A quick recipe this week for a delicious item I tried for the first time in a Palestinian restaurant many years ago – fried zucchini with the tart thyme-based, sesame-laced spice blend za’atar. The recipe is Palestinian in origin, but is similar to many zucchini-based dishes that come from Greek and Turkish Jewish communities. Like other Palestinian foods, fried vegetables with za’atar have been appropriated and reworked by Israeli culture in the past fifty years.
Two large zucchini, chopped into thin medallions of about ½cm/1/5” inch
Olive, coconut, or vegetable oil
1 tsp salt
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp za’atar
Heat a skillet and add about 3 tbsp of oil. Then, add the zucchini flat on top of the oil in the pan – you may need to fry multiple batches. Fry on each side for two minutes, or until browned, then remove from heat and lay out on a plate. Mix your spices together and sprinkle liberally over the zucchini pieces. Serve hot or at room temperature.
Thank you to Jay Stanton, Daniel Moscoe, and Alex Cooke for participating in User Acceptance Testing for this recipe.
My love for cilantro is legendary among my friends. I eat it raw when I cook with it; I garnish many dishes with it; my colleague once brought me cilantro from her father’s garden. So when I happened on a Georgian recipe for chicken stew with tamarind, tomatoes, and much cilantro in Claudia Roden’s book, I pounced: here indeed was a recipe I absolutely had to make. But, on a whim, I also decided to add a very different ingredient – ginger. The result tasted somewhat different from the nutty, rich food I had eaten in Georgian restaurants in New York and Israel – it was almost Thai. Delicious, though, with the fine dance of cilantro. In many ways, I had made an authentic-inauthentic recipe.
The ingredients, though, are all indeed common in Georgia’s delicious and incredibly rich cuisine. The Caucasus country – which has been home to Jews for 2,500 years – has been well known for its rich spice combinations, succulent cheese, incredible love for all forms of tree nuts, and hearty food since ancient times; in the Soviet era, Georgian food swept across the socialist empire and outpaced that of the Russian overlords. The food recalls both the tart and sweet tastes of Eastern Europe and the sour, earthy tastes of nearby Iran and Anatolia. The wine, too, is spectacular – and, after all, Georgia is likely the first place where wine was produced. The Jewish cuisine of Georgia is no less rich, and merits much attention.
This dish is based on a Georgian one called Aliyah, from the Hebrew word for migration to Israel – and “to rise up.” Indeed, the cilantro and sweet-sourness does make one feel that a culinary ascent is occurring. I served the recipe with gomi – a simple cornmeal porridge common in Georgia. Like in Italy, Romania, and Southern Africa, corn became a hit crop when it was introduced in the Caucasus from the New World in the 17th century via Spanish and Ottoman trading networks. Today, it is so common so as to be local – but belies the very global traditions of Georgian cuisine.
Georgian-Style Chicken with Cornmeal Porridge (Aliyah da Gomi)
2 lbs/1 kg chicken meat, chopped or cubed into 1-inch pieces
1 lb/500 grams tomatoes, diced
1.5 tbsp salt
1.5 tsp black pepper
1 tbsp tamarind paste (substitute: 1 tbsp lime juice mixed with 1 tbsp brown sugar)
1 tsp apple cider vinegar
¼ cup water
¾ cup fresh cilantro, chopped, plus more for garnish
1 tbsp dried basil
Gomi (Corn Porridge)
8 cups water
2 cups cornmeal
¼ tsp salt
1 tbsp olive oil
Heat the oil in a deep skillet or pan. Add the onions, garlic, and ginger and sauté for two minutes, or until the onions begin to wilt.
Add the chicken, tomatoes, salt, pepper, tamarind, vinegar, and water. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 30 to 40 minutes, or until the chicken is tender and the sauce has reduced. Stir occasionally.
In the meanwhile, bring the water for the gomi to a boil in a separate pot. When the water is boiling, add the cornmeal and salt and cook, stirring regularly, for ten minutes or until all the water is absorbed.
Turn off the heat for the gomi and add the olive oil. Let sit, covered, until ready to serve.
When the chicken is soft and tender, and the sauce has reduced to be somewhat thick but still soupy, turn off the heat. Add the cilantro and dried basil and mix in thoroughly with the stew.
Serve the stew hot with the gomi, which should have thickened. Add some fresh cilantro for garnish.
Thank you to Jay Stanton, Daniel Moscoe, and Alex Cooke for participating in User Acceptance Testing for this recipe.
And now, a few mini-posts based on reader contributions! Happy Hanukkah! Though your author does not follow the prevailing American custom of giving gifts on Hanukkah, he does appreciate them.
Next month, we’ll have a guest recipe from Dalya and Adele, friends of the blog in Oxford, for her grandmother’s traditional German-Jewish Potato Salad. As quotidian as it sounds, the salad is absolutely phenomenal: the balance of flavors between sour and earthy, hearty and delicate, and sweet and salty is phenomenal. Like their Gentile neighbors, Jews in Germany took quite a shine to the potato – Kartoffel – in the eighteenth century.
The salad merits a full-length post, but to quell your hunger in the meantime, I found through the Jewish food internet the incredible work of Gabrielle Rossmer Gropman and her daughter Sonya Gropman, whose website German Jewish Cuisine is an incredible treasure trove of German Jewish culinary history and Weltanschauung – worldview. Their German Jewish Cookbook is coming out next year and I absolutely cannot wait to buy it. Check the website out here: https://germanjewishcuisine.com/.
A reader from Pittsburgh, Steffi, sent me a fascinating paper about tea and Mormon feminism that she completed in her master’s studies at Chatham University’s Food Studies program. This paper made me realize that many of you have been doing incredible work at school or in your jobs writing about food, thinking about food, and doing the work of studying food. So, if you want some eyes on something you are justly proud of, feel free to send them my way!
Our reader – and my dear friend – Hadassah in the United Kingdom has requested more Yemenite Jewish recipes. Though I have written about Yemenite Jewish foodways in the past – first on samnehand then on hilbeh – I have not made many Yemenite recipes for the blog. Nor do I have much experience with Yemenite Jewish cooking – as rich and multifaceted as it is. In honor of Hanukkah, I turned to the one book I do have on the subject – the Hebrew-language “The Yemenite Kitchen: Hawaij, Love, and Folklore” (Ha-Mitbakh ha-Teimani: Khawaij, Ahavah veFolklor) by Avshalom Mizrahi. The book itself is a fascinating interspersion of discussions of Yemenite Jewish food practice and recipes themselves. In the book I found, for Shavuot and Hanukkah, the appealing zalabye, a sort of Yemenite sfenj:
Zalabye – Fritters – “The Yemenite Sufganiyot”
Originally printed in “The Yemenite Kitchen: Hawaij, Love and Folklore” by Avshalom Mizrahi, translated from the Hebrew by me
Makes ten zalabye
½ kilo/1 lb flour
20 grams yeast
2 cups water
Mix all of the ingredients together: flour, yeast, salt and water until the rough parts in the dough are gone. Heat oil well in a deep frying pan. Roll out the dough into big balls and add into the hot oil. Fry on both sides until brown. The zalabye will not be uniform in shape.
Serve and eat hot. Those with a sweet tooth can add or dip the fritters in sugar or honey.
These fresh, hot fritters are a treat to eat on winter mornings and on the holiday of the giving of the Torah – Shavu’ot.
And, as a bonus, later in the book Professor Mizrahi discusses zalabye again: (also my translation)
Zalabye – Fritters for Hanukkah and Shavuot
The fritters zalabye, though eaten throughout the year (mainly in the time of winter), were one of two components of Jewish festivals. Yemenite Jews treated themselves to eat these “sufganiyot”[-like fritters] on Hanukkah and to be eaten especially for the morning meal on the holiday of the gift of the Torah, Shavuot.
It was a cold and depressing day in New York – and the venom of Trump’s recent election polluted the entire city in the many hushed voices whispering between the trees’ falling leaves. Dark, threatening, and draining. I sat with my friend Karen – almost an aunt really – in her Bronx apartment, and we spoke of our fears as we ate pieces of raw fennel. The beautiful flavor of the raw fennel – earthy and vegetal, licorice and dilly, cooling and sweet in its anise strength – was cooling against our tongues. Healing, interesting, and fuel for our work. In the time when our Presidents eats food for its ease and not for what it is, who think the poor must work to even deserve food – the basic, simple tastes can give us the power to continue. Strength and power and comfort – from fennel.
This community dates to the earliest days of the exile after the destruction of the Second Temple – and perhaps before, since Jewish migrants, merchants, slaves, and soldiers were present in Rome from the 1st century BCE. Jews brought foods familiar to them to and encountered the same foods in Italy – and these foods often became both a comfort and an integral part of memory on festivals. Fennel, which is known as shumar in Modern Hebrew but as gufnan in Mishnaic Hebrew, was among these. Sicilian Jews ate fennel for centuries – and, after being expelled in the Inquisition by the Spanish then-rulers of the island, brought fennel to the rest of Italy. In times of anti-Semitism, poverty, welcome, and having the ear of the Doge of Venice, fennel was part and parcel of Jewish cuisine. Elsewhere, fennel was also consumed by Jews – in Morocco and in Germany – but became a marked part of Italian Jewish cuisine.
Holding fennel in my hand (Photo mine, December 2016)
The smell of licorice takes over as I chop the fennel. (Photo mine, December 2016)
Fennel is also a testament to the cosmopolitan worlds past of Jewish Livorno, Venice, and Rome. Historians of Italian cuisine have noted that these communities traded foodstuffs extensively with both the great communities of the north – such as Germany and Poland – and the neighboring Arab world. Foods such as coffee, goose, and fennel were introduced by Jewish traders to the wider population – and certain foods, including fried artichokes and fennel risotto, were known as “Jewish” in Rome and Venice respectively. This history was largely erased by the mid-twentieth century, when the twin pushes of nationalism and fascism sought to “make Italy great again” by creating a monolith of heritage and cuisine. But Italian cuisine – to the chagrin of nationalists – is deeply Jewish and Arab, and Jewish cuisine likewise can sometimes be deeply Italian. In this age of cuddly white nationalism, it is a helpful fact to remember. Once, fennel was the comfort introduced from the not-so-foreign “other.”
This recipe for fennel is simple and tasty. The licorice taste of the fennel, which is too strong for some, is balanced out by the garlic and cheese, which make this dish quite hearty. If you want a lighter dish or a more vegetal one, remove the cheese and cut the garlic in half. It is also traditional to make this dish with large chunks of fennel that retain the shape of the vegetable – which makes for a wonderful final presentation.
Life goes on. Despite the election there are still friends to feed, Shabbats to observe, and foods to comfort us. Trump can take away our dreams but he can never take away our ability to use our hands to rebuild love, even by means of the easiest recipes. Like this one.
In Pittsburgh there is a little restaurant – kiosk, really – called Conflict Kitchen. At this restaurant, the food of whatever country the US is “at conflict with” – armed, political, or social – is served on a rotating basis. When I visited Pittsburgh, Conflict Kitchen were serving delicious Venezuelan arepas; currently they are honoring the water protectors of Standing Rock (donate!) and other indigenous resistance by serving the food of the Haudenosaunee – whose lands historically reached their southern extent at Pittsburgh. Other versions have included Iran, Cuba, and Palestine. The effort allows those in Pittsburgh to see a more human side of the oft-demonized “enemy” – and call into question the way US power works. But one cuisine seemed obviously missing: the bright, fresh flavors of Iraqi cuisine – much of which is also Iraqi Jewish cuisine, found in the diaspora centers of Ramat Gan, London, and Los Angeles. As I watched another one of Trump’s speeches as I browsed the Conflict Kitchen website, looking for the Iraqi version that never was, I wondered: how could I use Jewish food and cooking to recreate their mission in my kitchen?
Channeling the spirit of Conflict Kitchen, I sought to start by making an Iraqi recipe myself – a beet salad that is simultaneously fresh and light, but hearty and deeply warming. I first had this salad in Israel, at the house of a friend of a friend; I had been surprised there to learn that beets and other root vegetables were part of everyday Iraqi fare. Then, with the first bite, I was stunned by the light, dancing flavor of the salad: the heaviness of the beets was offset by the sharpness of the garlic and the happy dance of the mint. When I got home, I did more research and found that Iraqis have been eating beets since well before my own Eastern European ancestors: recipes with beets are mentioned as early as 1500 BC. I have often thought of the salad since that day, but had never bothered to actually make it. But after the election of Trump, I decided that one way of resistance to his racism and demonization was to pay homage to those we have oppressed – and to our own heritage – in the kitchen. So I invited a few friends over for Shabbat, with the salad as the main centerpiece dish.
Beyond Iraq, beets have also been a food of Jewish comfort in the darkest times for millennia. The greens of the beet have been consumed since the time of the Second Temple, when beets were considered a prized delicacy. In fact, it is stated in the Talmud in Masekhet Shabbat that one can show delight in the Sabbath day with “beets, a large fish, and garlic.” (The rabbis and I have something in common.) In later centuries beets became a common food across Central and Eastern European Jewish cuisine – showing up in soup, pickles, and even confectionary. Even today, beets are key in the comfort food of many Jewish communities – from the Kurdish and Iraqi Jewish soup for kubbeh to the Ashkenazi borsht. This humble root is the bridge.
And perhaps from beets other bridges can be built too.
Iraqi Beet Salad
Based on a recipe by Nawal Nasrallah
2 pounds beets, peeled and diced
1 fistful fresh mint, chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tsp lemon juice
1 tsp sumac
½ cup Greek yogurt or other plain yogurt (optional)
Salt and black pepper to taste
Boil the beet pieces until soft. Drain and let cool.
Mix with the other ingredients except the salt and pepper until thoroughly combined.
Add the salt and pepper to your liking. Serve cold or at room temperature.
Thank you to Derek Kwait, Meggie Kwait, Berakha Guggenheim, and Sara Liss for participating in User Acceptance Testing for this recipe.
First, a note of housekeeping: there will be a brief hiatus of blog post for the next three weeks, due to the onslaught of Jewish holidays. I will continue to link holiday-appropriate recipes on the Facebook page for Flavors of Diaspora, the Instagram page, and my personal Twitter. I wish all readers a shana tova u-metukah – a Happy and Sweet New Year.
Here is a stew, filled with the flavors of autumn, that is Jewish in character but somewhat of my own creation – and it makes for both a delicious weeknight dinner and a Rosh HaShanah centerpiece! Moreover, it is that rare combination: vegan and gluten-free. Thus I present a Chickpea and Pumpkin Stew, interspersed with the lush color of collard greens.
This recipe comes from requests from several readers. Adele M. in Oxford has requested more vegan-friendly recipes for a vegan member of the family, and Amram A. in New York requested additional pumpkin recipes. Emmett T. in Toronto also requested more gluten-free recipes – a sometimes difficult task in the gluten-heavy world of Jewish cuisines. This recipe is for all of you. Though it is my own creation, it is based on several ingredients and recipes common to Jewish and non-Jewish traditions in Turkey: collard greens (karalahana) has been grown in the Black Sea region since ancient times, and chickpeas (nohut*) have been eaten throughout the country for millennia too. Pumpkin (kabak) became a hit across the Mediterranean after it was introduced from the New World in the 16th century. Italian Jews called it zucca barucca – a Hebrew-Italian mishmash meaning “holy squash” – and Turkish Jews made fritters from the squash. Even today, a delicious pumpkin halva is popular in Turkey. This is an inauthentic combination of familiar ingredients.
Chickpea and Pumpkin Stew with Collard Greens
1 medium onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 tablespoon table salt
2 teaspoons ground black pepper
2 teaspoons za’atar
1 teaspoon ground sumac
1 teaspoon oregano
1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar (any white vinegar should do)
3 cups chopped collard greens, both leaves and stems (about 300 grams/10 ounces – you can also use another green, leafy vegetable)
2 cups cooked pumpkin, chopped (you can also used canned pumpkin, which changes the final texture)
2 cups cooked chickpeas (this is one drained 400 gram/15-oz can)
2 cups diced tomatoes (also, one 400 gram/15-oz can)
1 tablespoon ground kuzu root, arrowroot starch, or cornstarch mixed in 3 tablespoons water
3 cups water, separated into one cup and two cups
Olive oil for sautéing
Salt and pepper for final garnish
1. Heat a deep saucepan, paella pan, or wok over a high flame. Add the oil, then the onions and garlic. Saute for one minute or until the onions begin to soften.
2. Add the salt, pepper, za’atar, and mix in thoroughly with the onions and garlic. Continue sauteeing for another minute or until the onions are becoming translucent under the spices.
3. Add the chopped collard greens and mix in thoroughly. Then, add the vinegar and one cup of water.
4. Cook, stirring frequently, for two minutes, or until the collard greens have begun to wilt.
5. Add the pumpkin, chickpeas, tomatoes, and remaining two cups of water. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 20 minutes. Stir every few minutes.
6. When the collard green stems are soft to the fork, the leaves are wilted, and the liquid has reduced, it is time to add the starch. Mix the starch with water, and then mix in thoroughly with the entire stew. Simmer for 2 more minutes.
7. The sauce should now be thicker and hang longer on a spoon held sideways. Season the stew with salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot with your preferred carbohydrate. For the non-vegans, the stew goes well with a dollop of fresh ricotta, fromage frais, queso fresco, or tsvorekh.
So, what to cook for your vegetarian friends and relatives – or yourself, if you are vegetarian? There are, of course, many options, but I am going to suggest this very simple adaptation of a Indian recipe: lentils with okra. Both lentils and okra are traditional in many Jewish cuisines, and both have that wonderful ability of being very easy to cook, yet tasting like something very complex indeed. I make a simpler version of this recipe quite regularly for guests, and the contrast of the green okra chunks against the brown lentils can, with a bit of arrangement, be beautiful. The original recipe I used many years ago had a completely different spice mixture; for this recipe I used a more Middle Eastern combination with sumac and paprika.
Lentils symbolize plenty to some, but unlikeother beans in some Sephardi and Mizrahi communities, they are not actually a traditional Rosh HaShanah food. Instead, many consider the lentil to be a food of mourning, and eat lentils both during theshivafor a deceased relative, and at the traditional meal preceding the fast of Tisha b’Av. However, lentils also can and do show up on the table at joyous occasions – and perhaps, with this recipe, at yours as well.
Lentils with Okra
1 medium white onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound okra, chopped into chunks*
2 tsp table salt
1 tsp black pepper
1 tsp smoked paprika
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp cumin
½ tsp ground sumac (optional)
½ tsp ground thyme
1 tbsp white wine or rice vinegar
1½ cups dried lentils
3 cups water or vegetable stock
Olive or vegetable oil
Fresh cilantro (for garnish)
Heat a deep saucepan, then coat the bottom with oil. Add the onions and garlic and begin to sauté.
When the onions begin to soften, add the okra and mix thoroughly while sautéing.
After the okra is mixed in thoroughly, add and mix in the salt, pepper, paprika, turmeric, cumin, sumac, and thyme. Sauté for two minutes.
When the onions are significantly softer (beginning to brown under the spices), and the spices are sticking to the okra and onions, add the vinegar. Sauté for another two minutes, or until the okra begins to “look” and feel slightly softer against your mixing implement.
Add the lentils and mix in, then add the water.
Bring the mixture to a boil. Then, simmer for 20-30 minutes, or until the lentils have absorbed most of the water and are soft, and the okra is soft. Stir every few minutes. (If the lentils and okra are very soft, and you still have some water left over, you can add 1 teaspoon of cornstarch or ground kuzu root to thicken the sauce.)
Rosh HaShanah is coming up, and with it, hours upon hours of cooking in Jewish households across the world. The Jewish New Year is a traditionally a time for much feasting and many dishes, and is more generally two days of deliciousness. Over the next few weeks, this blog will feature a few recipes common to Rosh HaShanah and the subsequent holiday of Sukkot.
Hundreds of variations of this dish exist. Even within my own family, three generations disagree on what best constitutes this dish. My grandmother’s recipe has a strong taste of caraway; my mother prefers the dish without any caraway. I myself the additions of both caraway and garlic for a more pungent final product. Others use pepper and vinegar for a sour taste, or raisins for a sweeter one. Across the variations, however, a sweet-and-sour taste is maintained.
On a recent trip to Atlanta, I found a most interesting cookbook in a secondhand bookstore: the 1973 cookbook of the employees of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The book itself is beautiful, and provides a really great insight into what the intellectual class of the 1970’s liked to eat. Some of the recipes are quite quaint to American readers nowadays – think “molded rice” and other wobbly “salads” – and many are quite familiar, such as the Korean Spinach Soup. Yet others are extremely complex, and generally of Continental European origin – even including the infamously difficult Sauerbraten. Among this cornucopia of recipes, I found a not unfamiliar – albeit not kosher – recipe for red cabbage! It is said to be a Hungarian recipe. This version is unusual, however, in that it uses pears, which makes the final product far sweeter. “Sweet and sour” indeed!
The 1973 “A Culinary Collection From the Metropolitan Museum of Art.”
The red cabbage recipe, by Janos Schulz and Linda Gillies. (Contact me if you would like a transcription.)
I provide my somewhat more garlicky recipe here. This recipe is based on my grandmother’s, which was very heavy on the caraway – a taste, though welcome, which can become quickly overpowering. The garlic and caraway balance each other out well.
Red Cabbage With Apples
Based on the recipe by Annushka Smit Freiman
1 medium-sized white onion, finely diced
7 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon table salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon dried caraway seeds
1 tbsp apple cider vinegar
1 medium-sized red cabbage, diced
2 medium-sized tart apples (Granny Smith or Antonovka*)
2 tablespoons butter or a vegetable seed oil, for frying
2 cups water
Heat a saucepan or other broad, slightly deep pan on a high heat. Then, add the butter and melt across the pan’s bottom, or add oil and spread evenly across the bottom of the pan.
Add the onions and garlic to the pan and sauté.
When the onions and garlic begin to soften, add the salt, pepper, and thyme. Mix thoroughly into the onions. Sauté for 30 seconds, then add the vinegar.
Once the pan stops sizzling, add the apples and cabbage to the pan and mix thoroughly with the onions, garlic and spices. Then, add the water.
When the water is boiling, reduce the heat to medium and braise for 20-30 minutes, or until the cabbage and apples are soft and the water has reduced. Serve hot.
*If you are so lucky as to have access to Bramley cooking apples – which are easy to find in the United Kingdom but not so much in the United States – you can use one of those large ones instead.
Thank you to Alex Cooke for participating in User Acceptance Testing.
I was browsing through Claudia Roden’s encyclopedic The Book of Jewish Food the other day and happened upon this delightfully simple and incredibly tasty Iraqi recipe. Shalgham helu – or, as it also seems to be known, maye al-shalgham or shalgham bi-dibs – is simply turnips cooked with silan, also known as dibis,rub, or date molasses. The latter is a syrup, made from dates, that acts as a sweetener in Iraqi cooking. Iraqi Jews frequently use silan in pastries, stews, and with bread – and also in their charoset for Passover. Turnips cooked with date molasses is a common Iraqi dish – and one recipe I found (Hebrew) says that some Iraqi Jews serve this as a dessert.
This dish is two things: incredibly delicious and ridiculously easy. I made this while making something far more complicated and talking to my future roommate on the telephone. The result is spectacular and I may have had some turnip pieces as my midnight snack that night. Even someone just getting started in the kitchen should not have too much trouble with this recipe.
You can buy date molasses at most Middle Eastern or Jewish shops. Many health food stores also carry date syrup.
So easy! Get some turnips.
Chop them and add date molasses and salt.
Boil them in water.
(Photos mine, June 2016)
Shalgham Helu (Turnips with Date Molasses)
Based on the recipe by Claudia Roden
1 ½ pounds small white turnips, peeled
3 tablespoons date molasses (silan)
½ tsp salt
Chop the turnips to the size you want – smaller pieces cook faster, larger pieces are prettier.
Place the turnips in the bottom of a medium-sized sauce pan, and drizzle the date molasses over them. Then add the salt.
Cover the turnips with water to 2 cm/2/3 inch, and set the pot on a high flame.
Bring to a boil, then cook uncovered for about 20 to 30 minutes, or until the turnips are tender and the liquid has reduced. Serve warm or cold with the “sauce.” (Note: The longer the turnip pieces sit in the sauce, even in a container in the refrigerator, the darker their color becomes.)
Thank you to Lexi Freiman, who participated in User Acceptance Testing of this recipe.
Khag kasher ve-sameakh – a happy and kosher Passover! I’m posting this from Israel, where I will be spending the holiday with my grandparents, who live in a seniors’ home for South Africans in the town of Herzliyya. Wherever you are, I wish you a happy holiday.
I want to end our Pesach series with a very simple and tasty Passover dish – the traditional Sephardic Balkan keftes de prasa, or leek fritters – whose black bits of crispy fried goodness are the final color. These treats are traditional Passover fare among the Sephardic communities of the Balkans – Serbia, Turkey, and Greece above all – but also have been served for other holidays as well. I first tried them at an event for Hanukkah – when, like latkes and doughnuts, a leek patty fried in oil would be most seasonal. Yet it is for Pesach that these crispy vegetable patties are now popular.
Leeks themselves have a lengthy Jewish history. The vegetable is mentioned in the Biblical Book of Numbers as one the Jews yearn for from their time of slavery in Egypt, for they “were wont to eat…the leeks, and the onions.” Regardless, the vegetable was probably prominent in ancient Israelite cooking, and was spread by the Romans throughout the Mediterranean region. German Ashkenazim indeed would later use the vegetable, and it saw limited use in Eastern Europe, but this infrequent use paled in comparison to the leek’s appearance on the tables of Sephardim. Gil Marks remarked that the leek was the “single most important vegetable” of Sephardic cooking in the Ottoman Empire, and ended up in everything – soups, stews, patties, and pastries. The keftes de prasa are attested from the Ottoman period – and indeed, their name reflect the Turkish köfte (patty) and Ladino and Greek prasa (leek). These treats, however, are enjoyed by all.