Over the years, my family’s Passover table has been dominated by Ashkenazi foods -- dill-garnished chopped liver on Tam Tams, brisket and/or chicken, green- and orange-flecked vegetable kugels, and, if Hebrew-school children came door to door with a sales pitch, some kosher pareve chocolate-covered raspberry jelly candies. No one questioned this order of things. It was almost as though the menu came straight from the basket with baby Moses -- this was the sum total of the Jewish holiday food experience, and with my grandmother’s ethereally light matzo balls, no one was complaining.
Yet as Jewish food maven Joan Nathan’s latest cookbook, King Solomon’s Table, shows, these “typical” Passover dishes are but one thread in a multitude of cross-cultural iterations of Jewish cooking, many of which have been lost to American Jews who carried on only the Eastern European recipes of their forebears.
The concept of the Wandering Jew comes into sharp culinary focus in Nathan’s thoroughly researched book, which draws on biblical and recorded history to trace Semitic foodways across the globe. Like the book’s namesake, King Solomon, who reportedly had hundreds of wives, Jewish cooking turns out to be somewhat libertine, wildly scooping up traditional flavors and remixing them with available ingredients over centuries of settlement and relocation.
Some of the most surprising findings here: Italian Jews favored the sweet and savory holy trio of pine nuts, raisins, and onions. The chopped liver we eat is a close cousin of the foie gras preparations from settlers in the Alsace-Lorraine region of France and Germany. Eggplant, initially cultivated in Asia, came over the Silk Road via Jewish and Arab merchants, and became known in Europe as “Jewish fruit.” Gefilte fish, with its colorless suggestion of thrift and necessity (and I use this description as a loving fan!), would seem to be an invention of 19th century Polish or Russian peasants, but it likely evolved from Spanish or Middle Eastern fish balls from the Middle Ages or even earlier.
So many of the dishes Nathan offers could enliven the Passover table with some novel -- but clearly not new, as she points out -- flavors. Nathan includes four recipes for haroset, the symbolic “mortar” on the seder plate, meant to be eaten on matzo “bricks.” Typically, it’s some combination of fruit, nuts, and wine. Nathan’s collection encompasses a Persian haroset with dates, bananas, pomegranate juice, and cardamom; an Italian take with pears, prunes, orange juice, and chestnuts; a Brazilian version with cashews; and, finally, a Maine-style recipe with blueberries, cranberries, ginger, and maple syrup.
Then the beloved chopped liver could, for example, be swapped out for Italian caponata, enhanced by the raisin-pine-nut-onion trifecta and spiked with red wine vinegar or even hummus.
Certainly, brisket is not the only way to go. In Yemen, the main course for Passover is an egg dish, and the matzo it’s served with is closer to a flatbread than the cracker that’s mass-produced around the world today.
It turns out that roasted lamb, which we usually associate with Easter dinners, is verboten in many Jewish communities around the world during Passover, but Roman Jews still serve it on the holiday, and Middle Eastern Jews might eat a lamb shank in the form of a tagine with a kind of tsimmes (braised fruit and sweet vegetables) cooked right in.
From India, Nathan offers a braised chicken with cardamom, cumin, and a cilantro-ginger swirl. Long before Jewish mothers extolled the virtues of chicken soup, domesticated chickens originally came from India. Nathan’s fragrant recipe originates from a cook she met in Kochi, descended from Iraqi Jews who migrated to India during the Spanish Inquisition and who recalls hand-drying spices harvested in December and January in preparation for the Passover holiday.
And though the gummy coconut macaroons from a can prevail in most Jewish American households these days, they most likely evolved from Italian Jews, who used almond paste to create a kosher-for-Passover treat. Nathan’s Persian version makes a refreshing alternative. The dough of ground nuts gets dutifully mixed with one hand, then shaped with rose-water-dipped fingers before being filled with either pistachios or raspberry preserves.
Exploring these global influences and incorporating them into the seder dinner can help shake up the predictability of the meal, much like a sprinkle of farfel can add some crunchy interest to a bowl of soup. Speaking of soup, however, some things on the Passover table are nonnegotiable, and, at least in my family, there will be no messing with the matzo balls.