Tag Archives: customs

Real live Seder, coming soon to a Spanish town near you!

La Voz de Galicia announced last week that on March 25 the Galician town of Ribadavia will celebrate its first Passover Seder in 500 years, in the Sephardic tradition, in a restaurant in the Jewish quarter.

Ribadavia is actually a place I’ve wanted to visit for some time, because my grandfather’s ancestors were from Galicia, though I don’t yet know which specific town or place. It wasn’t until after his funeral that I thought to ask whether that side of the family knew where in Spain they’d come from.  “Galicia,” said my great uncle Ben, just like that. They’d known all along. Uncle Ben was only 92 then, sharp as a tack, and lived to be 101. I should have asked more questions.

I was actually planning to visit Ribadavia in the summer of 2001, but I got invited to the wedding of friends in Ireland – so close! – and went there instead. (The marriage didn’t last, but it was hands down one of the best weddings I’ve ever attended.) Continue reading



Filed under Holidays (fiestas judias)

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


Filed under Your Questions Answered

How to love a melon every time (even a lousy one)

Growing up with my mother’s Rhodes-oriented cooking, meals always began with a fruit course and the salad was served last, just before dessert.  This order, by the way, has been in practice for centuries and is documented in medieval cookbooks.  The fruit starter is a simple affair, generally no more than a piece of chilled melon or half a grapefruit, but an absolute essential.  Melon especially gives a gentle wakeup call to the stomach, and the different fruits provide some much-needed seasonal nutrients – potassium in summer, vitamin C in winter.  The Italians top melon with sliced prosciutto – delicious, though clearly not something you’d be doing in a kosher home ( I have a friend from Buenos Aires, which is heavily Italian, whose mother compensates by serving melon with a slice of pastrami).  In Sephardic tradition, though, our fruit course is strictly vegetarian. If you want a touch of saltiness with your melon, add a few grains of salt.

When a melon is delicious it needs no embellishment, but that’s a rare treat. You never know what you’re going to get with melons, and more often than not they need a little kick to coax out some flavor. Fresh mint leaves or a squeeze of citrus are the traditional quick fixes, but they can’t do anything for texture and as much as I love a good melon, munching on big hunks of tough, underripe fruit is not a pleasure, it is a chore – especially in the heat of deep summer, when the tiniest bit of over-exertion is too much and I’d just as soon be absorbing my nutrients by floating in the sea. 

Enter the cold soup, something I assure you we never, ever ate in our house, where the Sephardic cooking was very, very traditional.  That said, lest we forget, Jewish cooking may have deeply rooted traditions but one of those is adaptability – to climate, geography and, in this case, the disappointing reality of industrialized agriculture. 

So, a few guilt-free riffs on the first course melon tradition.  Three chilled melon soups, very simple affairs in keeping with Ottoman-Sephardic culinary style:  a single, simple technique applied to a handful of ingredients, to yield a remarkable variety of flavors.  If Grandma had had an immersion blender (and less than exciting melons), no doubt she would have done the same.


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Filed under Recipes

Food really is love, and also a marker of shared experience

When interviewed by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum about his recollections of Sephardic life before World War II, Dr. Isaac Nehama described in detail the special characteristics of some of the special foods his mother used to make in their Athens home. Speaking for posterity, his choices were wise and wonderful, reflecting dishes unique to his parents’ native Monastir (Bitola), others universally Sephardic, some with their roots planted firmly in Spain and even earlier in Jewish history.

Even though he watched his mother prepare the same recipes countless times, he never ceased to marvel at the intriguing flavors, shapes and textures she produced each day for her family.  He reminds me of my grandfather, who adored his mother’s cooking and always spoke of it with the same sense of wonder as Dr. Nehama, as if the transformation from raw ingredients to final product was somehow miraculous rather than the work of a skilled and practiced cook.  Continue reading

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Filed under History