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Memories of a Syrian Passover Seder: Plus Recipes

Reprinted with permission of JTA. Visit www.jta.org.

NEW YORK, March 8 (JTA)--Jennifer Felicia Abadi's Passover memories hover between the matzah balls and briskets from her father's family--and the mint and pistachios that flavored her mother's and grandmother's cooking. Intoxicated by the aroma of exotic spices, she also savored stories about her grandmother's youth in Aleppo, Syria, and the Syrian Jewish world of Ocean Parkway, Brooklyn, where her mother grew up.  

Recalling the piquant seasoning of her great-grandmother's food, Abadi explains that in her family cooking techniques have been passed from one generation of women to the next. Three decades ago, her mother and aunt gathered a substantial number of their recipes and placed them in a three-ring binder, which moved back and forth between their homes.

In her 20s, Abadi decided to throw dinner parties and introduce her friends to Syrian food. She consulted the black binder and realized that in many recipes ingredients were missing and directions unclear.

"Holding the binder in my hands, I thought about the importance of traditions and the ease with which they are lost." She decided to flesh out this valuable recipe collection, starting where her mother and aunt had left off.

"I began to spend time in my Grandma Fritzie's kitchen," says Abadi, the author of A Fistful of Lentils: Syrian-Jewish Recipes from Grandma Fritzie's Kitchen (The Harvard Common Press, 2002).

"At first, my grandmother cooked without explaining what she was doing, making it impossible for me to write down recipes. My initial attempts to help her were met with resistance. As I earned my stripes, her resistance waned, and advice came fast and furiously."

Although Abadi was exposed to Syrian food from an early age, she always felt like an outsider looking in. Unlike many of her Sephardic relatives who lived in Brooklyn or Deal, N.J., Abadi, whose father was Ashkenazi, grew up in Manhattan, somewhat secluded from the Syrian Jewish world.

Her grandmother Fritzie hosted Passovers for years, but to please everyone at her table, she served a mixture of Ashkenazi and Sephardi cuisine.

"My grandmother merged two seders into one," says Abadi. "We always had matzah ball and spinach-mint soup." She created a haroset that was a cross between Ashkenazi and Sephardi styles, made from apple butter, cinnamon, walnuts and sweet wine.

Yet as warm as these Passovers were, Abadi eagerly questioned her mother about the Syrian seders of her youth.

"Every year on the afternoon of Passover eve, my father went to temple," says Abadi's mother, Annette Hidary. "He came home and gave me a sweet wrapped inside of a napkin. I received it, because I was the first born."

This sweet symbolized how the Angel of Death had spared the first-born son of the Hebrew slaves, while he visited sorrow upon the Egyptians during the last of the Ten Plagues. Hidary explained that she had no brothers.

"Even though I was a girl, I had this sweet all to myself, which made me feel special. I wasn't allowed to share it with my sister, who was very jealous." This dessert, which could be anything from sponge cake to macaroons or the pistachio cookies that Syrians adore, was always kosher for Passover.

"During seders on Ocean Parkway, the men sat separately from the women," says Hidary, explaining that her grandfather, a rabbi, led the seder from the head of a long table, flanked by uncles and male cousins. During much of the ceremony, the women busily clustered in the kitchen overseeing the meal's many courses. Because lamb shanks are integral to seder plates, Syrians customarily serve them as an entree. "It's nice because they're not just ceremonial," says Hidary. "At no other time besides Passover do we eat lamb shanks--they're a seasonal thing."

Rice always accompanies the lamb. According to Sephardi law, it is permissible to eat rice during Passover.

"The honor of carrying the main course to the table was given to the next marriageable female in a family," says Hidary, explaining that Syrians probably brought this custom from the Old Country to prepare young women for their future role. The glory was Hidary's for many years, partially because her younger sister married first and never got a chance.

"My mother and aunt would open the swinging doors between the kitchen and dining room as I waited in the wings," says Hidary. "Both nervous and thrilled, I carried a tray of steaming lamb shanks and rice, terrified that I would drop it. All eyes were on me as I approached my grandfather."

The men in her family were scrupulous about reading every word in the hagaddah. Passover celebrations were long, often ending at midnight. After dinner while the women cleared the dishes, the men returned to the table to finish the ceremony.

"As my grandfather read the ten plagues in Hebrew, his tone grew serious," says Hidary. "One of the children stood by his side holding a pot, as he poured a generous splash of wine inside for each plague. The act was so intense that the women stopped their work to watch. He really dramatized the severity of the penalties. We children got the message that our enemies were severely punished."

As a child, Abadi watched with excitement as the afikomen was made by wrapping a napkin around a piece of matzah. At Grandma Fritzie's seders, the afikomen was hidden according to Syrian tradition. The youngest child swung it over his shoulder like a satchel as a symbol of slavery and the hasty travel that followed freedom. People at the table asked him in Hebrew: "Where do you come from?" "Egypt," he replied. "Where are you going?" "Jerusalem," he answered. "What provisions do you carry?"

"At our seders, everyone answered 'matzah' in a chorus," says Abadi. "As in other Syrian homes, we passed the afikomen around the table and everyone asked and answered the same questions. That was a nice tradition. I really enjoyed it."

Equally pleasing, Syrian haroset is a medley of dried fruits, which is versatile and delightfully sweet.

"My mother loves haroset," says Abadi. "During the seder, we spread it on matzah, making sandwiches. Throughout the week, we eat it for breakfast with cream cheese or yogurt, and consume it by the spoonful for dessert."

Grandma Fritzie always prepared huge amounts of haroset, because after seders, she sent each family home with a jar of this treasure. "We kept up that tradition," says Abadi. "Today my mother hands haroset to cousins on their way out the door."

As Passover approaches, Abadi will be teaching a class at Manhattan's Edmond J. Safra Synagogue featuring Syrian holiday specialties. Yet more than the recipes themselves, she feels she is conveying the concept of hospitality, which in today's fast-paced world has become a dying art. While every culture offers unique ways of entertaining guests, Syrian hospitality in particular is concerned with opening your home to friends and family in the most gracious, generous way.

"I was lucky to find something I can bring to life and pass on,"' says Abadi. At Passover, which resonates hospitality, there's no better way for Abadi to honor her Sephardic heritage than by sharing the holiday recipes she learned in Grandma Fritzie's kitchen.

Syrian Haroset

Ingredients

12 large Mejool dates or 20 regular-size dates, pitted and coarsely chopped
10 dried figs (the amber-colored Calimyrna are best), stems discarded and coarsely chopped
10 dried whole Turkish apricots, coarsely chopped
10 pitted prunes, coarsely chopped
11/2 cups cold water
1/4 cup sweet Passover wine, such as Manischewitz
1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 cup coarsely crushed walnuts

1. Combine the fruit and water in a large saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer covered for about 30 minutes. Stir every 10 minutes or so, making sure that the fruit is not burning or sticking to the bottom of the pot. (If the fruit starts to boil up again, lower the heat slightly.)
2. Once the fruit becomes soft and well blended, remove from the heat and mix in the wine, cinnamon and walnuts.
3. Serve haroset at room temperature in one or two small dessert bowls at either end of the seder table.

Shoorbah m'Sbanech (Spinach-Mint Soup)

Ingredients

1 lb. fresh spinach
2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
3/4 cup coarsely chopped yellow onions
2 tsp. minced garlic
4 cups cold water
1/3 cup long-grain white rice, uncooked (Ashkenazim who don't use rice on Passover can skip)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon dried mint leaves

1. Rinse spinach leaves thoroughly in cold water to remove dirt. Dry well in a salad spinner or use paper towels to squeeze out excess water. Coarsely chop spinach, discarding the stems. Set aside.
2. Heat the oil in a large soup pot over medium heat and cook the onions, stirring until golden and soft, 3-4 minutes. Add garlic and cook, stirring until golden, about 1 minute. Be careful not to let it burn.
3. Add the spinach to the pot, one handful at a time. Toss to coat with the oil and onions. When all of the spinach has been added and mixed, cover and let steam over low heat until the spinach is cooked down and wet in texture, about 10 minutes.
4. Add the water, rice and salt. Add the mint by crushing it between the palms of your hands. Mix well. Cover and cook over medium-low heat until the flavors meld, 20-25 minutes.
5. Ladle soup into individual bowls. Serve hot or cold.
Yield: 2-4 servings

Zero'ah (Lamb Shanks)

Ingredients

4 lamb shanks
4 large garlic cloves, cut into halves
Generous dash of salt
Generous grindings of black pepper
2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
Generous dash of paprika
21/2 to 3 cups cold water, as needed
l large lemon, cut into 8 wedges
Mint jelly

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Rinse each lamb shank well under cold running water. Pat dry with paper towels. With the tip of a sharp knife, make 2 deep slits on either side of each shank. Stuff slits with half a garlic clove. Sprinkle the shanks generously with salt and pepper and rub into meat. Sprinkle each shank with 1/2 tablespoon of oil and rub in as well.
3. Place the shanks in a deep, ovenproof casserole or roasting pan and sprinkle generously with paprika. Add 2 cups of the cold water, cover tightly and place in the center of the oven. After 30 minutes, turn the shanks over, add one half cup cold water, and continue to bake for an additional 11/2 to 2 hours, turning meat every 30 minutes. Add one half cup more cold water, if the liquid appears to be drying up. The meat is done when very tender and falling off the bone.
4. Spoon the juices in the roasting pan over the shanks as you serve them. Serve hot with rice, lemon wedges and mint jelly on the side.
Yield: 4 servings

Riz (Basic Middle Eastern Rice)

Ingredients

1 cup long-grain white rice
4 cups plus 2 cups cold water
3 Tbsp. plus 1 Tbsp. vegetable oil
4 cups plus 2 cups cold water
1/2 cup finely chopped yellow onions
1/2 tsp. salt
2 Tbsp. warm water

1. Place the rice in a medium-size bowl, add 4 cups cold water, and soak for 10 minutes.
2. Over a medium flame, heat 3 Tbsp. oil in a medium-size, heavy-bottomed saucepan for about a minute. When oil is warm, add the onions and cook, stirring until wilted and golden, 3 to 4 minutes. Do not allow to brown or burn.
3. Add the remaining 2 cups cold water and the salt to the saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat. Drain the rice in a fine mesh strainer and add to the boiling water. Stir once gently and continue to boil briskly uncovered, until the water is cooked down to the surface level of the rice, about 5 minutes.
4. Cover tightly, reduce the heat as low as it will go, and steam until all the water is fully absorbed, and the rice is tender but not mushy, 10 to 20 minutes.
5. Fold rice over gently with a soup spoon. Sprinkle the top with warm water to moisten. Serve hot.
Yield: 4-5 servings (2 1/3 cups)

Ka'ik ib'Fis'dok (Flourless Pistachio Cookies)

Ingredients

11/2 cups shelled pistachios
Egg whites from 2 large eggs
3/4 cup granulated sugar

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place the pistachios in a food processor and blend until finely ground. Set aside.
2. In a large bowl, beat the egg whites on high speed with an electric hand-held mixer, until stiff peaks form. Gently pour sugar over stiff egg whites and fold in with a wooden spoon. Add the pistachios and fold in with a wooden spoon, until fully incorporated.
3. One tablespoon at a time, place the pistachio dough on a greased baking sheet, leaving 1 inch in between each cookie. Bake until lightly golden around the edges, about 15 minutes.
4. Cool 30 minutes before removing from the sheet or cookies may break.
Yield: 12-18 cookies

Jews with family origins in Germany or Eastern Europe. Having Jewish family origins in Germany or Eastern Europe. Of the culture of Jews with family origins in Spain, Portugal or North Africa. Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "Dessert" in Greek, it refers to the matzah that is hidden at the beginning of the Passover seder and which, customarily, children look for and ransom back to the adults before the conclusion. Hebrew for "telling," the text that outlines the order of the Passover seder. There are many, many versions of this book, which dates back almost 2,000 years. Because we are commanded to expand upon the story, the Haggadah contains ancient interpretations, as well as stage directions and explanations, for the Passover meal. The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." Derived from the Hebrew word "cheres," which means clay, it's a mixture of fruit, nuts, and wine eaten as part of the Passover seder. Symbolizing the mortar that the Hebrew slaves used to build the cities for Pharaoh in Egypt, it's one of the symbolic food items on the seder plate. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. Hebrew word for an unleavened bread, traditionally eaten during the holiday of Passover. Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.
Linda Morel

Linda Morel is a freelance writer based in New York.

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