Sephardic cuisine, part of a Mediterranean heritage

Sephardic cuisine is a kind of missing link, a fuzzy imprint in the DNA of Mediterranean and Spanish cuisine. Despite this, the recipes that the Spanish Jews took with them and adapted and adopted in the regions of France, Italy, North Africa, Greece and Turkey, where they took refuge after being expelled in the 15th century. century, are still very much alive in traditional cuisine. books. Historian and cook Hélène Jawhara Piñer has just published one called Sefardí, a beautiful and surprising book based on her six years of research on the cuisine of Spanish Jews in medieval times for her doctoral thesis. It’s surprising how relevant the recipes seem and how many feature in Spanish cuisine today.

Curiously, a characteristic combination of medieval Jewish cuisine, which resulted in more than one housewife appearing before the tribunal of the Inquisition, is that of chickpeas and chard. A very similar dish, chickpeas and spinach, is very popular in Seville today.

And there’s more. In the book, Hélène Jawhara offers a bold theory on gazpachuelo, the soup that Malagasy people love so much, with a simple recipe of boiled egg white and lemon as part of one of the healthy menus Maimonides, the great 12th century Jewish physician of Cordoba, prescribed in his Libro de las Dietas (book of diets). It’s not such a far-fetched idea that gazpachuelo could have evolved from lemon soup.

“If eating like this meant being interrogated by the Inquisition, what was the point of publishing a book?

For his book, Jawhara, of French and Spanish nationality, researched cookbooks written in Spain during the Andalusian era (12th, 13th and 14th centuries) as well as medical treatises, minutes of the Tribunal of the Inquisition and literature of the time. era, with the same rigor as an archaeologist carefully brushing a recently excavated stone.

“I thought it was necessary to publish a book on Sephardic cuisine based on scientific study. For centuries, for obvious reasons, there was no written record of Sephardic recipes. If eating eggplant, chickpeas with chard or cooking meat in a certain way could mean that you have been denounced or interrogated by the Inquisition, what would be the point of publishing a book? decades, it’s mostly family recipes. I tried to capture what the cuisine of Spanish Jews in the medieval period was like,” she explains.

She also points out that in medieval Spain there was no Sephardic cuisine. The term Sephardic began to be used in exile, as Sepharad was the name in Spain. There was Jewish cuisine in Al Andalus, which in reality was very mixed with Moorish dishes, since both communities came from the same geographical area, but there was a difference in the way the dish was cooked, the feast for which it was prepared, the ingredients, the source of the meat and wine, and the occasions on which certain dishes were eaten. In Andalusian cookbooks only six dishes are described as Jewish style and they contain partridge, chicken and lamb.

“A lot of the recipes I’ve collected are taken from texts that aren’t exactly cookbooks,” she says.

Perhaps the most painful source is the reports of the trials at the Court of the Inquisition, which were also studied by the Hispanist David Gitlitz for another important book on Jewish-Spanish cuisine, titled A Drizzle of Honey.

“For 1,000 years, Sephardic cooks lived in marginal enclaves surrounded by often hostile cultures, but they retained much of their culinary heritage and it was passed down from mother to daughter. During the Inquisition, many were burned alive for this,” he says.

The Jewish communities of Spain and Portugal had been expelled from Jerusalem and Palestine in the 2nd century. They had been on the peninsula for several generations by the time the Moors arrived, then when the Catholic monarchs took over, many converted to Christianity to avoid exile.

“They were the ‘crypto-Jews’ or ‘Judaizers’, recent converts who maintained their Jewish beliefs and practices and were greatly persecuted by the Inquisition, and although after the discovery of America they was forbidden to travel to the New World, so they did not spread their religion, they went to Mexico, Brazil, Argentina and the Dominican Republic, among other countries,” explains Hélène Jawhara.

Some constants in Sephardic dishes are the use of olive oil rather than any other fat, eggplant, which has become a hated vegetable because it is identified with the Jewish religion, the profusion of vegetables, in particular the varieties with leaves, egg dishes and variety of pasta. and breads.

Hélène Jawhara recognizes that some recipes in her book are not exclusively from the Jewish tradition, but are part of it, such as the ‘muğabbana’ (cheese pies) or the ‘isfiriyya’ (chickpea omelettes) that she found in ‘Kitāb al Tabīh’, which also contained perhaps the first written recipe for something as popular in the Middle East today as falafel.

And Jewish recipes have travelled. Take noodles, for example. “15th-century sources mention noodles as part of Jewish cuisine. They arrived in the Canary Islands from Morocco, where they were made and sold by Jewish families in Fez,” she explains.

A recipe in his book is very similar to Malaga noodle stew, or the mackerel noodles often found in Cadiz. Part of Hélène’s family comes from there, but beyond this anecdotal aspect, what is important in her book is that where there was hardly any trace of Jewish cuisine, she is presented here as a definite image, much more present in our daily life than anyone could have guessed.

When people enjoy cakes like “pestiños” (or hojuelas o frixuelos), soups, meatballs, fish stews, or “empanada” pastries, they may find that these delicacies carry the imprint of the heritage of a forgotten Spanish community.

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