Years ago my brother-in-law, who is a tall, blue-eyed, blond-haired WASP from Ohio, told my sister, who is a tall, brown-eyed, olive-skinned Jew from New York, that when he first laid eyes on her he was struck by her exotic looks. “Exotic!!?” she cried, “Where I come from, Meg Ryan is exotic.” Exoticism, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder and has everything to do with your frame of reference.
The same certainly holds true for food. I was the only one in my circle of friends who grew up eating kashkaval and kalamatas. So sure, it’s understandable that people perceive Sephardic food as exotic (I didn’t have any Greek or Turkish friends, either). But that in turn is sometimes taken to mean complicated. Fussy. Busy. Often enough I’ll read a ‘Sephardic’ recipe someone’s written that has more ingredients than I can count and more steps than an Aztec pyramid. Well, no. Sephardic food may be different, but generally it isn’t fussy. It is however, delicate, and that delicacy is achieved through technique.
In decades and centuries past, foreign ingredients were costly (they were exotic!). Typically, diets were limited mostly to what was grown locally, and all the more limited because people had large families but small bank accounts. Kitchen equipment was about as basic as it gets, too. People used wooden dowels where there were no wire whisks or rotary beaters, fingertips where there were no pastry brushes. To keep things interesting, they invented techniques to work a handful of staple ingredients into a varied repertoire of flavors, shapes and textures. If everyone was working with the same limited set of ingredients, it was a cook’s personal technique, then, that would set her recipe apart. But these were closely guarded secrets. Read old cookbooks, or grandma’s handwritten recipe, and the details on technique are sketchy at best. There’s the real challenge to interpreting Sephardic food in a modern kitchen.
A typical list of traditional Sephardic recipes from my grandmother’s birthplace, Rhodes, goes like this: avas (white beans with tomato); fasuliya (green beans with tomato); zucchini with tomato; bamiya (okra with tomato); spinaka con garvanzos (spinach & chickpeas with tomato); arroz con tomate (rice with tomato), fideos (toasted pasta with tomato)… A letdown on the first read-through, maybe. You’re thinking, “What’s so exotic about that? Everything going to taste like tomatoes.”
Here’s a simple exercise. Make a basic tomato sauce with no more than olive oil, fresh tomatoes, a pinch of salt and a squeeze of lemon (grandma’s recipe). Heat the oil in a saucepan, add diced fresh tomatoes (peeled & seeded) and the other ingredients, and let it simmer away. You’ll find that how you choose to peel the tomatoes – flame-roasting vs. parboiling – affects the flavor, as does pureeing the finished sauce vs. leaving it as is, chunks and all. Structural change affects flavor as much as it does texture.
After you’ve tasted these make another round, this time sautéing a very small onion and a diced carrot before adding the tomato. Puree half the cooked sauce in a blender, and taste the difference between these two. It’s a big one, derived from a seemingly small difference in handling. This, by the way, is the sauce I love with eggplant (berengena: eggplant with tomato!).