MINA (“MI-nä”) is an Ottoman Sephardic savory pie made from ground beef, onion and spring herbs, bound with eggs and sandwiched between layers of matza (moistened, of course). In my experience it is a specialty of Rhodes, where it is a star of the Passover repertoire. However, it is nearly identical to Algerian Sephardic méguena in all except its use of matza, which the Algerian recipe dispenses with altogether in the versions I am familiar with. (Algeria was part of the Ottoman Empire from 1536 to 1830 and had a substantial Jewish community).
There are vegetable minas as well; however, mina is not simply another kind of cuajado. A true mina contains no cheese, and eggs serve to bind the filling without dominating its appearance or texture.
As with mustachudos, mina offers another fine example of how symbolism is incorporated into Sephardic recipes, in this case repeating elements of the Seder plate: parsley and eggs to represent springtime and renewal and matza, of course, the unleavened bread of the Exodus that is eaten throughout the week-long holiday. Mina is served cut in large squares, which bring to my mind the bricks of the Egyptian pyramids – in shape only, as a well-made mina is delicate, moist and intoxicatingly delicious!
Great ethnic cookbooks are as much about culture as they are about good recipes. To my mind, the best of them include personal memoirs and family histories, placing authentic recipes and styles of cooking in specific cultural and historical context. Today I offer a prime example.
The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews by Edda Servi Machlin (Dodd Mead, New York 1981/republished by Harper Collins 2005).
A few years ago my then 91-year-old great aunt Esther gave me this book from her collection. “Is it any good?” I asked her. “Eh,” she said, with a dismissive shrug, “I won’t miss it.” Well, no wonder. Aunt Esther is a very competetive cook and this book is fantastic.
Pitigliano is a small, remote village in southern Tuscany, roughly halfway between Rome and Florence. The Jewish community there was as unique in Italy as that of Rhodes was in the Ottoman Empire, with a history dating back to ancient Roman times. Also like the Jewish community of Rhodes, Pitigliano’s, too, was decimated in World War II. To our great good fortune, Mrs. Machlin grew up there and saved what she was able, recording these classic Tuscan- and Roman-Jewish recipes and offering a detailed memoir of life in a close-knit, Italian-Jewish community of the early 20th century. Her recipes are delicious and she writes in loving and authoritative detail.
Remember, this is not a Sephardic cookbook. Judeo-Italian food is Italian food (I’m not complaining!). For those interested, however, here and there it does reflect Sephardic influences that reached Italy both directly from Spain and through contact with the Ottoman Empire. Mrs. Machlin recognizes this influence and acknowledges it.
It would be hard not to appreciate this book. It’s a gem.