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The Secret Sephardic History of the Pumpkin

Jews have always embraced this most quintessential of Thanksgiving foods

By Emily Paster

The pumpkin plays a starring role in the most quintessential of American holidays – Thanksgiving. And that is certainly fitting: People have been cultivating pumpkin in North America for thousands of years.

Valued for its versatility and its heartiness, pumpkins were a mainstay in the diet of Native Americans by the time Europeans arrived. Some may even remember how those early Pilgrims narrowly avoided starvation during the winter of 1620 by eating pumpkin and other crops shared by their Wampanoag neighbors.

But Americans are not the only ones who have a long and colorful association with pumpkin. Since almost the first moment explorers from Europe returned from the New World, Sephardic Jews have embraced pumpkin, incorporating this once-unfamiliar gourd into numerous dishes — both savory and sweet — and even making it an essential part of fall festivals. But what was the reason behind this Sephardi love affair with pumpkin? As is typical with Jewish cuisine, the answer is complex.

Pumpkins were one of the first crops from the New World to be brought back to Europe in the 16th century. As Spain sponsored many of the early trips to the Americas, its inhabitants were among the first Europeans to learn about pumpkins. Of course, at that time, Spain was also home to a large population of Jews — until the Inquisition, that is, when they were expelled and dispersed around the Mediterranean or forced to convert to Christianity. Indeed, some of those converts, still facing persecution in Spain, were among the first Europeans to settle permanently in the New World — a fact that becomes significant later in our story.

Quite soon after Europeans discovered pumpkin from the Americas — as early as the mid-16th century — they began planting this hardy and easy-to-grow crop, which had the additional benefit of keeping for months in storage during the cold winter. But, despite these attributes, most European consumers remained wary of actually eating pumpkin. In France, for example, pumpkins were used mainly as animal fodder. In Italy, pumpkin was thought of contemptuously as food for the poor. In The Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, Gil Marks notes that, by contrast, Iberian Jews quickly embraced pumpkin as a culinary ingredient.

The Sephardim who fled to nearby Italy from Spain brought pumpkin with them and soon Italian Jews began trading in pumpkins as well as cooking with them. This trade was facilitated in part by diaspora Jews’ continued connection to Spain through the Marranos — Christian converts who remained in Spain and often still secretly practiced Judaism. In The Book of Jewish Food, Claudia Roden points out that since it first appeared in Italy, pumpkin has been associated with the Jews. Ravioli filled with pumpkin — a familiar dish to anyone who frequents Italian restaurants at this time of year — was originally a Sephardic creation. Italian Jews also developed recipes for pumpkin puree, pumpkin flan, and pumpkin fritters, a Chanukah delicacy.

Starting in the second half of the 16th century, dishes made with pumpkin spread throughout the Sephardic world. Pumpkin, which is in season in late summer and autumn, became associated with fall holidays such as Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot. Claudia Roden notes that the pumpkin’s rich golden color evokes happiness and nearly all New Year’s foods carry some symbolic wish for happiness and prosperity in the coming year.

Then there was the vegetable’s name. The word for squash or pumpkin in Arabic is qara, which sounds like the Hebrew verbs for “to rip or tear up” and “to read or call out.” Thus, a custom developed among Sephardic Jews to eat pumpkins or squash at Rosh Hashanah and recite a special prayer that any harsh decrees that may have been issued be “torn up” and that the speaker’s merits be “read out” before the Creator.

Pumpkin’s thick, protective outer rind led to another symbolic association with the New Year: by eating pumpkin on Rosh Hashanah, Sephardic Jews expressed their hope they would be protected in the year to come.

Each Sephardic community developed its own pumpkin specialties. A jam or sweet spread made with pumpkin was common throughout the Sephardic world. Pumpkin was also commonly used in soups and stews, just as it is today. In addition to these ubiquitous dishes, each Sephardic community adapted pumpkin — which is nothing if not versatile — to its own cuisine and paired it with the ingredients available to them.

Turkish and Greek Jews made sweet pumpkin pancakes while Syrian Jews preferred their pumpkin pancakes spicy. Tunisian and Moroccan Jews served pumpkin as an accompaniment to couscous. Lebanese Jews made a vegetarian kibbeh using pumpkin instead of meat. Pumpkins traveled as far as Central Asia and India, where Jewish communities again adopted it. Bukharian Jews from Uzbekistan filled their savory pastries, or bishak, with pumpkin, while the Bene Israel community of India made pumpkin curry and a dessert called halwa from pumpkin, nuts, spices, and cream.

It is widely accepted that Sephardic Jews embraced pumpkin — and indeed other New World crops such as tomatoes and eggplant — earlier than their gentile neighbors did. What remains somewhat a mystery is why. Why did the Sephardic Jews, when faced with these strange, thick-skinned gourds from the New World, decide to integrate them into their cuisine when so many other Europeans would not? One explanation may be that Jews are famous for adopting the foods of the country they found themselves in.

Poverty may be another explanation. Because pumpkins were disdained as food among most Europeans, they were inexpensive. Leah Koenig, author of Modern Jewish Cooking, points out that “as a community with limited means as well as dietary restrictions, [Jews] had a greater impetus for adopting new-to-them produce…than their non-Jewish neighbors” did. On a related note, Joyce Goldstein suggests in The New Mediterranean Jewish Table, that Jews living in Italian ghettos could afford to buy meat only rarely but that certain vegetables, like pumpkin, were meaty in texture and therefore viewed almost as a meat substitute — something that may have come in handy for dairy meals. (Interestingly another New World vegetable, eggplant, which was also beloved by Italian Jews, shares this characteristic.)

Moreover, Jews were often merchants in foodstuffs — inspired in part by their own needs for certain ceremonial foods, such as an etrog at Sukkot. Some of those converted Jews, or Conversos, that landed in the Americas with the early Spanish settlers became exporters of New World produce and used their connections with Sephardic communities in the diaspora to sell them. That too may have made Jewish communities in Europe and the Mediterranean more likely to accept those unfamiliar foods — the fact that fellow Jews were selling them.

Whatever reason, or combination of reasons, caused Sephardic Jews to embrace pumpkin as a culinary ingredient, Leah Koenig notes that this early acceptance by Jews had important ramifications for the future of New World foods: “Sometimes, Jewish communities inadvertently helped normalize… unfamiliar ingredients and helped usher them into wider acceptance over time.” Not only was this true for pumpkin, but for many other New World vegetables as well, from artichokes to tomatoes.

So this Thanksgiving, embrace pumpkin as part of our heritage both as Americans and as Jews. In honor of how our Sephardic ancestors used pumpkin in a wide variety of dishes, think beyond pumpkin pie and pumpkin bread and incorporate pumpkin into some savory dishes as well. Below are a few ideas to get you started.

 

PUMPKIN ON THE TABLE

Pumpkin Soup with Fideos

By Michael Solomanov, from Food & Wine America’s Greatest New Cooks

This soup is based on a Sephardic (Spanish-Jewish) recipe. Though the dish is vegetarian, cooking the pumpkin with cinnamon and cloves gives the broth an “implied meatiness,” says Michael Solomonov. Toasted fideos (noodles) help thicken the soup and make it even more substantial.

Ingredients:

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 Spanish onion, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced crosswise
1 celery rib, thinly sliced
4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
Kosher salt
1 1/4 pounds pumpkin or butternut squash—peeled, seeded and cut into 1/2-inch dice
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 tablespoon Urfa or Aleppo pepper (see Note)
One 1-inch cinnamon stick
Pinch of ground cloves
8 cups vegetable stock or low-sodium broth
4 ounces fideos or capellini, broken into 1-inch pieces
1/2 cup chopped cilantro

Directions:

In a large saucepan, heat the olive oil. Add the onion, celery, garlic, ginger and a generous pinch of salt and cook over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are softened and well browned, about 15 minutes. Add the pumpkin, tomato paste, Urfa pepper, cinnamon stick and cloves and cook, stirring, until the pumpkin just starts to soften, about 7 minutes. Add the vegetable stock and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer over moderately low heat for about 40 minutes, stirring occasionally. Discard the cinnamon stick. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Spread the fideos on a rimmed baking sheet and bake for about 10 minutes, until well browned and nutty-smelling.

Add the toasted fideos to the soup and cook over moderate heat until the noodles are al dente, 7 to 10 minutes. Stir in the cilantro and season with salt. Ladle the soup into bowls and serve.

The soup can be refrigerated overnight. Reheat gently before serving.

Notes:

Urfa and Aleppo peppers are crushed dried chiles from Turkey and Syria, respectively; Urfa is slightly hotter than Aleppo. Both are available at gourmet markets and amazon.com.

 

Halvah Pumpkin Pie

The halvah in this recipe works like a crumble and you can really add as much or as little as you’d like. Maybe even serve a square of leftover halvah on the side?

Ingredients:
Makes one 9-inch pie

1/2 recipe basic pie dough
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ginger
1/4 teaspoon cloves
1/2 teaspoon cardamom
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1 1/2 cups pumpkin
3 eggs
1 1/2 cup half and half
1/2 cup halva, crumbled
Egg wash (1 egg mixed with a bit of water)

Directions:

Set the oven to 350 degrees. Roll out dough and cut to the pie pan. Flute or crimp edges or braid extra pie dough into a thin braid and affix with a bit of the egg wash. Place the pie shell on a larger cookie sheet and bake until the crust is set and barely golden brown, about 15 minutes.

While the crust parbakes, mix together the sugar, salt, spices, pumpkin, eggs, and half and half. Pour the filling into the crust, brush the edges with the egg wash, and return to the oven. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until the filling is a little set (read: very wiggly, but not watery). Gingerly distribute the halvah crumbles on top of the filling. Return to oven and continue to bake until the filling is completely set. Cool completely before slicing and serving.

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