A World Of Flavors In A Single Dish: How Jewish Food Spread Across The Globe

Apr 11, 2017
Originally published on March 26, 2018 10:55 am

With a taste of just a single dish from a Jewish family's table at Passover, Joan Nathan can tell a global story.

The Jewish cooking legend, who has nearly a dozen books to her name, has documented the worldwide reach of Jewish food for her latest, King Solomon's Table: A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World.

"I can track people by what their haroset is," Nathan says.

Haroset, a Passover staple, is a rough paste usually made of chopped fruits and nuts. It's meant to symbolize the mortar Hebrew slaves used for building before the exodus from Egypt. The basic recipe has assumed different forms depending on local traditions and ingredients, evolving as it traveled from one continent to another over the centuries.

Nathan's newest cookbook has five recipes for haroset, from every part of the globe. They range from a Maine version with blueberries and cranberries to a Brazilian recipe with cashews to a Persian variety featuring pomegranate juice.

"This is a perfect way to illustrate the wandering of the Jews," Nathan says.

Jewish cuisine is not as distinct as Indian or Mexican food, Nathan says, because Jews live all over the world. Wherever she travels, she seeks out the local food traditions.

For example, during a visit to Tbilisi, Georgia, in the 1980s, a rabbi served her a diced eggplant dish with herbs and spices from the region. A little later in Italy, she enjoyed practically the same mélange – only with a different palate of flavorings reflecting the local tastes.

In King Solomon's Table, Nathan also writes about the tradition of eggs on the Seder table. "Many Jews have the custom of starting the Passover Seder with eggs, either cooked in salt water or even cooked overnight in sand, a custom still followed today in North Africa," she writes.

The recipe she shares for hard-boiled eggs with spinach originated on the Greek island of Corfu.

Nathan says she's been studying these traditions for a long time, and her book is her way of "putting everything together – things that I've been thinking about, that I've been ruminating about for years."

Recipe: Halleq, Persian Haroset with Dates, Apples, Pistachios and Pomegranate Juice

Yield: 6 cups

  • 1 cup (140 grams) almonds
  • 1 cup (125 grams) roasted, shelled pistachios
  • 1 cup (100 grams) walnuts
  • 1 cup (150 grams) black raisins
  • 1 cup (150 grams) golden raisins
  • 1 cup (175 grams) dates, pitted
  • 2 teaspoons cinnamon

  • 2 teaspoons ground cardamom
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1 large apple, peeled, cored, and quartered
  • 1 large pear, peeled, cored, and quartered
  • 2 bananas, peeled

  • 2 to 3 tablespoons cider vinegar
  • 1/2 to 1 cup (120 to 240ml) pomegranate juice
  • 1/2 to 1 cup (120 to 240ml) sweet kosher wine

Every Passover, I make about five kinds of haroset from different parts of the world. For me, the various blends, representing the mortar used to make bricks in slavery in ancient Egypt, reflect the regional dispersal of the Jews throughout history.

Haroset, a popular dipping sauce for feasts in Babylon, was brought to Jerusalem and later added to the Passover Seder after the destruction of the Second Temple. For centuries, the sauce, originally made of dates, was slowly cooked in copper pots, used to cook down the fruit into a syrupy honey, making the biblical date honey. Then it was topped with ground walnuts (see my Jewish Cooking in America, page 387). Later, in Baghdad (about thirty miles from Babylon), it was traditional to buy the dates, press them through a special machine, letting the syrup ooze out, and then heat the dates very slowly in a copper pot until they were the thick consistency of a jam-like syrup. I have heard stories about men and women who would roam the streets of Baghdad hawking this date honey served with clotted cream on bread or matzo for breakfast.

As Jews settled on the Silk Road or throughout the Mediterranean, they either brought with them their recipe for haroset, if they could find all the ingredients, or created new ones, based on ingredients where they lived.

Egyptian haroset includes raisins, dates, and nuts, and Persian haroset, called halleq, is filled with nuts and dried fruits, pomegranate juice, bananas, and cardamom as the prominent spice, but uncooked.

  1. In a large food processor, combine the almonds, pistachios, walnuts, black and golden raisins, dates, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, and nutmeg. Pulse until the nuts are coarsely chopped.
  2. Add the apple, pear, and bananas, then pulse until coarsely chopped. Add 2 tablespoons of the vinegar, 1/2 cup of the pomegranate juice, and 1/2 cup of the wine. Pulse again, adding more vinegar, juice, or wine to taste or as needed to make a coarse paste. Do not purée; the mixture should retain some crunch.

Recipe: Huevos Haminados con Spinaci, Long-Cooked Hard-Boiled Eggs with Spinach

Yield: 12 servings

  • 12 large eggs, preferably fresh from a farmers' market
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 1/2 cups (225 grams) red onion (about 1 large), peeled and chopped coarsely
  • 1 tablespoon sea salt
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 1/2 pounds (675 grams) spinach, fresh or frozen (thawed and drained if frozen)

  1. Put the eggs in a cooking pot and add water to cover by about 2 inches. Then add the olive oil, onions, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then lower heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Cool and remove the eggs with a slotted spoon. Tap the eggs gently against the counter and peel under cold running water, keeping them as whole as possible.
  2. Return the peeled eggs to the pot with the seasoned water and simmer very slowly uncovered for at least 2 hours, or until the water is almost evaporated and the onions almost dissolved. The eggs will become dark and creamy as the cooking water evaporates and they absorb all the flavoring.
  3. Remove the eggs carefully to a bowl, rubbing into the cooking liquid any of the cream that forms on the outside. Heat the remaining cooking liquid over medium heat, bring to a simmer, and add the spinach. Cook the spinach until most of the liquid is reduced, stirring occasionally with a wooden spook, about 30 minutes, or until the spinach is creamy and well cooked. Serve a dollop of spinach with a hard-boiled egg on top as the first part of the Seder meal or as a first course of any meat.

NOTE: To see if the eggs are really boiled, remove one egg from the water and spin it on a flat cutting board. If it twirls in one place, it is hard-boiled. If it wobbles all over the board, it is not cooked yet and the weight isn't distributed evenly. The easiest way of peeling a hot hard-boiled egg is to put it under cold water between your hands and rub it quickly until it cracks, then peel under the running water.

To prepare the symbolic egg for the Passover Seder plate, boil the egg in its shell, dry it, and then light a match underneath to char it.

Recipes from King Solomon's Table: A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World by Joan Nathan. Published by Knopf.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


Just in time for Passover, a visit to a legend of Jewish cooking at her home in Washington, D.C.

Hi, Joan. It's so nice to finally meet you in person.

JOAN NATHAN: I know. Come in. Come in.

SHAPIRO: Joan Nathan has written almost a dozen cookbooks. Her newest, "King Solomon's Table," is about the worldwide reach of Jewish food.

NATHAN: I've been studying this for a long time. And it's sort of putting everything together, things that I've been thinking about, that I've been ruminating about for years.

SHAPIRO: Today, she's showing us just how far the reach extends, with global variations on a single dish that's on the table of Jewish families at Passover. But before she can do that...

NATHAN: Look at this. Wait. Where is it?

SHAPIRO: ...She's got to find one particular tool in her crowded kitchen drawers.

NATHAN: There it is. Look at this one.

SHAPIRO: Oh, what is this? Is it called a mezzaluna?

NATHAN: It's like a mezzaluna, but it's a chopper. That - before Cuisinart's came in...

SHAPIRO: How old is this?

NATHAN: It's pretty old.

SHAPIRO: This chopper has a wooden handle and two worn, curved blades. She found it at an antique store. And it's the key to the way Joan Nathan makes haroset. Haroset is essential to Passover. It's sort of a rough paste made from fruit and nuts. You spread it on matzo, often with horseradish. It's supposed to resemble the mortar the Jews used for building when they were slaves in Egypt.

NATHAN: I can track people by what their haroset is.

SHAPIRO: Joan Nathan's new cookbook has five recipes for haroset from every part of the globe. We'll get to them in a moment. She says Jewish cuisine is not as distinct as Indian food or Mexican food because Jews live all over the world. So wherever Joan Nathan travels, she seeks out the local Jewish food traditions. Here's what she found when she visited Tbilisi, Georgia, in the 1980s.

NATHAN: So I went to a rabbi's for dinner. And he made this dish. It was an eggplant, diced-up eggplant with the skin. And he used ginger and other flavorings in it. Then I went to Italy and had the exact same dish...

SHAPIRO: Which is many miles away.

NATHAN: ...With different flavorings. And it occurred to me that Jews were always merchants from the get-go. And people would be traveling. Let's say - let's say you were traveling, and you've got some seeds. You wouldn't take a whole eggplant. It wouldn't last.

So the men would bring them home, plant them. They'd cook with the eggplants. And he'd tell his wife what he ate. And then you would eat them similar - he knew that they were cut in a certain way with the skin. He knew they were fried and that you could eat them cold, which is wonderful for the Sabbath. So that's...

SHAPIRO: Because you're not allowed to cook on the Sabbath.

NATHAN: ...Right, exactly. And so that's how these foods traveled.

SHAPIRO: And just like the eggplant dish, haroset has evolved as it traveled from one continent to another over the centuries.


SHAPIRO: Joan Nathan brings out two kinds of haroset.

NATHAN: One is a Maine haroset with blueberries, of course, and cranberries, a very modern one without nuts, which is really good because today, so many people...

SHAPIRO: Have allergies.

NATHAN: ...Have allergies. And then this one, which looks like mud - a lot of them are supposed to look like mud because it's supposed to look like mortar. And this is from Persia. And it has, in it, apples and bananas, which must be a later ingredient, pomegranate juice, three kinds of nuts - walnuts and almonds and pistachio nuts - and a lot of spices.

SHAPIRO: So with these harosets, from blueberries to pomegranate juice, you travel from Maine to Iran showing really the scope of Jewish cuisine.

NATHAN: Exactly, exactly. And actually, I also have one from Brazil with cashew nuts in it.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) And is that traditional? Would Brazilian Jews be eating that at the Seder table?

NATHAN: Well, yeah, of course, they would. And what would - because the Jews were kicked out of so many countries, they settled in other areas. And this is a perfect way to illustrate the wandering of the Jews. OK. So here, I - can I give you some work to do?

SHAPIRO: Sure. Put me to work.

And soon we're making a traditional haroset that most American Jews eat this time of year - apples, walnuts, cinnamon sugar and sweet kosher wine.

NATHAN: I know I have some.

SHAPIRO: The process is pretty easy - dump everything into a bowl, chop it all together.

NATHAN: Very good.

SHAPIRO: How fine do we want it?

NATHAN: Well, it depends on what your mother did.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

NATHAN: I like it a little chunky. My mother-in-law made it pureed practically.

SHAPIRO: At this point, it looks pretty much like what I grew up eating at Passover. Then, Joan Nathan shows me another global haroset tradition.

NATHAN: When the Jews went from Spain and Portugal to Morocco, a lot of them make dates and nuts in little balls. And one of them, in Paris, that I that met, rolls hers - she rolls it in cinnamon.

SHAPIRO: Naturally, the Parisian Jews turn their haroset into truffles.


SHAPIRO: Joan Nathan is the author of the cookbook "King Solomon's Table: A Culinary Exploration Of Jewish Cooking From Around The World."

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