My family members are, by heritage and custom, Ashkenazi, descended from Eastern European Jews. We serve potato latkes on Hanukkah and respond to every bit of good news with an excited “Mazel tov!”
I’d never really thought about the gastronomic differences between Ashkenazim and other Jews until just before Passover a few years ago, when I had a not-yet diagnosed appendicitis attack. I couldn’t stand for any length of time, let alone cook our usual seder fare. Not willing to call off the festivities or deal with the grilling about my stomach ache from the 20-odd relatives about to arrive at my door, all of whom are self-proclaimed medical experts, I called a friend who is a Kosher-certified caterer.
She and most of her clients are Sephardic. They are descended from the Jews expelled from Spain during the Inquisition. She serves jelly donuts on Chanukah, and says “mabrook” instead of “mazel tov.” Those are some of our cultural differences.
When we talked, it was three days before the first seder, and she was almost done cooking. But she said she had a bunch of stuff in her freezer, items she made just in case someone called at the last minute.
She warned, however, that much of what she had was made with legumes, or rice, or rice flour, food from a category called kitniyot. Did I mind, she asked?
I wasn’t in a position to stand on ceremony. I needed food, for the seders and for the rest of the week. So I took what she suggested.
Then I did some research. I knew that chametz, the food you can’t eat on Passover, meant anything made from grain. What I learned is that kitniyot, primarily legumes and rice, can be hard to distinguish from grain, especially if they are ground up into flour. That’s why the Ashkenazi rabbis barred kitniyot.
The Sephardi rabbis didn’t.
The day of that first seder, I was really nervous. My husband and sons had always dreaded getting to that page in the haggadah that says “The meal is served,” because they didn’t like the traditional heavy fare we usually served. But I had no idea whether they’d like the Sephardic dishes.
To add insult to injury, I had no idea what I was serving. I mean, I’d been told. But between my pain and my panic, I hadn’t remembered anything. Or thought to write anything down.
When the platters were placed on the table, no one moved. And they knew me too well to just accept my statement that it all was delicious. Our youngest son became the designated taster. I held my breath.
He declared the first item OK. Then he tried the second. That too passed muster. As did the third. Last was the platter of Spanish rice and vegetables. He asked for seconds. That’s when the platters began to be passed around the table. I heaved a huge sigh of relief. The meal was a success.
It would be great to say that since then I’ve become a really talented cook, eager to share my recipes. But it would not be true. I am, however, much better at explaining what I’ve ordered.
This year we’re having artichoke medias (artichoke bottoms filled with chopped meat dipped in egg and matzoh meal, cooked in lemon, garlic, and allspice); yebrat (grape leaves stuffed with meat and rice cooked with tamarind); eggplant and squash meschi (stuffed with mint-seasoned quinoa); Spanish rice and veggies cooked with lemon and mint. And I’m making some chicken breasts for the faint of heart.
We haven’t stopped making potato latkes for Hanukkah. Or hamantaschen for Purim. Or saying mazel tov, or any of our other traditions. But thanks to Sephardic food, the family looks forward to the seder meal.
Which, honestly, is how it should be.
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