mother was a Cuban born Jew with Polish parents who fled Poland in the late 1920s. My father was an Argentinian Jew with parents of Turkish descent. His mother was an Argentinian Turk and his father emigrated from Turkey in the 1920s after the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
Part of the Passover celebration includes the prohibition against consuming leavening of any kind. This correlates to the haste with which it is believed that the Israelites fled Egypt and as a result did not have enough time to let their bread rise. Jewish people eat and often will prepare foods with an unleavened “bread” called matza.
On its own, matza is kind of a flavorless food, that tastes not unlike cardboard. And yet, people tend to eat too much of it. Among Jews it is known as the bread of affliction—for a variety of reasons. Still, beyond the customary portion people are required to taste during the seder, some will slather it in butter, perhaps with a sprinkle of sugar. It can be purchased enrobed in chocolate, but nearly everything is improved with chocolate. Being the mainstay of Passover, people had to get creative in preparing matza. A common Jewish breakfast dish among the Ashkenazi is matza brie, which uses matza broken into a thin sweetened egg batter, and fried like french toast.
The Ashkenazic foods from my mom’s side of the family found an honorable place on our table, but the Sephardic fare from my dad’s Middle Eastern and South American background was always my favorite. I still enjoy the mouthwatering balance of savory and sweet dishes.
Originally influenced by Spanish and Portuguese cuisines and ultimately by the foods from the Muslim countries in which Sephardic Jews settled, the flavors of the Sephardic kitchen create a tantalizing symphony for the palate and the dishes created for Passover are no exception. Along with the heavy use of fruits, nuts, exotic spices and lamb in the cuisine, Sephardic culinary tradition has developed brilliant recipes to help Jews celebrate Passover, also known as Pesaj in Ladino, a Judeo-Spanish romance language spoken among Sephardic Jews.
Buñuelos, huevos haminados
Sephardic Jews make a matza fritter called a buñuelo or bimuelo. Buñuelos de matza are prepared by briefly soaking sheets of matza in water until the surface is just softened and the sheet of matza flexes a little. Removed from water, the matza is broken and combined with an egg and parmesan cheese mixture and fried. Buñuelos can be dipped into salt or sugar, and are commonly served for breakfast or dinner.
During the seder, buñuelos are served as an appetizer in a trio alongside a spinach dish and a hard-cooked egg. The spinach dish or tortilla espinaca is a mixture of slightly softened and broken matza, wilted spinach, egg, and parmesan cheese flattened into a pan and baked. The prepared eggs are called huevos haminados, named after the Ladino words hamin or oven and huevo, which as in Spanish, means egg.
Huevos haminados are long-cooked eggs. Cooked over low heat, these eggs develop a soft golden color and a creamy delicate center. They are often dyed in a soup of onion skins, coffee grounds, garlic, olive oil and peppercorns. During the process the flavors permeate the eggs and they may develop cracks, which only add to their beautiful marbled color.
This year Congregation Emeth of Morgan Hill will host a community seder on the second night of Passover, complete with a catered Moroccan meal in the Sephardic style. Passover begins the evening of Friday, April 22 and ends the evening of Saturday, April 30.