Three names for but a single recipe…

What do your heirloom recipes tell you about your family history? Take a look at these two comments I received in response to my post about spinach cuajado:

“This is so very similar to Peeta de Espinaca, made by my Nauna and my mother (and now me) especially at Passover, but whenever the spirit moves.”  – Jackie

“My mother used to fry the mixture and then bake it. She called it sfungato de spinaca. That’s exactly what I’m making for dinner!” – Diane

These two women, like me, are Ottoman Sephardim, and one thing’s clear: we all equate what I call spinach cuajado with Passover and Shabbat (Diane left her comment on a Friday and in that context), but not exclusively; unlike recipes that are set aside strictly for specific holidays, cuajado is so fundamental, we make it “whenever the spirit moves.” So, that’s the Sephardic experience with cuajado. Or peeta (pita). Or was it sfungato?

Who’s right about that name? Depends who you ask.

Sfungato is a modern Greek word meaning ‘sponge-like’ (the Greek word for sponge is ‘sfoungari’), that in an earlier form was used to describe a kind of omelet a very long time ago. If you’ve ever cooked an omelet in a generous amount of olive oil – as opposed to a pat of butter – then you know it immediately puffs up like a mutant blowfish, sure enough acquiring a very spongy shape and texture. Egg dishes and bread dishes both have been given sponge names for millennia, apparently beginning with the ancient Greeks, then spreading around the Mediterranean basin and beyond. Medieval Arab cooks, including those of al-Andalus, applied the same word (isfunj or isfunjiyya) to all kinds of ‘bread’ dishes, many based on flour and egg (cake!) – as opposed to flour & water or flour & oil (bread) – and having everything to do with sponge cake. Remember, pandespanya – the Ladino name for sponge cake – literally translates as ‘bread of Spain’. (Oh, to eat bread like that every day!) So sfungato implies both a spongy dish and one made with eggs, and perhaps with bread, too, as they sometimes are, and the word has its roots right there in Greece.

Cuajado, I’ve explained before, is Spanish & Ladino for having curds; a word implying both  coagulation and rennet itself – cuajo – which is what make cheese curd, or coagulate, in the first place. (As an aside, a well made cuajado should be light and spongy, too.) This name also indicates a specific ingredient – you can’t make a proper cuajado without curd cheese – and texture, in this case coagulated, i.e. stuck together. Cuajado is not a casserole, which it is sometimes mistakenly called. In a casserole, you can pick the baked ingredients apart.  Several years ago I began describing cuajado as a savory pudding, which description seems to have stuck. Pardon the pun.

In each instance, the name indicates what goes into the recipe and how it’s supposed to turn out.

Now – about that pita de espinaca. Pita, in Greece, isn’t just the round, Middle Eastern flat bread you’re no doubt thinking of. It means pie, as in spanakopita – spinach pie. Also as in pizza – same word, different accent, and we all know the ancient Romans learned a thing or two from the ancient Greeks. But what makes a pie a pie? Dough. Greek spinach pie is baked in filo dough. Pizza is dough with stuff on top of it. Cuajado/sfungato has no outer dough. So to call the dish ‘pita’ is a little inaccurate in the Greek sense, although in Spanish, too, the dish would be considered a pastel, which can mean a cake or pie, though not necessarily one made with a crust so much as something that holds itself together. Lop that last letter off ‘pastel’ and you’ve got paste.

If I go in long-winded circles with these words, I’m just following their very non-linear lead.

So back to my original impressions about those comments. Jackie’s family incorporated the Greek word ‘pita’ into their Ladino. ‘Spanakopita’ in her family became ‘pita de espinaca’. Does she make her pita de spinaka Greek style, too, with a crust of some sort? She probably would have mentioned it (and perhaps she will). Diane would have, too, though she did explain that her mother first fried the ingredients before baking them, and that is in fact how classic Greek style spinach pie filling is prepared. Two women from I don’t know where, but clearly a Greek influence was at least slightly more pronounced in their family kitchens than in mine.

No doubt our three families lived in three different areas. Could there be some Romaniote (Greek Jewish) background in Diane’s or Jackie’s families, too? This happened more in the north than elsewhere. Or it could just be that wherever they lived, they were in closer contact with a more dominant Greek culture in general.

Some interesting ways to consider subtle differences in the foods we hold in common, and what those may reveal!

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15 Comments

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15 responses to “Three names for but a single recipe…

  1. Jackie Sauter

    Thanks for this. It’s truly amazing how what foods we eat and how we prepare them teach us so much about family, culture and history. Yes! My family’s peeta has a “dough” — a layer of matzoh on bottom and on top, although it’s sometimes made with just a top matzoh, that’s been briefly wetted, placed on the filling, and then brushed with egg yolk and ground walnuts. Also from my Nauna and mom, a peeta de leche… a very eggy custard, again with the matzoh top crust and ground walnuts. My family came from the Monastir region, along the northern Greek border, although of course when they lived there it was part of the Ottoman empire and they always thought of themselves as “Turks.” They spoke Ladino, but also Turkish and some Greek.

    I so enjoy your posts, Janet. Thank you.

    • Janet Amateau

      Aha! This is fascinating, Jackie. Thank you for your answer.

      As an aside, using walnuts in your two pies brings to mind the mina recipe in my Thanksgiving post. The woman who inspired that recipe was from Edirne, also in the north, and walnuts were in her recipe, too.

      As another aside, pita de leche sounds delicious 🙂

    • My husbands grandmother was from Monastir and she was a fabulous cook. I can’t wait to prepare this recipe. Thank you.

  2. INO ALVO

    As a representative of the Salonician Jewry, I can say I never heard the word
    Cuajado.
    We had Pita / Pastel de Spinaca between 2 layers of dough, or Sfongato
    (commonly Sfongatico) made with the bare Spinach mixture. Both are
    exquisite.
    My favorite is Sfongatico, especially when well baked with a crispy top!

  3. Howard franco

    My wife’s family is Kastoriali’s and they say most foods differently than my family of Rhodelis ..Rhodeslis use cuajado..Kastoriali’s use Peeta and a grandmother from Chanakali used the term Meena ..cooking style also has its differences from these different areas. But all very tasty.
    Howard Franco

    • Janet Amateau

      Cuajado = no crust; mina = matza crust; pita = filo crust. And sfongatico? According to Ino, with or without a crust (though adding one turns it into a pita).
      Howard – I love your use of the expression ‘very tasty’. It’s very a la muestra and reminds me of my grandparents and their siblings, who always described foods they enjoyed as ‘very tasty’ in very adorable Ladino accents 🙂

  4. Sabrina

    Hi there! Having just celebrated Passover with the family, we entered into a heated debate over whether one of the dishes is truly Sephardic. We always thought Grandma’s tuida (spelling made up by our family) was an old Sephardic dish, but now she tells us she invented it one day as an easy casserole! It sounds sort of like Cuajado de Spinaka, however. Can you tell me, she makes a sort of baked casserole dish with spinach, jarlsberg cheese, feta, and matzo, is Cuajado de Spinaka the tuida we’ve been talking about all these years?? We are Abravanels, definitely Sephardic from Turkey/Russia, but the tuida debate continues until I can find proof on Google…

    • janet

      Sabrina, right off the bat I can assure you that no traditional Sephardic recipe, Ottoman or otherwise, is made with Jarlsberg cheese. Jarlsberg comes from Norway!

      The name ‘tuida’ is a new one on me for a recipe, so you’d know better than I whether it’s the same thing. Here are a few clues to guide you: cuajado has matza meal mixed in, not used as a crust, lots of eggs, and three cheeses. Traditionally, one of those is often kashkaval, which is a Bulgarian cheese widely used in Turkish Sephardic cooking. When kashkaval isn’t available, people sometimes use gruyere as a substitute, which is somewhat similar. Jarlsberg has the same kind of texture, too – though a very different flavor – so maybe your grandma was thinking along those lines, consciously or not.

      Did she say she made up the name as well? Where in Turkey was she from? If she was from an area near Bulgaria, then we’re on to something, because Tuida was an ancient city of eastern Bulgaria. Today it’s called Sliven.

      If you can supply these details, we can work it out. Thanks for your question!

    • Sabrina

      Hi Janet, This is awesome thanks for all of the information. My Grandma may have definitely substituted the cheese because she could (our family is from New Rochelle, NY so she may have just used what was available at the time.) The matza meal was definitely mixed in with lots of egg and cheese (at least two-jarlsberg and feta, but maybe more?) According to my mother, our family (her parents’ side) is from Gallipoli. My Grandma goes back and forth on where the name came from and who invented it, originally it was thought that my Grandpa’s grandmother passed down the recipe, but my Grandma’s memory is a little gone now so it’s hard to say…I’d never heard of Tuida, the ancient city, but that’s interesting and maybe a link? Great site by the way, so interesting to learn more about my culture!

    • janet

      It’s my pleasure, Sabrina. What you describe is definitely a cuajado. The third cheese would be a soft, fresh-textured one on the order of farmer or cottage cheese. And sure enough, your grandma grew up only about 150 miles from ancient Tuida – close enough for there to be a possible connection with place. Maybe giving her that as a reference might jog her memory… Thanks for your great question!

  5. Rosa Hazan

    Rosa Hazan
    I live in Argentina, my father was from Izmir, my mother prepared a crust with spinach, a lot of egs and cheese, and topped with circlles of cheese and eggs. we said “fongos”, I suposse that is the same “Sfongaticos”. When I’ll prepare I’ll put a photo in this page.
    thank for all

  6. Walter Franco

    Fodja Endyamantada de si para si, Janet, mi famia, my family were Ottomans from Izmir, Tesaloniki, Rohdes and Milano. We used all the terms that appear in your page. Mina d’espinaka, Es”p”ondjado, pitah and one more “torredjas” Mi Yoyah always sonrreia when someone said ” Sfondjado” saying : “se lajarvoh l’Arabo” (Sort of he got the Arab accent). Mina as you correctly pointed previously has crust, in Pessah crust d’Matzah. “Sfonjado” is more like a frittata, and pitah uses dough, now the torredjas are made with spinaka, lots of eggs, cheese, and matzo meal or flour like bollitos or vegetarian burgers. The common denominator spinach, which by the way as eggplant can de prepared in more than thousand ways. One interesting fact is that food ingredients traveled around the world mostly thanks to Jewish merchants who were always exposed to new things. Also someone mentioned “arroz con maiz” (rice with corn) it is probably a variation of “arroz kon fidjones”
    Sabrozo! i endyamantado!

    • janet

      Yes, Walter, exactly. I became very aware over time that my great grandmother, and by extension the rest of us, adhered very closely to Spanish culinary and linguistic tradition. Even the bits that may seem Italian influenced were elements that the Sephardim introduced there. One other interesting thing to note is how words and recipes come full circle. For example the common assumption that all Arabic words are Arabic in origin, but many of them were borrowed from other languages (Greek, Latin, Persian, et al.). Identified in Roman (and I believe Greek) writings, sfonjado/sfongato is one of them!

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