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Saving The Sephardic Seder Menu


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Saving The Sephardic Seder Menu

Jennifer Abadi’s cookbook (and then some) is a work of preservation for ‘recipes and stories being lost with every generation.’

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For Beejhy Barhany’s family in Ethiopia, Passover preparations included smashing its clay pots, pans and dishes and fashioning new ones that it would use during the holiday and then for the rest of the year.

Sigal Shaye’s Yemenite family continues to create a border of green lettuce leaves, parsley and red radishes, symbolic foods for karpas and marror, around its seder table in Brooklyn.

At Rabbi Barbara Irit Aiello’s seder in Italy, each person received a spring onion just before “Dayenu,” and during the song they would gently hit the right arm of the person sitting next to them as if the onions’ long stems were the whips of the Egyptian slave masters.

These stories are among the many in Too Good to Passover: Sephardic & Judeo-Arabic Seder Menus and Memories from Africa, Asia and Europe, a new cookbook-cum-ethnographic study of Passover preparations and celebrations from all over the greater non-Ashkenazi world by chef Jennifer Abadi. 

The book not only features elaborate recipes for the Passover seders, but also Passover week meals, snacks, and end-of-Passover dishes, in addition to copious interviews with Sephardi Jews, which offer a window into Jewish communities and their customs that are most likely unfamiliar to many readers. 

“The real motivation behind the book is to preserve the recipes and stories that are being lost with every generation,” Abadi said in an interview with The Jewish Week Food & Wine.

The book is a treasure trove of Passover cooking inspiration and ideas as well as meticulously researched recipes from places where there are few or no Jews left.

“The Jewish communities that once existed for even hundreds of years in many of these communities highlighted in the book either no longer exist, or soon will be extinct. The more that I delved into the stories, customs and traditions, the more I understood the importance of this one holiday. … “My hope,” Abadi continued, “is that it will become a reference book for Passover in the Sephardi, Mizrahi, Mediterranean, Central Asian and non-Ashkenazic world.”

More than simply a cookbook or a simple cookbook, at 681 pages, this ambitious tome is a preservation project geared towards the serious home cook looking to expand his or her repertoire or a reader interested in Sephardi culture. This is not a coffee-table book; there is no mouthwatering food photography to be found, only a few hand-drawn black-and-white illustrations by Abadi herself. 

The book is peppered with frequent bolded disclaimers warning the reader to leave enough preparation time, a reminder that these recipes come from cultures and eras that confined women to the kitchen and did not value their time. 

Instead of being arranged by meal courses as most cookbooks are, Too Good to Passover is organized by country. Each section begins with a map, Abadi’s own notes and observations about the place and its food, and personal interviews she conducted with former inhabitants of the country. Abadi then features an illustration of a typical seder plate from the country, and a sample seder menu. 

Abadi encourages her readers to expand their horizons. “Anyone who wants to be creative and do a different kind of seder each year can simply flip to a chapter and do a Turkish seder one year, and a Moroccan or Italian one the next.” 

Since publishing A Fistful of Lentils in 2002, her informative cookbook focused on Jewish-Syrian cuisine, Abadi has been actively researching Middle Eastern and Sephardi cooking and culture. As an instructor at the JCC and The Institute for Culinary Education, she has created recipes and cooking classes to reflect the Jewish communities that once existed in North Africa, the Mediterranean, and Central Asia. Through this research and recipe testing, she developed Too Good to Passover, first as a blog, and now as a self-published book available online and at The Jewish Museum Shop, Kitchen Arts & Letters, and Eichler’s. 

In her quest to collect as much information and to find as many non-Ashkenazi people as she could, Abadi conducted her research in the library, online and by collecting cookbooks from Sephardi communities around the world. Several were informal, and published by synagogue sisterhoods. 

She would then recreate recipes for the dishes her interviewees described. To do this, Abadi read through cookbooks in Spanish, French, Hebrew, and English, and watched countless YouTube cooking videos that were not necessarily Passover-related or even Jewish, in a variety of languages, including Hindi, Arabic, Hebrew, Amharic, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian.

“To try and investigate the possible origins of a recipe, I also looked up the etymology of names of dishes in various dictionaries, including Arabic and Hebrew root words,” noted Abadi. “For words that were in Ladino or an old Arabic dialect, I had my own group of language experts that I would write to from time to time. If I knew anyone who spoke any other language, such as Turkish or Bulgarian, I emailed or called them, too.”

After she developed the recipes, Abadi hosted potluck dinner parties for friends, to whom she had assigned recipes. Their finished products gave her a chance to observe what might need tweaking. In the end, she was able to present more than 200 recipes in the book. 

Abadi interviewed over 100 people for the project. Some meetings were in person, while others with people currently living far away in France or Spain were over the phone. “I wanted to interview individuals from all the different communities to hear about their memories and experiences about the preparations and the seder itself, she noted. “I wanted to know not only what they prepared and ate, but how they prepared for the week-long holiday, and what the mood was, good or bad. I wanted to be able to see how much the customs were similar from community to community, and how they were different.” 

Through her interviews and research, we learn the local roots of certain customs. For instance, kosher-for-Passover dairy was not obtainable in many of the places Abadi focused on, so many Sephardi Jews avoided dairy products during Passover and feasted on cheese and yogurt when the holiday ended.

The reminiscences of elaborately prepared foods and family traditions in faraway lands read like so many Exodus stories, and through them runs a common thread of nostalgia and loss. One of Abadi’s interviewees, Ana Epremashvili Marani, who runs the popular Marani Georgian restaurant in Queens, lamented the diminished Passover experience she feels in her new home. “While Passover here [in the U.S.] is much easier, I can’t help feeling as though something has been lost. … What I am used to is the complete demolition of everything.”

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