Breaking the fast: The sound logic of sweet melon seeds

The beverages Jews drink to break the fast of Yom Kippur vary among communities, but the majority of them come down to  sweetened teas or herbal infusions, sometimes with spice added.

Putting spice in your empty stomach first thing after a 25-hour fast might sound counterintuitive, but many spices have soothing digestive properties. Yom Kippur drinks may contain cinnamon, or cardamom, or herbs like mint and lemon verbena. Other spices valued for their digestive and calming properties include anise, fennel seed, and ginger, and it’s a safe bet someone will be ingesting them somewhere at the close of the holiday.

As a people whose diet is shy of strong spices, Ottoman Sephardim re-awaken the stomach with the mildest of beverages: pipitada, an infusion of crushed melon seeds, steeped several hours in cold water, strained, and sweetened with a little sugar. The drink is in keeping with our custom of beginning meals each day with a melon course, an ancient practice with a sound, healthful logic. Melon, which is naturally sweet and mostly water, is gentle on the stomach, and packed with electrolytes, the salts that keep the body properly hydrated – potassium, magnesium, phosphorous and the like. They’re the first thing you need when several hours have passed since your last meal, or when you’re dehydrated. It’s a brilliant tonic.

Caffeine does the opposite. A diuretic, it has no hydrating electrolytes and instead leeches water from the body. It’s that astringent action that makes it so hard for some people tolerate coffee or tea on an empty stomach. Knowing this, to discover that most people break the fast with tea drinks came as a surprise to me.

But the break fast drink I can’t even begin to imagine is the one that was taken by the crypto Jews of colonial Mexico, where spiced hot chocolate was the traditional daily beverage – especially if you were active in the cacao trade, as many crypto Jews were. Delicious under ordinary circumstances, to be sure, but with so much natural caffeine plus the customary chili powders, I don’t suppose their stomachs were too happy receiving this at the close of a day that surely provoked enough stomach-churning anxiety by itself. Crypto Jews lived in fear of being discovered by their household servants, so on Yom Kippur people invented excuses  – a fight with a spouse, an upset stomach – in order to avoid food and drink without arousing suspicion. Though they might escape eating all day, when they broke the fast it would have had to be business as usual, which in 17th century Mexico meant a cup of spiced hot chocolate. Ouch. But they tempered it with cinnamon. And, unlike tea or coffee, chocolate turns out to be a great source of electrolytes – Oh, clever chocolate! If you’ve ever reached for the Yoo Hoo to cure a hangover, now you know the body’s logic behind that craving.

Tea is a universal beverage, and chocolate, too, though certainly to a lesser degree. But pipitada is uniquely drunk by Ottoman Sephardim, and – though there’s no reason not to drink it any time – it’s pretty much reserved for breaking the fast. That’s quite specific, and that makes it special. (Some other Jewish communities have unique Yom Kippur drinks, but I’m not covering the globe.)

I remember saving melon seeds as a little girl with my sister, rinsing them and spreading them out to dry on paper towels before steeping them later, and the feeling we were doing something very special and “a la muestra” – the Sephardic way. In our elementary school, a common kids’ project was to string dried melon seeds with a needle and thread, but she and I knew the seeds would make a great drink, and at home toward summer’s end we undertook the task. (At some point we tried the seed-stringing bit, too, but declared it a colossal waste of time.)

Memory no longer serves as to who it was specifically that taught us to make pipitada, but the safe money goes on my grandpa. Throughout his life, Gramps (we called him Gramps, not Papú) was frequently to be found in the kitchen – his own, my mother’s, my aunt’s – intent on recreating his mother’s recipes from Turkey. He didn’t always succeed, but by example he taught us to love our traditions, and to appreciate even the simplest things. With his artist’s eye, my grandpa was a man who’d stop dead in his track to admire the colorful veins on a single, tiny flower petal. As a man of such heightened sensitivity, you can be certain he appreciated the delicate perfume of cool melon water as it passed over his lips to break the long fast.

So do I.



Filed under Customs, Holidays (fiestas judias)

2 responses to “Breaking the fast: The sound logic of sweet melon seeds

  1. Wow! I began to think that I was the only person on the planet
    That knew of this special drink. My Grandpa taught me too, he learned by watching his mother prepare the melon seeds.
    Grandpa came to the U.S. from Izmir, Turkey in the 1900’s.
    I am glad to see you sharing on this site, our “Sephardim” ways
    Are in danger of being lost.
    David Fiebert, Queens NY

    • Janet

      You’re so welcome, David. I’m delighted you’ve found the blog, and invite you to stick around. I’ve been on hiatus but will be returning with more of our lesser known traditional foods. Happy Hanukah!

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