When interviewed by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum about his recollections of Sephardic life before World War II, Dr. Isaac Nehama described in detail the special characteristics of some of the special foods his mother used to make in their Athens home. Speaking for posterity, his choices were wise and wonderful, reflecting dishes unique to his parents’ native Monastir (Bitola), others universally Sephardic, some with their roots planted firmly in Spain and even earlier in Jewish history.
Even though he watched his mother prepare the same recipes countless times, he never ceased to marvel at the intriguing flavors, shapes and textures she produced each day for her family. He reminds me of my grandfather, who adored his mother’s cooking and always spoke of it with the same sense of wonder as Dr. Nehama, as if the transformation from raw ingredients to final product was somehow miraculous rather than the work of a skilled and practiced cook.
Dr. Nehama describes the making of phyllo dough for boyos de fila, meat cooked with sour prunes (plums), pan d’Espanya, and one of those Jewish food categories I’m grateful we seem to have moved away from with the passing of time: wierd organ meat – albeit stuffed in classic Ottoman style with meat and rice.
All of this he framed in a most accurate description of Sephardic food having elements of “southern Italian, Spanish, Turkish – Mediterranean cuisine altogether, with some specific Monastirli things.” This is more or less applicable to all Ottoman Sephardic food. It is first and foremost Jewish, Spanish and Turkish. Slight variations, either in style or in a body of recipes, come into play depending upon where a city is and where its Jewish inhabitants might have come from. So in place of “Monastir,” specialties peculiar to Iderne, Kastoria, Ioannina, Izmir, Athens, Adalya, Salonika, Rhodes, etc. Place “Greek” alongside Turkish and Spanish, replace ”southern Italian” with Ligurian or Livornese, and you’ve described Rhodesli cooking as we know it in my own family. These subtle differences – a shape, an ingredient, a technique, a recipe name – reflect the migratory patterns of generations of Sephardic families who made their way from Spain to cities large and small throughout the Ottoman Empire, often residing several generations in different regions of Italy en route. They are all variations on a single theme.
Watch Dr. Nehama’s interview at this link and then, if you haven’t already, try your hand at pan d’Espanya (my mother’s recipe, of course – cake flour for a superfine texture, all-purpose for a very moist sponge, and matza cake meal for Passover – you’ve still got a week to perfect it!).