Special Feature

What is Sephardic cuisine?


Passover Cuisine—Not Just Small Potatoes

root vegetables
Unlike the Ashkenazics,
the Sephardics use
many exotic spices.

by Rabbi Jo David


The dishes I've mentioned are the Passover dishes most widely known, but Ashkenazic cuisine is not the sum total of Jewish cuisine. The other "third" of world Jewry is referred to as "Sephardic," although this is a misnomer. Strictly speaking, Sephardic Jews are those who trace their roots to "Sepharad," the Hebrew word for Spain. However, today it is also used to include Jews who lived in and around the Middle East, in the area of the Mediterranean and in Asia. This includes Indian Jews, Yemenite Jews and Jews living throughout the Arab world.

Jewish cooks in these regions worked with very different food stuffs from Ashkenazic Jews and were often influenced by the surrounding non-Jewish culture. Rice, legumes, dried fruits like figs and dates, salt water fish, flaky pastry—like filo dough and exotic spices like saffron and rose water were the Sephardic Jewish woman's basic culinary palate. Onions, potatoes and chicken fat are virtually unknown. Olive oil is a staple.

When it comes to Passover, Sephardic Jews have the custom of eating rice, legumes, corn and green beans, all foods that are outside the pale for Ashkenazic Jews. This diet developed partially because of the absence of potatoes and root vegetables as a substitute bread staple during the holiday, and also because of a less exclusionary philosophy on the part of Sephardic rabbis who were responsible for setting the culinary standards for this holiday.

As a rule, Ashkenazic rabbinic authorities tended to be somewhat more exacting when defining the parameters of Jewish law than Sephardic rabbinic authorities. This is magnificently illustrated in the 16th century law code, the Shulchan Aruch by Rabbi Joseph Karo. Karo, who lived in Sfat, in Israel was Sephardic.

The Shulchan Aruch is always printed with the interlinear commentary (within the text itself) of Rabbi Moses Isserles, a noted Ashkenazic rabbinic authority who was a contemporary of Karo. As one reads this remarkable work, which was the first to bring together the traditional observance of Judaism for the world community, one reads first Karo's discussion of a particular law. Often, Isserles will "butt in" and write, "But in Ashkenaz, we do it this way"—which will be different than the Sephardic custom or rite.

For years, I've been hearing about Sephardic families eating rice during Passover, but, after many interviews with Sephardic cooks, I've yet to come up with a Sephardic Passover rice recipe. I'm beginning to wonder if this is a myth perpetrated on the Ashkenazim by Sephardic Jews to make us wish that we were Sephardic! Certainly being able to eat rice during Passover would make a wonderful change from the seemingly endless potato dishes.*

Sephardic cooking for Passover differs from Ashkenazic cooking most clearly in the use of legumes. Occasionally rice makes an appearance as an ingredient in a dish—as in rice fritters, or as rice flour. Perhaps the most striking difference between Ashkenazic and Sephardic cooking, however, comes when one looks at the recipes for Charoset, the fruit, nut and wine mix which is used during the seder to portray the bricks and mortar the Israelites used to build the Pharaoh's storehouses. Charoset is also eaten as a kind of fruit relish during the holiday period.

Ashkenazic charoset is generally of one type. Macintosh apples are peeled, cored and chopped, together with walnuts, into a rather soft, mushy consistency. Red kosher wine or grape juice is then added to taste. It's served in a bowl and has the amazing quality that, no matter how little you think you've made, you always have enough to serve the army of a reasonably large country. This dish has many adherents, but I am not one of them.

Some years ago, in an effort to free myself of bondage to apples and walnuts, I began to explore other possibilities. I found, to my delight, that Sephardic Jews have a completely different take on charoset, using dried fruits, nuts, exotic fruits like quince and liquids other than kosher grape wine. The recipe supplied here is the one our family has used every year since my wonderful discovery and is from the kitchen of my friend Emita Levy, the daughter of an eminent Sephardic family.

What I like most about this, and other charoset recipes that use dried fruits (there are many) is that the mixture can be rolled into small balls. This makes serving much easier and makes a very nice plate arrangement if each person at the table has his or her own small plate with the necessary seder ingredients. If you have children at home who want to help, rolling the charoset into serving-size portions is a great, and fail-proof job for even young fingers.

Like all charoset, it's impossible to make a "little bit" of this; however, it makes a wonderful jam-like spread for matzoh for the whole holiday.

For other Sephardic recipes for Passover, I recommend "Sephardic Cooking" by Copeland Marks, Primus, Donald I. Fine, Inc., NY, 1994, and "The Book of Jewish Food," by Claudia Roden, Alfred A. Knopf, NY, 1996.

Rabbi Jo David

Sephardic Kitchen  

*Editor's Note on Sephardic rice:

We may have found it for you, Rabbi Jo David. Linked below are Sabbath Rice Pilav with Saffron and other recipes from the book The Sephardic Kitchen: The Healthful Food and Rich Culture of the Mediterranean Jews, by Rabbi Robert Sternberg.

He states:

"The Mediterranean Jews do not consider breads made of rice flour, corn flour, or legumes hametz (leavened) because the flat dough cannot rise even with leavening. There is even a tradition in some Mediterranean Jewish communities to eat rice during the Passover seder. Special Passover delicacies are made of rice and fava beans, which are just coming into season, for the Mediterranean Jewish Passover."
Passover Cuisine—Not Just Small Potatoes

Passover Cookbooks and Recipes

Jewish Recipes Guide

This page originally published as part of the electronic Gourmet Guide between 1994 and 1998.

Modified February 2007