Sephardic food is simply exotic

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!).



Filed under History

11 responses to “Sephardic food is simply exotic

  1. Fascinating blog post. I love your suggestion to try tasting the sauce made just a bit differently. It is amazing how handling effects a dish.

    • Janet Amateau

      Thanks, Lael. Handling is everything! To take that a step further, not only does technique effect a dish, but the personal hand of the cook as well plays a huge part. I think recipes are like sheet music in that regard. The same symphony sounds different depending on who’s conducting; so it goes with recipes, too, no? – JA

    • Janet Amateau

      Thank you 🙂

  2. Joanna

    Janet, love your writing. You’ve a fine talent. I want to share with you the “exotic” meal I greatly enjoyed once a week on Sat. nights: hamburgers with catsup tomatoes and lettuce, big fat home-made french fries and coca cola. Regular fare in our home sounds like it came right out of your home.
    Another thing we enjoyed was macaroni (Ziti)with burnt butter sauce and grated pecorino cheese. Have you ever heard of it? It’s a favorite on the island of Andros.
    How can I order your book?

    • Janet Amateau

      Well, Joanna – My dad has a favorite saying about the lesser delights of home cooking: “Nobody burns the roast like Momma!” (Mind you, his mother was a sensational cook). – JA

  3. Pingback: Culinary Cultural Intersection

  4. Janet, I loved reading about Sephardic Foods! I travelled through Spain & Turkey this past June and learned so much about Sephardic Jews and there migration to Turkey. I took a wonderful cooking class from a talented Sephardic Jewish lady in Istanbul. She offers regular classes of Turkish & Sephardic Jewish Cuisines!

    • Janet Amateau

      Sara – if you’re in the New York metro area, in January you’ll have the opportunity to take another wonderful cooking class from another talented Sephardic Jewish lady 😉 Write me for details — JA

  5. I wish you could have been able to come to Seattle! There is a large Sephardic community here.

    What is your Twitter name? I would love to follow you.


    • Janet Amateau

      Thanks, Naomi. I use twitter so infrequently I forgot my account name (pretty bad, huh). Thanks for the suggestion – both of them. I will visit the States again (maybe as soon as this coming fall). Will keep you posted. — JA

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