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Sephardic Kitchen: The Healthful Food and Rich Culture of the Mediterranean Jews

Sephardic Kitchen: The Healthful Food and Rich Culture of the Mediterranean Jews

by Robert Sternberg

Light, healthy and robust — these are the outstanding qualities of the summery, sun-splashed cooking of the Sephardic Jews, which Rabbi Robert Sternberg offers in this enlightening book about an under-explored aspect of the increasingly popular Mediterranean cooking.

Expelled from Spain during the Inquisition, the Sephardic Jews scattered to all corners of


Light, healthy and robust — these are the outstanding qualities of the summery, sun-splashed cooking of the Sephardic Jews, which Rabbi Robert Sternberg offers in this enlightening book about an under-explored aspect of the increasingly popular Mediterranean cooking.

Expelled from Spain during the Inquisition, the Sephardic Jews scattered to all corners of the Mediterranean. Their strong traditions and varied cultural experience combined with the fertile climate in which they settled, created one of the most flavorful and distinctive cuisines in the world. It is a melding of delicious flavors from all around the warm salt waters of the Mediterranean — Portugal, Spain, Italy, France, Algeria, Greece, Morocco, Israel and the remains of the Ottoman Empire.

In each distant place the Sephardic Jews cooked inventive and delightful meals whose flavor comes more from herbs and spices than from fat. The core ingredients — fresh fruits, spices, olives, nuts, tomatoes, fennel, eggs and seafood — are as tasty as they are versatile.

The tempting recipes in this book include Canton de Sardellas, a delicious anchovy salad from Portugal, Sopa de Spinaca y Lentijas, a spicy and delicate soup from Macedonia, Sopada con Bamias, a hot and sweet braised beef with okra from Egypt, and the incomparable Los Site Kilos — Bread of the Seven Heavens — whose layers represent the connection between this world and the next.

Alongside his recipes Rabbi Sternberg relates the rich history and lore of the Sephardic Jews, to whom hospitality is one of the most important virtues. "When visiting the home of a Jew from a Mediterranean country, one is usually greeted with an apology from the host or hostess for the poor and limited quality of the food being served," says Rabbi Sternberg. "The apology is generally followed by a lavish buffet with a dazzling array of mouthwatering appetizers and salads." Rabbi Sternberg also explains Jewish Holiday traditions and culinary celebrations, from Sabbath dinners to observation of the High Holy Days.

Generously illustrated, easy to follow, and sprinkled with Sephardic folktales, Rabbi Sternberg's book is certain to become the mainstay in the kitchens of people who like Mediterranean cooking, lighter eating and just plain good food.

Rabbi Sternberg is the executive director of the Holocaust Museum and Learning Center in St. Louis, Missouri. He is also the author of Yiddish Cuisine.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Sternberg (Yiddish Cuisine) mines the rich vein of Sephardic cooking that is often ignored in the U.S. If the tone is occasionally more akin to a textbook than a cookbook, Sternberg is thorough and informative. In addition to simple, refreshing recipes for such dishes as Turkish-Style Bean Dip, Baked Beet Salad and Baked Fish With Bitter Lettuces, he provides one for the complex and decorative Bread of the Seven Heavens with much of the dough shaped into religious symbols like a fish and a hand. The many versions of hamina stew baked overnight similar to the Ashkenazic cholentare explored in depth, as is the wide variety of Sephardic pies and savory pastries, including Portuguese Impanadas and Pittas, large savory pies from Greece. Sternberg also includes recitation of the rules of kashrut, several food-related folk tales and ideas for holiday meals as specific as a menu for a Salonika-Style Rosh Hashono Dinner and tips on what to serve after a funeral. (Sept.)
Library Journal
The two major divisions of the Jewish community are the Ashkenazim, whose ancestors are from eastern Europe, and the Sephardim, originally from the Iberian Peninsula. Marks, a rabbi and former editor of Kosher Gourmet, includes recipes from both communities in The World of Jewish Cooking, while Rabbi Sternberg, the author of Yiddish Cuisine (Jason Aronson, 1993), focuses on the cooking of Sephardic Jews in The Sephardic Kitchen. Marks's recipes come from Europe, Asia, and Northern Africa; Sternberg's from all the countries of the Mediterranean, with a few places a bit farther afield. Both authors include a great deal of cultural and religious background: Sternberg starts with a longer introductory section that covers social customs, ingredients, and kosher laws and also scatters folktales throughout his text, while Marks includes many boxes on ingredients and other topics. Although both books are informed and well written, The Sephardic Kitchen is the more readable and engaging: Marks offers more history and more detail, but his style is drier than Sternberg's. Despite some overlap, however, the books are different enough that both are recommended.

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
7.78(w) x 9.54(h) x 1.27(d)

Read an Excerpt


"Ashkenazic" and "Sephardic" are familiar terms that are used to describe the two main divisions of Jewish ethnic communities. "Ashkenazic", from the Hebrew word "Ashkenaz" (meaning "Germany") refers to all Jews of European ancestry except those of Southern Europe. "Sephardic", from the Hebrew word "Sepharad" (meaning "Spain") has been applied to all the others.

The purpose of this book is to introduce you to the fragrant foods and fascinating culinary traditions of the Sephardim and their descendants as well as those of other Jewish communities in the Mediterranean region.

Sephardic food is Mediterranean food. Parts of the cuisine were fully developed between the 8th and 12th centuries when Spain was an Islamic country. Arabic influence on Sephardic cuisine was, at that time, very strong. The cuisine of the Sephardic Jews continued to develop under Christian rule in Spain until 1492 and in Portugal until 1496. In those years, Jews and Moslems in the two countries were forced to choose between converting to Christianity or being expelled. The majority chose exile and migrated to various Mediterranean countries or to Holland. Most of the Sephardic Jews who left Spain and Portugal went to Islamic countries.

In the Mediterranean, ancient history lives side by side with modernity. Mysticism, the supernatural, romance, and poetry appear in all facets of everyday life, including cooking. Many aspects of food preparation and presentation are infused with vivid imagination and artistic nuances. For example, the Sephardic Shevuot bread called "Los Siete Cielos" ("the Seven Heavenly Spheres") was created as a culinary representation of the worldbeyond the earthly realm. "Pescado con Abramela" ("Fish Baked with Abraham's Fruit") is named for a story about Abraham, the patriarch of the Jewish religion.

On the other hand, some aspects of Mediterranean culture are marked by simplicity, understatement, and informality. In the cooking of Mediterranean Jews, the natural flavor and appearance of food is emphasized. Herbs are added to enrich and enhance the natural taste of the raw ingredients. Sauces are unpretentious and straightforward. Spice adds an element of surprise and mystery.

Jews and Moslems, especially in the countries of the Ottoman Empire, intermingled freely and, in the process, shared many culinary traditions and secrets. They had a great influence on each other, especially regarding food preparation and presentation. Turkey and Greece, for example, had indigenous Jewish communities prior to the exile of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews but the Ladino speaking Sephardic Jews eventually outnumbered all the others in these countries. Sephardic culture became the dominant culture and Sephardic cuisine became the dominant cuisine, contributing much to the local cuisines and, at the same time, borrowing from it. Morrocco, on the other hand, had a large Jewish community prior to the exile of Jews from Spain and Portugal and the numbers of Jews of Spanish and Portuguese descent were never greater than that of the indigenous Jewish population. In Morrocco, therefore, and in other parts of North Africa where Sephardic Jews settled, Moorish culture and cuisine were preeminent over Sephardic. Jews of Spanish and Portuguese descent in Morrocco and Algeria retained a few individualistic habits, like a disdain of turmeric (which Morroccan cooks use as an inexpensive substitute for saffron), but for the most part their cuisine did not differ from that of other Jews in the region.

The recipes in this book are adapted from ancient Spanish and Portuguese sources and from the Sephardic kitchens of Italy, Southeast France, Morrocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and the countries and cities of the former Ottoman Empire (Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, Bosnia, Serbia, Albania, parts of Romania, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and Jerusalem). There are also a few recipes from the Sephardic communities of Amsterdam, London, the Southern United States, and Curacao. In these non-Mediterranean, non-Islamic communities, Sephardic cooks assimilated foods and cooking techniques from Northern Europe and Latin America. The Iberian influences that were preserved in their cuisine are, therefore, easily discerned. All of these recipes have been preserved in Sephardic and other Mediterranean Jewish families as part of their ethnic and culinary heritage.

I encountered Sephardic and other forms of Mediterranean Jewish cooking for the first time in Israel, where I lived as a student from 1972 to 1974. I was fascinated with the types of foods produced in the kitchens of the families of some of my non-Ashkenazic friends and in the ethnic restaurants and kiosks of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The Mediterranean Jewish foods were very different from the Jewish food I had grown up with. I constantly asked the mothers of my Israeli friends about the dishes they cooked, what they put into them, and how they made them. I wrote down recipes and when I finally rented my own apartment, I tried to cook some of these foods myself. I loved to wander the neighborhoods of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv looking through the markets for interesting foods. I would go back often to some of my favorite places to learn more about the borekas or the buleymas, the falafel, or the Sephardic and Arabic breads. When possible I would ask about ingredients and write things down. I had no intention at that time of ever writing or publishing a book on Sephardic cooking. I simply wanted to know how to prepare these foods because I loved them so much.

One of the other interesting things I learned was that Sephardic Jews had their own language, Ladino. Because Ladino is a Jewish language, wherever possible I try to give Ladino as well as English names to the recipes in this book that are of Sephardic origin. Jews from other Mediterranean countries who are not of Sephardic origin spoke dialects of Arabic, French, or Italian, which are not specifically Jewish languages. I therefore give no foreign language names to these recipes.

I also learned that Sephardic and other Jews from Mediterranean countries had as rich a folklore as the Yiddish speaking Jews of Central and Eastern Europe. When possible, I intersperse folktales of Sephardic or Arab/Jewish origin among the recipes.

In 1992, the Jewish community of Turkey celebrated its 500th anniversary. The date was chosen to coincide with the invitation extended by Sultan Beyazit II in 1492 to the Jews of Spain and Portugal to make their homes in the Ottoman Empire. It was a celebration of 500 years of peace, tolerance, and friendship between Jews and Moslems in Turkey, a relationship that has been marked, for the most part, by a spirit of openness, tolerance, and mutual respect. The Sultan was rumored to have said to King Ferdinand of Spain when he opened the doors of his empire to Jewish immigration that, " ... By expelling the Jews you have made your country poor and my country rich." The Ladino speaking Jews of Turkey called the 500th anniversary a celebration of "Anyos Munchos y Buenos" ("Good Years and Many More"). Through the centuries of living together, Jews and Moslems in Turkey learned an important lesson, which is summed up in a Ladino proverb": Boca dulce abre puertos de hierro "Kind Words Open Iron Gates"

Meet the Author

Rabbi Robert Sternberg is the executive director of the Holocaust Museum and Learning Center in St. Louis, MI.

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