When it’s cold, gray and pouring rain outdoors, it’s a treat to be indoors pouring over a cookbook full of warm inspiration from sunnier places. Lately I’ve been doing just that in a tiny rural town in Galicia, where I’ve been on an extended visit since last summer, wrestling my ancestors and reacclimating, after fifteen years in the Mediterranean, to an Atlantic climate. Sunny Portugal may be a stone’s throw from my doorstep, but winter here has felt more like the Orkneys (right now it feels like Siberia) – minus a crackling fire, or good scotch, to keep me warm.
For that, I’ve got Jennifer Abadi’s new cookbook, Too Good to Passover: Sephardic & Judeo-Arabic Seder Menus and Memories from Africa, Asia, and Europe, and so far, it’s doing a fine job.
A good idea is only as good as your ability to get it done, so I was pleased to see this book finished at last after nine years in the making. At more than 670 pages, it was a huge undertaking, and worth the long wait. Abadi, author of A Fistful of Lentils: Syrian-Jewish Recipes from Grandma Fritzie’s Kitchen, was relentless in her pursuit of Passover memoirs, family traditions, and recipes from communities of the non-Ashkenazic world – many of them not often heard from, or even about, or now only extant in exile. What began as a simple inquiry into different Passover traditions (Abadi’s original idea was to build a framework for recipes she teaches in her cooking classes), became a commitment to honor the communities and families that shaped them.
Well organized first by geographical region and then by country, the book is something of a world tour through communities of Asia, Europe, and Africa. Each chapter begins with three or four memoirs about Passover week; from these conversations Abadi, who teaches Sephardic, Mizrahic and Judeo-Arabic cooking in New York, developed recipes and crafted Seder plates and menus to reflect the unique tastes and traditions of these very different places and some very nice people. (Full disclosure: I was interviewed for this book). The book flows like an extended visit with friends.
Abadi takes delight in introducing each person she met, and her own sunny warmth and sincere desire to learn from them comes through. Memoirs run the gamut, from highly instructional, to tragic, to daring, sweet, and sometimes truly hilarious. It’s fun and fascinating, though more than once I chafe while reading about male domination and silent, second-class women – it’s a bit ironic at a celebration of freedom from oppression. But in other chapters I’m treated to intergenerational cooking parties, interfaith sharing, acts of bravery, wisecracks, a Prohibition Era tale of bathtub gin-making (raki, actually), and loving self-deprecation that provokes me to burst out laughing. Jews are funny.
One of the many things I like about this collection is the ability to see quite clearly that for all the variety in regional tastes and traditions, there is an underlying gastronomic continuity beyond the obvious (meaning kashrut or the Seder plate – we’re all working from the same play book here). Ancient trade routes, migration, and shared values have linked even the most far-flung Jewish communities for millennia, and in these recipes I enjoy seeing the similarities as much as the differences in how Jews eat around the Mediterranean Basin and Asia. I spot Bukharan nisholo and zabane from Morocco, and know they are spiced-up versions of sharope, the fluffy marshmallow spoon sweet my great grandmother flavored in her native Rhodes (and later in New York City) with almonds and lemon. Italian ciambelle, usually more of a doughnut, remind me here of an ancient, universal staple treat, the crumbly oil cookies called by turn biscochos, taralli, reshas, rosquillas, et al. If a savory meat pie is an absolute must at your family’s Seders, wherever it is you claim your modern ethnic identity (Abadi has included versions from six countries), it’s a safe bet your ancestors were persecuted in Spain. Lemon sauces are another universal signature. We are lovers of rice and the occasional potato, of foods stuffed into other foods, of all things made with nuts and nut flours, of far too many eggs, of every kind of vegetable, and colorful warm and cold beverages – made from sour cherries, melon seeds, golden raisins, fresh mint – that stand on their own as delicious treats. The list goes on.
As to differences, the most notable is in tastes for heat and spice. This is clearly a function of place. Bold peppery spices – among them ginger, cumin, caraway, and various hot chilis – distinguish the flavors of North Africa and southern India, whereas over in the northern Mediterranean, spices are milder, used with a lighter hand or altogether absent in exchange for fresh herbs and lemon. Interestingly, the haroset recipes (there are twenty!) do a very good summing up of who eats how in this respect.
Drawing from her interviewees’ memories for inspiration, Abadi has crafted menus that for the most part are harmonious and nicely balanced. I would happily eat my way through the Moroccan menu, a real holiday feast of warmly-spiced classic Moroccan Sephardic dishes including fava, beef and saffron soup; stuffed potato pasteles; orange salad with black olives, cumin and coriander; beef-stuffed artichokes with saffron-lemon sauce; a tagine of prunes with onion, almonds and cinnamon; another of lamb shanks with potato and turmeric; and (if you’ve still got room) orange sponge cake, and candied whole oranges.
The Syrian/Lebanese menu – harosi made from apricots, pistachios and orange blossom water; sour soup with lemon, celery, mint & stuffed meatballs; mini meat pizzas with cinnamon, allspice, tamarind and tomato; rice pilaf with toasted pine nuts and almonds; lamb shanks with string beans in garlic and allspice; green fava beans in olive oil, lemon and garlic; macaroons with salted pistachios and orange blossom water, and chocolate-dipped dried fruits – reads like springtime and sounds delicious.
The Bulgarian menu – chicken soup with lemon & matza, eggplant “caviar”; roast lamb in paprika and lemon marinade; slow-cooked green beans in tomato & garlic (fasuliya); and crisp roasted paprika potatoes followed by Turkish apricot compote and a meringue layer cake with fresh strawberries – is another standout. Authentic and elegant, it makes me long for my mother’s Ottoman cooking, and my grandmother’s. That’s a job well done.
Setting aside preferences as to lamb vs. chicken, not every menu is quite as pitch perfect. A Turkish Sephardic Seder without mina or megina is unimaginable; serve one or disappoint expectant guests. (For a history of Sephardic meat pie, read this post). Separate menus for Portugal, Spain and Gibraltar would have been more satisfyingly authentic than the egg-laden, one-size-fits-all Iberian menu, even if it meant overriding the interviews and delving further on her own – something Abadi does to nice effect in other chapters. But these don’t detract from the book overall, and they can easily be corrected from within its pages; swap out an egg dish for a soup, borrow a meat pie from the menu of a compatible cuisine, or save dishes for some other time. That would be fine, as not every recipe in the book is strictly for Passover, and that’s good news. Would I wait twelve months to try oshi masozgoshak, Bukharan egg drop soup with meat, cilantro, and golden plums? No way! Would I throw a party just so I can make Iraqi aarooq b’il ruz, basmati rice and beef meatballs stuffed with turmeric chicken? Believe it. Georgian grape pudding I will definitely try; I’m in wine country. I can only dream of ground pistachio cake with cardamom – no bulk pistachios here in the wilds of southern Galicia, no cardamom, and certainly no matza – but a book like this, filled with flavors and memories of distant places, is as much about dreaming as it is about cooking.
With its easygoing instructions and historical details, engrossing memoirs, eighteen Seder menus comprised of recipes from twenty-three countries, plus traditional Seder plates, delicious beverages, mid-holiday dishes and snacks, all kinds of matzas, and breads for breaking the hametz fast, the book is an appealing, solid resource for the weeklong holiday and can serve you well for many, many years without repetition.
For the most part these are not recipes for the lazy cook; you can count on there being many steps and an investment of time. However (take heart!) that’s not an absolute on every page. Some dishes may simply need to simmer for a good while. Others can be shared by many pairs of hands, which is part of the joy of holiday preparations. To alert the unsuspecting, Abadi has flagged any truly time-consuming recipes with a boldface heads-up. That’s useful when you’re planning to cook many dishes for a single meal. So is learning through practice, and Passover comes around every year.
Too Good to Passover: Sephardic & Judeo-Arabic Seder Menus and Memories from Africa, Asia, and Europe is available on amazon.com. Find it easily in the USA, Canada, and United Kingdom.