To read so many recipe columns, you’d think Sephardic Jews eat nothing but lavish, exotic party food. Well, there is life between holidays and social visits, and it is no less enjoyable.
Everyday meals, as much as holiday food, define our cuisine and our philosophy about eating. In examining them what comes through is the value we place not only on food that tastes good but on healthful eating, and sharing a pleasant experience at the table. Though not every day is a festival, every meal should be special, no matter how uncomplicated the recipes.
Balanced composition, good fresh ingredients, and a few simple techniques are all you need to make a delicious Sephardic meal every day – that and a properly set table. Jewish dietary laws aside, we are rigorous about the content, composition and presentation of our meals. Eating is also a time to take pause and enjoy one another’s company. You’d think these concepts are universal, but I have eaten among people who slap slop on the table, let the forks and knives fall where they may, clutch them like shovels, have no use for napkins, and clear the table while people are still eating. (I have dined among savages).
We learned early in life to set a proper table, which appealed to the side of my little self that liked things just so. In the kitchen, I studied my mother’s every move. A great teacher, she valued my curiosity and explained why she did each step, not just how, which left me well prepared when I began cooking meals on my own.
One thing Mom made a point of was always to vary each meal color-wise, which of course is not only pretty but nutritionally sound. Her salads alone were a riot of color, shape and texture. I can assure you that neither she, my grandma nor great grandma had any idea that the color principles they adhered to were rooted in very old guidelines, followed in upper class homes of medieval al-Andalus, and in practice since antiquity. Neither did I, until I began reading the old texts.
Foods were grouped then according to color – white, green, yellow, brown – with an understanding that foods of certain colors share digestive, nutritional, and medicinal qualities. A variety of colors on the table was the key to the body’s good health and satisfaction. (Maybe that’s why they’re so pleasing to the eye). Meals were ordered so as to “open” the stomach with something mild and easily digestible – a watery fruit such as melon, fill it with increasingly more substantial nourishment, follow that with fiber, and that with something to “close” the stomach again. One thing that did change was the eventual migration of sweet dishes to the end of the meal. Centuries ago there was no such distinction.
In our home there was no slapping food on the table, ever. Not a day went by that we didn’t set a proper table, precede the main meal with melon, eat cooked vegetables, protein, and a starch, and then a big, fresh salad. Often we’d follow all that with a simple dessert – rennet custard when I was very small, stewed fruit, flan, jello (I grew up in the ’60’s). The whole nine yards. We didn’t eat, we dined. Every night. Even if we ordered in pizza we still set a formal table, and Mom still made sure we ate melon and salad. A concept so deeply ingrained, anything less would have been impossible.