Passover foods are rooted in Judaic history

March 24, 1999|By Gerri Kobren | Gerri Kobren,special to the sun

Not every Passover Seder table is set alike.

Gefilte fish, chicken soup and matzo balls are highlights in many homes. But other Jews, who trace their heritage to the Mediterranean, celebrate the holiday meal with bold, colorful dishes enlivened with zesty spices, herbs, garlic, olive oil, lots of vegetables and marinated salads.

Every year, Toto and Miki Mechali of Pikesville look forward to sharing such family recipes as pastel -- with layers of saffron-tinged mashed potato, ground meat and sliced eggs -- and tagine -- a bright melange of chicken and vegetables -- with guests. When the weeklong holiday of Passover -- Pesach in Hebrew -- begins this year at sundown March 31, they once again will serve the bounty of their past.

"It's really peasant food. There's nothing fancy about it," said Toto Mechali, 46, who grew up in Morocco in the 1950s and '60s. "The way we were raised, a lot of our cuisine was Spanish, Moroccan and French."

The multinational food also is growing in popularity in other American households.

"There's an increased interest in ethnic cooking of all kinds," said Baltimore cooking teacher Faith Wolf. "I think it has to do with the palates of our generation being amenable to different tastes. The world's become a lot smaller through business and the computer. We're being bombarded with different cultures all the time."

Toto Mechali's large Jewish family -- there were eight children -- traced its roots to Spain to a time before Ferdinand and Isabella's 1492 edict of expulsion that sent the country's Jews fleeing to North Africa, the Ottoman Empire and elsewhere in the Middle East and Europe.

The exiles took with them their Judaism, their memories of Spain -- Sepharad in Hebrew -- and a language known as Ladino, 15th-century Spanish that they wrote with Hebrew letters. Over the centuries, they added to that the languages, cultures and cuisines of the lands in which they settled.

"The regular bread we had was French baguettes," Mechali said. "My mother would prepare a lot of Moroccan tagines and stews, which always have gravy that you want to sop up with bread."

During Passover, when leavened and wheat-based products are banned, there was a big problem, he said: "You try to sop up gravy with matzo. We would tell my mother all the time, 'Don't frustrate us. Make [food] as dry as possible, so we're not tempted.' "

As Jews the world over sit down to Seder next week, they will revisit their ancestors' exodus from Egyptian bondage more than 3,000 years ago and rejoice in freedom. They'll read the Passover story and commentaries in the Haggada and eat the holiday's required foods: matzo, the flat, unleavened bread baked before it has time to rise, as was the case millenniums ago; bitter herbs -- horseradish, in some traditions -- as a reminder of the bitterness of slavery; celery dipped in salt water that suggests the tears shed by slaves; and haroset, a sweet fruit, nut and wine mixture that is, in appearance, a reminder of the mortar between the bricks of slave-built structures.

And then the multicourse dinner begins.

In the homes of most American Jews, "Ashkenazim," whose forebears brought with them from Eastern Europe the culinary habits that mostly define "Jewish food" in the Western world, the haroset is made with apple, nuts and wine, and the meal often includes gefilte fish, chicken soup with matzo balls, a main course in which meat or poultry is the star, with various vegetables, cooked separately, filling the plate.

Sephardim -- people whose ancestry goes back to Spain and Portugal -- are likely to have a variety of dishes.

"Depending on where the Sephardim lived, they would have different cuisines," said Rita Meshulam of Timonium, also Sephardic, although she grew up in Vienna, Austria, and Turkey. Her ancestry, she said, goes through Bulgaria and Romania and back to Spain.

In fact, Sephardic cuisine defies precise definition since it reflects the food and hospitality customs of areas that stretch from the western Mediterranean to the Balkans, and may embrace Jewish communities throughout the region, including those that did not come from Iberia. One foodstuff can have several variations.

Haroset, for example. While dates, rather than apples, are the common denominator in the Sephardic section of "The Book of Jewish Food" (Alfred A. Knopf, 1996), author Claudia Roden lists Egyptian, Turkish and Moroccan haroset, with a Libyan variation for the latter, plus a couple of versions from Italy.

At a Passover food demonstration that included both Ashkenazic and Sephardic treats at Williams-Sonoma in Cross Keys earlier this month, Wolf, whose early culinary inspiration was her Sephardic grandmother (from Moldavia, by way of Turkey), gave out samples of a date-and-apricot-based Italian haroset and handouts with a recipe for one from Greece.

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