Sephar­di: Cook­ing the His­to­ry. Recipes of the Jews of Spain and the Dias­po­ra, from the 13th Cen­tu­ry to Today

  • Review
By – October 4, 2021

Can you tell if someone’s Jew­ish from how they pre­pare their food? Can you tell a Sephar­di from an Ashke­nazi by what they are eat­ing? Had major Jew­ish thinkers, like Mai­monides, have any­thing to say about food, apart from dis­cussing kashrut? Hélène Jawhara Piñer has spent years research­ing such ques­tions and now offers read­ers a tasty Sephar­di buf­fet — some fifty recipes of the Jews of Spain and their dias­po­ra, from the thir­teenth cen­tu­ry onwards — as a frame­work for her answers.

While we may be (some­what) aware that the Jews of Spain and their Dias­po­ra have had dif­fer­ent favorite foods and cook­ing meth­ods from their Chris­t­ian and Mus­lim neigh­bors — or indeed from Ashke­nazi Jews — most have nev­er con­sid­ered the con­se­quences of such dif­fer­ences. The 1492 Alham­bra Decree forced Jews either to con­vert or to leave Spain. Search­ing the records of the Inqui­si­tion, Piñer finds case after case of Jews pass­ing as Chris­tians (Con­ver­sos) but out­ed by their food. Sure, the obvi­ous — salt­ing meat before cook­ing it — would have been a dead give­away. But oth­er clues are more sub­tle. A recipe that advis­es using a new pot,” or the seal­ing of the cookpot with dough around the lid before cook­ing, or the prepa­ra­tion of a dish a day in advance — these fac­tors may indi­cate Jew­ish cook­ing. A new pot” might pre­vent the acci­den­tal min­gling of meat and milk. The seal­ing of a cookpot with dough could be a rem­nant from com­mu­nal cholent ovens. Cook­ing a dish to be eat­en at room tem­per­a­ture the next day was a clas­sic way to avoid work on Shab­bat. The exclu­sion of non-Jew­ish ser­vants from the kitchen, the (New World) drink­ing of hot choco­late in place of wine, the con­sump­tion of egg­plant — these prac­tices were all grounds to sus­pect a house­hold of har­bor­ing secret Jews, as far as the Inqui­si­tion was concerned.

Piñer offers enough of this his­to­ry, gleaned from her more aca­d­e­m­ic work, to moti­vate us to read her recipes, even if we might nev­er actu­al­ly cook them. She intro­duces most dish­es with a para­graph explain­ing which ancient cook­book (usu­al­ly one of her foun­da­tion­al Ara­bic trea­tis­es) fea­tured it, a full-col­or pho­to­graph of the dish as she pre­pared it, and a fair­ly clear set of cook­ing direc­tions. There are eggs in most dish­es (even poured over chick­en before roast­ing it) and lots of egg­plant, chick­en, swiss chard, chick­peas, hon­ey, and dates. Many foods we cur­rent­ly asso­ciate with Span­ish cui­sine, like toma­toes, pep­pers, and chili, were New World addi­tions, quite unavail­able on the Iber­ian Penin­su­la of the thir­teenth cen­tu­ry. Piñer some­times sug­gests — with a warn­ing — adding a few of these anachro­nis­tic ingre­di­ents, but she draws the line at changes to impor­tant clas­sics like hojue­las. A chef her­self, she clos­es with a few of her own recipes for crowd-pleasers like cheese­cake and spinach pies, inspired by the classics.

Any­one who enjoys arm­chair trav­el may find them­selves trans­port­ed by this col­or­ful cook­book — not just to anoth­er con­ti­nent, but to anoth­er cen­tu­ry. Kome kon gana!

Bet­ti­na Berch, author of the recent biog­ra­phy, From Hes­ter Street to Hol­ly­wood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezier­s­ka, teach­es part-time at the Bor­ough of Man­hat­tan Com­mu­ni­ty College.

Discussion Questions