Sodra is broken-up matza soaked in chicken broth, with eggs and lemon added to the mix in typical Sephardic fashion, maybe dressed with some cheese or a little garlic. It’s an obscure dish, even among Sephardim, included in a couple of Sephardic cookbooks but ignored by most, and not without reason. Don’t be offended, sodra lovers; read on.
Because it’s a traditional dish I see a reason to honor it as a piece of Sephardic heritage, but to be blunt, sodra is just mush. Pablum. Pap. A holiday dish made by people who were either desperately poor, or desperately lacking in culinary skill and imagination, which is the far less likely of the two possibilities.
While there’s no shame in poverty, I see no reason to glorify it or its byproducts, either. Poverty stinks. Going hungry seriously stinks. And certain habits are better left behind when they’ve outlived their necessity. Like prison food. Or Ramen noodles.
If there is something about sodra worth preserving, it is the name alone, which turns out to refer to place, just like Buffalo wings or Berliners (jelly donuts to you).
One glossy Sephardic cookbook states that the word sodra means ‘deaf’ in Ladino, which is correct. But deafness has nothing whatsoever to do with Passover, and Sephardic recipe names are too specific in their meanings for that to satisfy me. There’s a deeper story, and it’s far more interesting.
Sodra is known primarily among Sephardim from a small region in southwestern Turkey, roughly the area between Izmir and Milas.
Milas is a nine thousand-year-old city, sprawled across a plain at the foot of a gently sloping mountain. Presumably the mountain was a bit taller in ancient times; for thousands of years it was mined for its wealth of beautiful white marble, from which the ancient Greeks and then Romans built more than a few large monuments. It’s a well-known landmark in this little corner of Turkey. Low-slung and dotted with a jumble of old buildings and tumbled marble ruins, the mountain looks like this:
Its name? Mount Sodra.
Okay, so the comparison to a plate of mush is obvious, but it still begs a back story.
Archeological evidence indicates that some Jews lived in the region, or at least died there, as early as 6 BCE, and then again in the 1300’s. These early populations were Romaniote Jews, not Spanish, very poor, and few and far between. It seems Sephardic history began quite late in Milas in comparison with other places in Turkey – not until the mid 19th century, with the arrival of a handful of families from Rhodes. The sojourn was brief, little more than a hundred years.
Whether or not there were any Romaniote Jews in Milas when the Sephardim arrived, one thing is certain: the Jews lived in the oldest part of town. Given that Milas is nine thousand years old, you can imagine the conditions in its lowest rent district in the mid-1800s. Yikes.
Rhodes, though not exactly bursting with prosperity itself, was nevertheless home to a long-established, well-educated Sephardic community with a rich culinary repertoire that I promise you was devoid of matza mush.
Thanks to their own efforts, conditions did improve for the Rhodesli-Milasi and more people arrived from Rhodes with the intention of staying put. The growing community built two synagogues where before there had been none, one in 1850 and the other in 1897. They built schools for their children, and held positions in local and foreign government. By 1904 the Jewish population had grown to around 550 and double that just ten years later, although by 1927 it had shrunk back to eighty families.
The Milasi Sephardim produced educators, scholars, diplomats, attorneys, physicians, artisans, growers, merchants, writers, editors, financiers, and social activists who extended their charitable work beyond Milas to Izmir, with which it was well connected.
If it’s reasonable to suspect life in Milas was no picnic at the beginning, the final years were miserable, which is why everyone left. So, the Rhodesli-Milasi either were introduced to sodra by the handful of Romaniotes who may or may not have lived there in the 1800’s, or driven to invent it by economic conditions turned so desperate that the promise of prosperity and a good life, like their Passover matza, was reduced to mush.
Imagine the Milasi Sephardim, digging into these very humble plates of mush at our most gastronomically extravagant holiday – our big annual feast -easily reminded of that other limp-looking pile out the window, mined across the millennia in service to the Greek gods by an ancient people who were known, among other things, for their love of temples and great food. With no small degree of irony, the recipe name must surely have been coined among the Sephardim, now of Milas, the inside joke of another ancient people, also known for their love of temples and great food, now reduced to misery but never short on wisecracks. Lucky for them at Passover we’re instructed to get drunk.
Generations later, far from Milas and without the visual reference, the joke was forgotten, the irony lost, and with it the understanding that not all the Jews in Milas were necessarily thrilled to eat this stuff at Passover. They just made the best of a bad situation. Or they never learned to cook.
Needless to say, sodra never caught on beyond Milas, and to some extent Izmir, where many Milasi re-settled.
My theory may fall on deaf ears, but I’m sticking to it.