One People, Two Cuisines

Because my ancestors were from Eastern Europe, specifically Latvia, Lithuania and Vilna, I am Ashkenazi. Just as I thought all Jews spoke Yiddish, a language I delight in because it’s so colorful, I grew up thinking Jewish cooking was my mother’s brisket and carrot tzimmes, my Granny Fanny’s chopped liver and my Aunt Dorothy’s blintzes with sour cream. That’s not to mention the dishes my brothers and I used to giggle about because their names were so amusing — knaidlach, kreplach and knishes.

Now that we’ve all grown up, I’m not sure what was so funny. Maybe that’s the joy of childhood — you laugh at anything. Recently I’ve become fascinated by Sephardic cooking — maybe because I didn’t grow up with it, maybe because the combinations are so creative, maybe because its evolution is so interesting.

What is the difference between Ashkenazi and Sephardi cuisine?

Ashkenazi cuisine evolved in smaller, contained areas in Eastern Europe and therefore was insular and specific. It left little room for interpretation when it was presented to Jews in the United States, Canada, South America, South Africa, Palestine and the Western European countries of Belgium, England, France and Holland. According to Claudia Roden in “The Book of Jewish Food,” the Ashkenazic tradition of “poor food” — from people whose life had been filled with poverty and insecurity — greatly impacted the new communities, which embraced these life-sustaining recipes that had been passed down from generation to generation.

In contrast, the Sephardim have always encouraged those who moved from one area to another to establish a unique congregation in their new community.

When they migrated to areas as diverse as North and South Africa, the Middle East, India and later to the Mediterranean countries of Spain, Italy, Portugal, Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey, they embraced the customs and traditions of their new homes and incorporated not only the customs and cuisines of the areas they settled in, but the varied ingredients and cooking styles.

Sephardi cuisine is eclectic and regional, differing from country to country and city to city. It encompasses styles as diverse as Maghrebi Jewish — Moroccan, Tunisian, Algerian and Libyan; the Judeo-Arab cuisines of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Iran, and the Mediterranean. Therefore it combined sweet with sour, added nuts and fruits to meats and salads and encouraged experimentation with unusual fresh fruits and vegetables.

Because the Sephardi incorporated cooking traditions from both the economically and culturally deprived peoples in Islamic lands, as well as the aristocratic elite from Baghdad, Spain and the Ottoman world, some of the recipes are primitive and peasantlike, while others are refined and sophisticated. But even the “depressed” countries offered dishes requiring elaborate procedures, delicate flavorings and appealing presentations.

Fermenting agents such as yeast are banned, as are the five types of grain: wheat, barley, rye, oats and spelt. Bread, cakes, biscuits and all foods containing ingredients made from these grains are chametz. The Ashkenazim also forbid rice, dried corn, dried beans, peas and lentils, although the Sephardim allow them.

Because of the demands of cooking without grain or leaven, a whole range of ingredients are used in nontraditional ways. Instead of stuffing poultry and meat with breadcrumbs, we use matzah farfel, mashed potatoes, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds. While Ashkenazim don’t use grains, Sephardim use cracked wheat, ground rice and a variety of other cereal seeds.

Pastries are made from ground almonds, walnuts and hazelnuts; potato flour; potato starch; matzah meal, and matzah cake flour. The favorite cookie at Passover is macaroons, made of coconut, ground almonds, sugar and egg white. Fritters are made of matzah meal. And pancakes are replaced with matzah brie, using sheets of matzah soaked in beaten eggs.

Sephardim in Morocco barbecue during the holiday to remind us that our people left Egypt in such a hurry, they grilled foods over a wood fire. A popular Sephardi dish at Passover is fava bean soup because it was a favorite of the Egyptian slaves.

Many of the following recipes are by Toribio Prado, chef/owner at Cava Restaurant in Los Angeles who hosted a Sephardic Passover Dinner for many years.


Chicken soup knows no boundaries and is equally popular with both Sephardi
and Ashkenazi. When done well it is as highly prized as a vintage wine. The
variations are endless.

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 onions, sliced
2 leeks, sliced thin
3 carrots, sliced into rounds
1 2-pound chicken breast, boneless and skinless, sliced
2 quarts chicken stock (see recipe)
1 cup fava beans, dried and rehydrated with hot water
3 stalks celery, thinly sliced
2 cups water
1 cup white wine such as chardonnay
1 tablespoon ground coriander
Pepper to taste
1 cup cooked chickpeas
Kosher salt and white pepper to taste

Heat a large stockpot until very hot; pour oil into
pot. Add onions, leeks and carrots; heat until onions start to become
translucent. Add chicken breast to vegetable mix. When chicken is no longer
pink, add stock, fava beans, celery, water and wine. Add coriander and pepper.
Let soup come to boil; turn down to simmer. Skim soup for residue on top every
10 minutes or so, until it is clear. When vegetables are al dente add chickpeas,
salt and pepper. Serve hot. Serves six.


8 pounds chicken bones
6 quarts cold water
1 onion, halved
2 stalks celery, halved
2 carrots, quartered
1 packet bouquet garni or
1/2 teaspoon each dried thyme, whole peppercorns, garlic and parsley stems tied in a cheesecloth.
Kosher salt to taste

Combine bones and water. Bring slowly to boil. Skim surface for coagulated residue. Simmer stock for five hours. Add onions, celery, carrots and sachet. Simmer for one hour more. Strain, cool and store in refrigerator until used. From Toribio Prado.


The simple combination of mangoes and cucumbers is at once sweet and tart, aromatic and pleasing. Regular cucumbers may be substituted if English cucumbers aren’t available.

1/4 cup fresh mint, chiffonade
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
Zest of 2 limes
1 tablespoon ground coriander
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup walnut oil
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
Kosher salt to taste
10 English cucumbers, skinned, seeded and sliced thin
3 large mangoes, peeled, sliced into 1/2-inch pieces

In a large mixing bowl add first nine ingredients. Whisk together until smooth. Add salt. Toss cucumbers with dressing. Brush mangoes with a little oil; grill until a nice brown color is achieved. Dice and add to salad. Serves six. Adapted from Toribio Prado.


This dish has a strong delicious flavor thanks to the combination of garlic, mint and sugar. The amount of garlic depends on your taste but it’s best to use sweet, young garlic. Those who love garlic call the dish “thoumia” (thoum means garlic). It takes two days to prepare so allow enough time.

1 3-pound leg of lamb, bone in, with fat trimmed
2 tablespoons fresh mint, chopped
2 tablespoons fresh rosemary, crushed
2 tablespoons fresh oregano, chopped
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon fresh sage, chopped
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, chopped
1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
6 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1/4 cup port wine
1/4 cup olive oil

In medium bowl, mix together all ingredients. Let sit overnight. Rub spice mixture all over lamb. Place in baking dish. Cover and let stand in refrigerator overnight.

Preheat oven to 375 F. Put lamb into oven, uncovered, for 30 minutes or until meat temperature reads 100 F. Turn oven down to 325 F. Bake lamb about 1 1/2 hours more. Lamb will be medium rare when internal temperature is 135-145 F. Serves six. Adapted from Toribio Prado.


The most famous of North African foods, couscous is served at all celebrations — from elaborate weddings to Sabbath dinners to Passover. Unfortunately, it is virtually impossible to find the unprocessed grain outside North Africa. Try to find couscous that is commercially “rolled” but not precooked. Although grains are a familiar sight on Sephardic tables during Passover, they are forbidden among the Ashkenazi.

4 cups chicken stock
Pinch saffron threads
1 tablespoon ginger, peeled and chopped; or 1 teaspoon ground ginger
Dash of ground cloves
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
Olive oil as needed
1 1/2 cups onion, diced
8 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
2 cups couscous
1 cup Italian parsley, coarsely chopped

Place stock and spices into large stockpot. Bring to boil. In another pan add oil, onions and garlic. Sauté until soft and browned. Add onion and garlic mixture to water. Add couscous to stock. Turn fire off. Stir a little and cover. Add parsley. Let stand until liquid is completely absorbed. Break up cous cous with fork when ready to serve. Serves 6. From Toribio Prado.


This Moroccan combination has roots that go back to medieval Baghdad. It is important to taste and adjust the seasonings, because the right balance of flavors is a delicate matter in this dish. It usually needs plenty of black pepper to counteract the sweetness.

6 chicken quarters
4 tablespoons peanut or sunflower oil
2 large onions, coarsely chopped
2 teaspoons cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon mace
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1 tablespoon honey
Salt and plenty of black pepper to taste
1 cup pitted dates
Juice of 1/2 to 1 lemon
A pinch of saffron
1/2 cup blanched almonds, toasted or fried

In a large pan, sauté chicken pieces in oil for a few minutes, until lightly colored, turning them over once. Remove chicken. Add onions; cook on low heat until tender. Stir in cinnamon, mace, nutmeg and honey; pour in 1 3/4 cups water.

Stir well; add chicken pieces. Bring to boil, add salt and pepper; lower flame and simmer for 25 minutes. Add dates, lemon juice and saffron; cook for another five to 10 minutes or until chicken is tender. Place on serving platter, sprinkle with almonds. Adapted from “The Book of Jewish Food” by Claudia Roden, (Knopf, 1996).


The perfection of this dish depends on the freshness of the nuts.

2 cups sugar
2 cups water
2 teaspoons lemon juice
5 eggs
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup corn or sunflower oil
Juice and zest of 1 orange
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 1/4 cups Passover fine matzah cake meal
1 1/4 cups almonds, blanched and finely chopped

To Make Syrup

In a saucepan mix sugar and water together; bring to boil. Add lemon juice; simmer over low heat for 10 minutes. Cool.

To Make Cake

Beat eggs until frothy; add sugar; continue to beat until golden and well mixed. Add remaining ingredients, one at a time; stir into batter. Pour into oiled and floured 13″ x 9″ x 2′ cake pan; bake at 350 F for 30 minutes. Test if it done with a toothpick. Remove cake from oven; pour cooled syrup over it. Let cake stand for two hours before serving to allow syrup to be absorbed. Makes one cake, about 18 pieces.From Toribio Prado.


1/2 pound dried white figs, washed and dried well
1 bottle port wine
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 cup honey
Pinch of nutmeg
Pinch of cinnamon

Place figs and port wine in large bowl; marinate overnight. Drain figs; reserve wine. In large saucepan add sugar, lemon juice and honey. Simmer, being careful not to burn sugar. Raise flame to medium. Add reserved port wine, nutmeg and cinnamon. Reduce by half and add figs. Stir well. Serve with torte.


3 cups raisins
2 cups whole almonds, blanched
1 green apple, peeled and cored
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon or to taste

In a food grinder, coarsely grind raisins, 1 1/2 cups of the almonds, apple and cinnamon. If using a food processor, grind in quick pulses so as not to over-process. Set aside in bowl. Using your hands, press mixture into balls the size of large marbles. Press one of the remaining almonds into each charoset ball. Makes about four dozen balls. Adapted from “Jewish Cooking in America” by Joan Nathan, (Knopf, 1998).