Category Archives: Your Questions Answered

What do you call a Sephardic butter pastry (besides divine)?

My grandmother was born in Turkey and used to make bourekas and montees, which were essentially the same but shaped differently. The bourekas were turnovers filled with potato and cheese or rice or meat and onions, or spinaca. The montees used the same dough (oil, water, flour), but were made like spiral spanakopita. I’ve never found any info on montees anywhere on the web, and everyone I could ask is gone. Have you heard of them and can you tell me the origin of the name?
Thanks very much
Len

Sure, Len!

First, let’s get you back on track with the spelling. “Montee” should be mantí, a pastry better known as mantikos.

Though your grandmother made her mantí from an oil dough, the name refers to its original star ingredient: butter. The word comes from manteca. In modern Spanish usage, “manteca” on its own brings to mind lard – emulsified pig fat – but the formal meaning indicates any emulsified fat derived from animals or plants. In the past, the specific fat was understood from context; under kosher law the consumption of fat from cow, sheep, and goat meats is forbidden, hence in a Sephardic kitchen, manteca would only mean butter. Continue reading

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Q & A: The big deal over little Ladino food names.

masapan and mustachudos (2)

To be enjoyed one bite at a time!

I can’t ask anyone from the vast Salonican Jewish community that existed before WW2… why they gave such diminutive names to all their food.

Thus borekas were called borekitas, sfongato=sfongatico, enkiousa=enkiousica, pastel=pastelico, samsada=samsadika, nogada=nogadika, and so on.

The only unavoidable name in this series are the kalavassicas (zucchini, courgettes, κολοκυθάκια), to distinguish them from the kalavassa amariya (pumpkin, potiron, courge, κολοκύθα).      – Ino Alvo

That’s a great question, Ino. I’ve touched on it in other posts, but it’s worthy of a few paragraphs. The use of diminutives is common in Ottoman Sephardic culture, and it has some very specific applications to our food.

The first is the most obvious: anything that’s a physical miniature version of something else is called “little,” which is indicated by a diminutive suffix. This is the meaning of the –ico/-ica (or –iko/-ika) ending you refer to. (As an aside for those not familiar with Ladino, the “o” on these suffixes is pronounced “ū” as in who.)

The second is to distinguish different varieties of the same thing, as in the example you’ve given for kalavassa, which is the generic name for gourds and squashes. To be a little more precise about this example, note that kalavassica is diminutive of kalavassa (calabaza in modern Spanish) – the generic word for all soft squashes – but not of kalavassa amariya (yellow gourd, or pumpkin), which is a different kind of plant altogether. Continue reading

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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, Continue reading

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Q&A: Sodra, a Micro-regional Passover Dish Sub-par Excellence (but not without its dignity)

Sodra is broken-up matza soaked in chicken broth, with eggs and lemon added to the mix in typical Sephardic fashion, maybe dressed with some cheese or a little garlic. It’s an obscure dish, even among Sephardim, included in a couple of Sephardic cookbooks but ignored by most, and not without reason. Don’t be offended, sodra lovers; read on.

Because it’s a traditional dish I see a reason to honor it as a piece of Sephardic heritage, but to be blunt, sodra is just mush. Pablum. Pap. A holiday dish made by people who were either desperately poor, or desperately lacking in culinary skill and imagination, which is the far less likely of the two possibilities.

While there’s no shame in poverty, I see no reason to glorify it or its byproducts, either. Poverty stinks. Going hungry seriously stinks. And certain habits are better left behind when they’ve outlived their necessity. Like prison food. Or Ramen noodles. Continue reading

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