Q&A: Sodra, a Micro-regional Passover Dish Sub-par Excellence (but not without its dignity)

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.

 

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11 Comments

Filed under History, Holidays (fiestas judias), Your Questions Answered

11 responses to “Q&A: Sodra, a Micro-regional Passover Dish Sub-par Excellence (but not without its dignity)

  1. I can’t say I’m inspired to serve Sodra at this year’s seder, but now I am intrigued regarding the stories behind other Sephardic recipes! I grew up with the traditional Ashkenazi cooking, and only recently discovered the deliciousness known as Sephardic cooking.

    • Janet Amateau

      Redhead – I’m with you. This is the kind of recipe you’ll probably only like if you’ve got some personal association with it, which is fine – but the story is a good one and bears consideration!

  2. Now that is funny. “Let’s eat some Sodra, guys!”= crappy pap= our crappy city. It seems very plausible and very Jewish.

  3. Andy Hoffman

    “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.”

    Chicken broth and cheese? Was the community quite that unobservant about kashrut? Especially on Pesah?

    Leaving the texture and the dire need aside, the essential flavors of chicken broth, egg and lemon are really good.

    Perhaps, many elderly Jews in that place at that time were toothless? Or maybe it was a special dish designed to use up the last of the stale matzo at the end of the hag?

    • Janet Amateau

      Good call on the cheese, Andy. But there’s more to it:

      Modern Jews take it for granted that we can’t mix meat & dairy, assuming you keep kosher, and even if you don’t keep kosher, the separation of the two is culturally ingrained. What most of us don’t know is that birds, along with fish, were originally considered Parve (neutral, neither meat nor dairy) – because they don’t nurse their young – but at some point some rabbi(s) worried that people might not be smart enough to distinguish between chickens and oxen, so the prohibition was extended to include birds as well, ‘just in case.’ This, by the way, is the same kind of rabbinical thinking behind why Ashkenazim prohibit rice and legumes at Passover (somebody might mistake a green bean for a sack of flour) and Sephardim don’t. And they say Jewish mothers worry too much.

      As an aside, Maimonides wrote in the Mishna Torah that it was prohibited to cook milk with meat that was “bigger than an olive” – so even the proscription against milk with meat isn’t 100%. Who knew.

      Back to sodra itself:
      Chicken broth, egg and lemon are indeed delicious together, and are components of many Sephardic recipes – soups, stews, et al., including the classic soup the Greeks call avgolemono (which means egg-lemon). No complaints there whatsoever!

      No, it’s the texture and presentation that are so hard to accept. If you know your way around Sephardic food, or have seen enough photos of it, then you know that this one is really out of step with the greater body, which includes meticulous preparation and presentation even if you’re just using up the matza. The Milasi Jews had as elegant a culinary heritage as any other Sephardim. I have to believe that they would have come up with something that was texturally more appealing, had they had more resources.

  4. kayjayatfoodreviewsandrecipesforum

    Thank you for the fascinating historical details regarding Mt. Sodra, etc.

  5. I wanted to comment on your Sephadic Food Defined, but there is no way to comment. Sweeping the floors away from the door is a well known sign of being a Crypto Jew. They did it to try and keep the dust away from the mezuzah to avoid defiing it. http://dnaconsultants.com/_blog/DNA_Consultants_Blog/post/Signs_of_Crypto-Jewish_Heritage/

    • Janet Amateau

      Thank you, Nicole! It seems so obvious when you explain the reason, but I’m sure I never would have thought of it.

  6. etty azicri

    Etty Azicri
    march 27, 2013
    At home we ate Sodra after the Passover dinner. So I will keep the idea that the Sodra was to use the end of the “massa” box. Its a delicious plate and I am happy that my children love it also.

    • janet

      As an explanation for how Sodra came about, Etty, using up the Passover matza does make perfect sense. Personally I love the taste of matza (and I miss it!). My only real problem with calling Sodra a ‘recipe’ is that it amounts to crumbling crackers in soup. That’s universal, and not a recipe. The name, however, is unique – and highly entertaining!

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