Q&A: Bread vs. Rice

Dear Janet:

In my father-in-law’s family they always served rice instead of Challah for Shabbat. Is that an Izmir tradition? Victor thinks it is Sephardic; however, I’ve been to other Sephardic homes that I believed had Challah. I’ve tried to look up the history but have hit an end. I’d love it if you could assist. Thank you in advance. – Lael Hazan

Victor is partially right, Lael. Challah per se – the braided loaf – is not a Sephardic tradition, and as one of the most elemental staples of the Sephardic diet, rice is served on Shabbat as on most other days. If a Sephardic cook were to choose one over the other to serve the family, the choice would be a rice pilaf of some sort; the bread is the extra. We don’t think of rice as a bread substitute, nor vice versa.

That said, festive breads have a distinct place on the Sephardic table, and challah is their northern cousin. For centuries, Sephardim have made traditional sweet breads from more or less the same dough that non-Sephardim associate with challah. The texture is a bit less stringy and more uniformly cake-like. We call these breads rosca(s), a Spanish word that means either ’round’ – as in circular, or ‘thread’ – as in the thread of a screw, not sewing thread. A spiral or coil shape. The ring of a pull-top can is also a rosca.

Traditional roscas include solid round loaves, large rings, rings with notches, small knotted twists, coils large and small (see my post about ensaimada for more on that), and so on. They are typically brushed with an egg wash, plus a sprinkling of sesame seeds and, on festive occasions, studded with an almond (yes, one almond). Roscas typically are eaten on their own like any sweet pastry, with coffee or tea, or as part of a savory snack or meze, for example with cheese and olives, jajik/tsatsiki, potato ajada, roasted eggplant salad, etc.

The braid-shaped challa is an Ashkenazic tradition that made its way into many American Sephardic homes for a simple reason: commercial availability. When a Sephardi who doesn’t bake wants festive holiday bread, challah is what they’re going to buy because it’s what is available at most bakeries. Mizrahi Jews, by the way, traditionally eat flat breads.

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2 Comments

Filed under History, Your Questions Answered

2 responses to “Q&A: Bread vs. Rice

  1. MS

    My grandmother made stuffed roscas with ground nuts and and cinnamon etc. ala a jellyroll.

    • Janet Amateau

      How delicious! These are the breads that did eventually lead to ‘coffee rings.’ A different shape, but essentially the same kind of sweet bread you describe.

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