Sephardic Food Customs
By Sybil Kaplan
Food customs differ among Jews whose ancestors came from Spain and Portugal, the Mediterranean area and those who came from primarily Moslem Arab countries.
A round challah does not seem to be a practice among these Jews. However, among some Moroccan Jews, a bread called kbhoz is baked for Rosh Hashanah which uses honey to start the yeast and does not contain eggs and oil. Another round, sweet bread, similar to challah called pain petri, made with sesame seeds and anise seeds, is served for this holiday by Moroccan Jews.
Just as gefilte fish became a classic dish for the Ashkenazic Jews, baked sheep’s head became a symbol for many Sephardic Jews for Rosh Hashanah. Some groups serve sheep brains or tongue or a fish with head. Black-eyed peas, chick peas, rice, couscous, dishes with greens; round-shaped foods and sweet things complete the Rosh Hashanah menu.
In “The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews,” Edda Servi Machlin, who grew up in Pitigliano, Tuscany, explains that her father held a seder for Rosh Hashanah around the theme of growth, prosperity and sweetness.
On a seder plate were a round challah; a dish with boiled rooster’s head; fish such as anchovies; boiled, peeled, sliced beets; figs and pomegranates. In the center was a dried, round, sourdough cake with an impression of her father’s right hand palm and fingers, and fennel weed growing on each side. The foods were then blessed: “may we grow and multiply like fish in the ocean, like the seeds of a pomegranate, like the leavening, grain and fennel of the bread. May the year be sweet like beets and figs.”
A Greek cookbook writer from Ioannina [Yahnina] writes that the people of her area made koliva, a thick porridge of wheat berries flavored with cloves, cinnamon, walnuts and honey for eating on the eve of Rosh Hashanah. Jews of Ioannina [Yahnina] also ate kaltsoounakia, a half-moon-shaped cake stuffed with ground walnuts, honey, cinnamon and cloves
Fish is often the main course of the Greek Rosh Hashanah meal. In place of honey cake, Jews of Greece concentrate on the use of pumpkin or almonds made into turnovers as a symbol of abundance.
According to Gil Marks in “The World of Jewish Desserts,” a Turkish Rosh Hashanah dish ayva tatlisi combined quince and pomegranate juice. Among Jews of Syria, sugar or honey is substituted for salt at the table and many families do not serve any dishes that are sour.
According to Rabbi Robert Sternberg in “The Sephardic Kitchen,” Sephardic Jews have a special ceremony called the “Yechi Ratsones” (Hebrew for “May it be thy will”) in which each food receives a blessing beginning with the words “Yahi ratson,” which comes from a passage in the Talmud listing seven foods to eat as a sign to God that we recognize his sovereignty and hope he will hear our pleas for a good and prosperous year.
Apples are eaten baked and dipped in honey or in a compote with a special syrup; dates were among the seven species found in Israel; pomegranates have many seeds; rodanchas are a pastry filled with pumpkin whose spiral shape symbolizes the unending cycle of life; leeks are made into keftedes de prasa, leek fritters; beets are baked and peeled; the fish head symbolizes being at the head not the tail. The main course is then stuffed vegetables, symbolizing a year “stuffed” with blessings and prosperity.
Moroccan Jews take sesame seeds, warm them in the oven and eat them with apples dipped in honey. They identify the seven autumnal foods as pumpkin, zucchini, turnip, leek, onion, quince and Chinese celery, and sprinkle these with sugar and cinnamon to eat at the beginning of the meal.
Couscous steamed above a stew made with meat or chicken, chick peas, pumpkin, carrots, cinnamon and raisins is another popular dish. Baked fish with the head, made with tomatoes and garlic, tongue with olives, or meat and rice rolled in Swiss chard are other Moroccan Rosh Hashanah dishes. Two soups which may be served are vegetable soup with pastels, a meat-filled turnover similar to kreplach, and potakhe de potiron, a yellow, split-pea and pumpkin soup.
Jews of Egypt make loubia, a black-eyed pea stew with lamb or veal, to symbolize fertility.
Jews of Iraq prepare a special, pale green bottle-shaped squash which they eat with whole apple jam and sugar. They also make the blessings over leek, squash, dates, pomegranate and peas and place the head of a lamb on their Rosh Hashanah table.
Traditional Sephardic Rosh Hashanah recipes
Beets in Orange Sauce
4 cups cooked, sliced beets
2 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 tablespoon brown sugar
1 cup orange juice
1 teaspoon grated orange peel
1 tablespoon cornstarch
In a sauce pan, combine oil, sugar, orange juice, orange peel and cornstarch. Cook until thick. Add beets and heat.
16 washed leeks, cut into 1/2-inch roounds
3 cups chicken soup
4 chopped tomatoes
4 teaspoon lemon juice
2 teaspoon olive oil
4 minced garlic cloves
salt and pepper to taste
1 cup pitted black olives
Heat chicken soup in a pot. Add leeks, cover and cook 10-15 minutes until leeks are tender. Drain off soup. Add tomatoes, lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, salt, pepper and olives. Continue cooking for 5 minutes. Garnish with parsley when serving.
Iraqi Stuffed Pumpkin
2 pounds peeled pumpkin in one piece
1 tablespoon oil
1 cup raw rice
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ginger
1 1/2 cup water
2 teaspoon oil
1/2 cup raisins
1/4 cup chopped nuts
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Place pumpkin in a greased baking dish. Dot with margarine. Sprinkle with cinnamon. Bake 30 minutes. Heat oil in a frying pan and fry rice with 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon and ginger until brown. Add water and simmer 15 minutes. Spoon rice into pumpkin. Bake one hour. Heat 2 teaspoons oil in frying pan and fry raisins and nuts a few minutes. Add to pumpkin. Sprinkle brown sugar on top. Bake until pumpkin is soft.