Specializing in Custom Private Tours of Israel and Israel's Lesser Known Tourist Attractions, the Gems.
Specializing in Custom Private Tours of Israel and Israel's Lesser Known Tourist Attractions, the Gems.

The Culinary Traditions of Passover 

by Oded Schwartz

 

Until it was replaced by Rosh Hashanah Pesach was the most important religious holiday in the ancient Jewish calendar. With its roots in our nomadic past Pesach was the celebration of spring and the beginning of the agricultural year. It was the time when nomadic people settled down 
for a few months to enable the ewes to give birth and suckle their young. In addition, it was the only period of the year when people had the opportunity to gather in fertile green enclaves, to tend their flocks, to meet friends and relatives, arrange marriages and conduct business. 

 

The focal point of the celebration was the sacrifice of the Pascal lamb. The sacrificed lamb was eaten in one sitting and the way it was eaten was described in detail in Exodus 12:6-12. It was to be slaughtered in the evening and roasted, not boiled, whole with its legs, head and entrails. The flesh was to be consumed in one sitting, (none to be left for the next day). Any remains were to be burnt as an offering.

 

The lamb should be served with bitter herbs and, as an afterthought the verse mentioned that it should be served with unleavened bread. When our Forefathers encountered the settled land workers of Judea & Samaria a new element was added to the holiday - the prohibition of 

eating of chametz - leaven during the holiday. Pesach is the beginning of the grain cycle; fields are sprouting with new shoots and the count down to the harvest starts - the harvest begins seven weeks later on Shavouth. At this time, agricultural people celebrate, much like herding
nomads, to markthe survival through another year and to ensure the fertility of the year to follow. One of the rituals preformed on this occasion the ceremonial disposal of all old leaven and the start of a new one, which would last for the rest of the year.

 

As a rule nomadic people do not ferment their bread. It is very difficult to maintain a stable "sour dough" on the move. Leaven, being a living organism needs a stable, warm and moist environment; it does not survive well in the hot, dry climate of the desert. The leaven becomes
unstable, overactive and eventually dies. Taking care of leaven is the domain of settled land workers. To our Forefathers it symbolized permanency, which threatened the essence of the nomadic lifestyle. 


When they finally settled, they adopted the skills of the locals, making fermented breads. In the Pesach ceremony the Hebrews symbolically revert to their ancient way of life. Settling down, also brought another element into the holiday, one that became the most important element of the holiday - liberation from the oppressor. The Biblical narration reasons the Pascal holiday

as a commemoration of the Exodus from Egypt and the liberation from slavery to freedom. In the Diaspora, as the result of harassments and, in Medieval time the appearance of the 'blood libels' this element took over and is still at the heart of Pesach.

 

After the establishment of the Temple in Jerusalem Pesach became the most important pilgrimage of the year, when people (not only Jews), from all over the known world used to come to Jerusalem for the Pascal sacrifice. Contemporary accounts from the second Temple vividly recall the scene at the Temple where the priests stood (up to their knees) covered in the blood of the sacrificed animals.

 

After the destruction of the Second Temple and the Diaspora which followed the holiday took yet another turn, it lost its agricultural importance and was replaced by Rosh Hashanah as the beginning of the year. Yet domestically it maintained its importance as the main holiday of the year - time when Jewish families from all over the world get together to celebrate
their history.

 

Pesach, probably more than any other holiday is associated with food - both symbolic and practical food is at the center of the holiday table. The opening meal of the holiday is called Seder (order in Hebrew) by the Ashkenazi community or Hagada (story telling) by the Sephardi community. 
The Haggadah is also the name of the book which contains the procedure of the celebration, a collectionof fragments of very ancient texts mixed with later additions including homilies, folk witticisms and collections of folk songs and parables. The book also specifies the order of the 
meal and contains a list of compulsory foodstuffs, each of which signifies an event inthe Exodus from Egypt, though the roots of most of these symbolic foods go back to ancestral mythology.

Some of the ingredients and especially the order of the meal were acquired at a later date, probably during the Greco/Roman period. 


There are seven essential ingredients on the Pesach table. They consist of Matzah, two sometimes three different kinds of herbs, two dips and two roasted dishes - a roasted egg, which symbolizes
the mourning for the destruction of the Temple and Zroah - either a roasted chicken wing or lamb shank, which symbolizes the Temple's Pascal sacrifice. These symbolic foods are not eaten.

 

Although the Pascal lamb has disappeared from the Ashkenazi table it is still eaten by the Samaritans and appears on the Sephardi table both as the symbolic Zroah and as a main dish.

It is true to say that as the Sabbath used to dictate the culinary rhythm of the Jewish week - Pesach dictated the culinary rhythm of the year. In our domestic folklore the Seder is the most special meal of the year and because of limitations imposed by the Chametz laws it is a meal that had to be planned well in advance. For the Ashkenazi community it meant that the schmaltz (fat) which, together with numerous eggs was used to combat the inherent stodginess of matzo meal had to bemade around Chanukah - the traditional time for poultry slaughter. The kitchen had to be 
koshered for Pesach and the fat was kept, securely sealed, to be opened for use during Pesach.

 

The original law, forbidding the use of leaven evolved to a general ban on the use of cereal flour (except in Matzo). In some communities certain legumes and rice are also prohibited. Some prohibit Chickpeas for example, because their Hebrew name is Chimzah, which sounds like Chametz - leaven. The Sephardi community eats rice and legumes during Passover yet the Ashkenazi communityshuns them.

 

The blanket banning of all flour products gave rise to a specific cuisine in which Matzo meal, ground nuts and later potato starch replace flour. Large amounts of eggs are used to replicate the thickening and binding qualities of flour. When only liquid is added to Matzo meal the resulting 
dough is hard and lumpy. It needs all the egg and fat it can absorb to make it 
lighter and edible.

 

When potatoes were introduced to the old world they quickly became a favorite ingredient in the Pesach larder. In both the Ahskenazi and Sephardic communities potatoes were used extensively either on their own or mixed with matzo meal as a base for kugles, dumplings and fritters. Potato
starch was used for baking and thickening.The making of potato starch at home was a time consuming process.The potatoes were grated and washed repeatedly with water. The rinsing water was then left standing for few hours to let the starch settle. The water was then poured off, leaving the starch at the bottom of the dish. This was collected and either used wet or left to dry and turned into fine powder.

 

Yet the real preparation of Pesach started just after Purim, a month before Pesach. The laborious preparation of the home sent the household into frenzied chaos; the house was to be painted and koshered, new clothes and shoes to be ordered and special dishes to be prepared. The kitchen,
which was koshered first, became a hive of activities and was sealed from the rest of the house. In Eastern Europe that meant that the rosel - fermented beetroot juicethat was the base of the Pesach borscht had to be started. Eingemacht (jams - traditionally made from root vegetables), 
ingberlach, (sweets made from carrots and ginger - ingber means ginger in Yiddish) and other pickles to be made. In the Sephardi kitchen it meant selecting and fattening the spring lamb that was traditionally slaughtered for the Hagada and making numerous sweets from marzipan, fruit and almonds.

 

Almonds were an important item in Pesach baking; they substitute flour in cakes, sweets and stuffing. Almonds are the bases of one of the most delicious Pesach sweets, marzipan. There is a charming, if unlikely, story about the origin of the word marzipan. It is alleged to have been invented especially for Pesach in Medieval Spain, hence the name Masapan that is a combination of two words: matzo and pane (bread). The story might be quaint, if there were a hint of truth to it. Marzipan - "almond bread" or rather powdered almonds mixed with pureed fruit and dried in the sun, was a staple supply of nomads all over the Middle East and North Africa, it was brought to Europe by traders some of whom were Jews. Whether thestory is true or not, Sephardi Jews serve a wonderful range of marzipans flavored with rose or orange flower water. Nuts in general are still an importantingredient and are used by both communities. Nuts are also given to children
as a part of Pesach gifts and are used for playing games.

 

Being an Ashkenazi my most favorite dish of the holiday is knaidlach - mazaballs - the dish that together with chicken soup represents the essence of the Ashkenazi Jewish kitchen (and to many non - Jews as well). I love it so much that I use the mixture to make matzo gnocchi and serve
them all year round. Now, what exactly should the texture of this signature dish be? It depends largely to which school of thought you belong. Beit Shamai believes that knaidlach should be large, dark, hard and heavy that they should sink to the pit of your stomach and stay there for a long while. Beit Hillel, to which I belong, believes that these delicate culinary miracles should be 'light as a feather', puffy almost float 

 

Oded who is the author of seven books is best known for his hugely popular cookery and food-related writing. Oded's first book 'In Search of Plenty - a history of Jewish food' (1992) was short-listed for the British Andre' Simon award and won a special mention in the international "Lenghe Ceretto Prize" for food and wine culture. He now lives in Cape Town and contributes occasionally to Al'Hashulchan (a leading Israeli food & dining magazine). He is still researching and writing about the history and culture of Israeli & Jewish food.

 

 

 

 

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