Ancient rituals and Spain's little known Sephardic cuisine

The Sephardic table, that glorious cookery of Jewish Spain and Portugal has been, until recently, one of the world's least-known cuisine.

The Sephardim, as Jews of Spanish and Portuguese descent are called, were among the most learned citizens of 15th century Iberia. Along with Muslim scholars, scientists, doctors and artists, the Sephardim had a large hand in shaping the world of Ferdinand and Isabella, the Spanish king and queen for whom the Italian mariner Columbus sailed to the New World in 1492.

The tragic irony of this story is that 1492 was also the year the Spanish monarchs expelled both Jews and Muslims. Later both groups were expelled from Portugal as well. Jewish people spread across the Mediterranean, into Europe, the Middle East and as far a field as India and China. This Diaspora helped form today's Sephardic cuisine including the dishes of the Jewish Holy Days.

Each autumn when bright leaves flutter from the trees and lakes sparkle beneath a waning sun, the Jewish Holy Days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are celebrated. Falling in late September or early October Rosh Hashana is the Jewish New Year. Rosh Hashana is a time of prayer, thankfulness and forgiveness. People pray for a "sweet and good" New Year and special foods reflect this happy time.

Ten days later the observance of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement follows. Yom Kippur is the time that people ask forgiveness for any hurts they may have caused during the previous year. The solemnity of Yom Kippur includes a 24 hour fast beginning in mid-to-late afternoon of the tenth day, the last day before Yom Kippur.

Foods eaten before the fast are usually neither rich, salty nor spicy in order to help keep thirst at bay. Dishes served afterward, however, are altogether different, often reflecting the society at large.

Ingredients take on special meaning during these two distinct yet connected holy days. Wanting a sweet New Year, people eat apple slices dipped in honey or sugar. Fresh figs, dates, cooked red beets and jujubes, also called 'Chinese dates' are favorites representing sweetness.

The pomegranate is a must-have fruit served at Rosh Hashana. Its hundreds of seeds are said to represent the many good deeds a devout Jew must accomplish in the year to come. Cooked heads of lamb or fish are included on some family tables, meaning that for the new year people hope to come out "at the head" instead of "at the tail end" in their everyday lives.

Gourd and pumpkin recipes are popular because as a thick skin protects the flesh of these fruits so too do people hope to be enveloped by God's care. Turkish Sephardim consider the round, full form of the pumpkin as a parallel for a well-rounded, full life hoped for in the coming year.

Color plays a roll as well. Dark or bitter foods are not consumed for the New Year's meal, so while raisins offer sweetness they are replaced with sultanas, also called golden raisins, for their bright color.

Even though eggplant (berengena in Spanish) is a Mediterranean and middle eastern staple, it fails to appear on the Rosh Hashana table due to its dark color which is associated with mourning. Green grapes and green olives are served rather than dark, red grapes and black olives during the New Year's celebratory feasting for the same reason.

The 10 days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement are called the Ten Days of Penitence and conclude with the fast beginning on the eve of Yom Kippur.

This fast poses special challenges: food must be sufficiently nourishing to enable one to complete the 24 hour period but not so rich, salty nor spicy that one begins to suffer from thirst. Resulting meals are often of chicken soup or boiled chicken with rice.

Chicken has always been an important dish in Sephardic cookery, particularly at Yom Kippur. This is because a ritual slaughterer would make the rounds to each home, sacrificing a rooster for each male and a hen for each female in the family.

Reciting a special prayer, the slaughterer invoked the name of the person for whom each bird was killed. Usually more chickens than could be consumed by the family were killed, and extra chickens were given to the poor.

Breaking the Yom Kippur fast is still done with chicken. Other dishes, however, reflecting the Mediterranean roots of the Sephardim are still popular. Among these are preparations of fried fish, eggplant dips and pastries, cheese-filled pastries and sweet breads baked to break the fast.

The following eggplant dish, Almodrote de Berengena employs two cheeses, a little bit of bread and beaten eggs to bind the ingredients. Akin to an eggplant flan or custard, almodrote is a Spanish word denoting a sauce or mixture.

Almodrote de Berengena: eggplant flan

4 1/2 to 5 pounds eggplant (globe, Japanese or Chinese), roasted or grilled

4 sandwich-sized slices of white bread, crusts trimmed

1/2 cup vegetable oil

5 ounces feta or Mexican cotija cheese, grated or crumbled into small bits

6 large eggs, beaten well

3 slices of crust-free white bread moistened lightly with water until damp

1 1/2 cups (5 or 6 ounces) Swiss or Gruyere cheese, grated

5 tablespoons vegetable oil

The technique:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F if roasting. Rinse eggplants under cold water; slice each in half lengthwise. Using a pastry brush lightly coat each half on cut side with oil.

Note: oil will be absorbed quickly so brush sparingly.

Place slices cut side down onto a large baking pan or sheet or onto grill. Poke a few times with a fork to allow steam to escape. Roast slices for about 1 hour (roast for less time if using Asian eggplants) or until skin shrivels, cut sides are browned but not blackened and the pulp is soft. While eggplant roasts, moisten bread lightly with water until bread is very soft but not dripping wet.

Remove slices from heat source and cool on a cooling rack until room temperature. Scrape the cooked pulp from skins into a large bowl; discard skins.

Using a table knife in each hand, cross knives through pulp until any long strands are cut; add moistened bread and using knives cut bread evenly into eggplant pulp. Set aside.

Lightly oil or butter a glass baking dish approximately 9 x 13 x 2 inches. Set aside.

Stir feta or cotija cheese into eggplant mixture; add beaten egg, mix well followed by 1 or 2 tablespoons vegetable oil. Stir well and add all but about 3 tablespoons grated Swiss or Gruyere cheese. Stir again to distribute cheese evenly throughout.

Turn eggplant mixture into prepared baking dish. Lightly sprinkle surface with 2-tablespoon vegetable oil, followed by remaining cheese. Bake dish uncovered for 50 to 60 minutes. Top will brown and cheeses will bubble.

Do not over bake. Remove from oven. This dish serves about 20 as an appetizer or six to eight as an entree. Serve hot or at room temperature. Refrigerate after not more than two hours at room temperature.

This recipe was adapted from The Book of Jewish Food, Claudia Roden, Alfred A Knopf, New York, NY, 1999.

Georgia Lord Wantanabe would love to hear from you. Send her an e-mail at[[In-content Ad]]