Matza ball soup, matza brei, gefilte fish, matza kugel and carrot tzimmes; these are just some of the dishes that are familiar Passover fare within the Ashkenazi community and are what most people associate with the holiday in North America. As a non-Jew, when I first began to study, and of course eat Jewish food (they go hand in hand, in my books), it was Ashkenazi food that I was introduced to. As I began to look at Jewish food traditions in more depth, I learned of the world of Sephardic cooking.
It is generally lighter than Ashkenazi food and uses more vegetables and spices. Since the Sephardic community spans many countries the flavors can go from Mediterranean to Middle Eastern. Although the majority of the Montreal Jewish community consists of Ashkenazi Jews, there is also a large Sephardic community that often goes unrecognized in the face of the Ashkenazi majority. Moroccan Jews make up a large portion of the Sephardic community, and the list of Passover foods given at the beginning of this article are not foods that they generally associate with the holiday. Rather, Moroccan Jews have their own unique and delicious food traditions that make up an important part of the Jewish food landscape of Montreal.
The Moroccan Jewish community of Montreal numbers between 15,000 and 20,000, and many began arriving in 1965, with their numbers significantly increasing following the Six Day War in 1967. A combination of factors such as demographic changes resulting from the end of World War II, the creation of the state of Israel, the acquisition of independence by Arab countries in North Africa, the rising nationalism that went along with independence movements and tensions in the Middle East prompted Jews to leave Morocco in large numbers.
Upon their arrival in Montreal, the integration of Moroccan Jews into the existing Jewish community proved to be difficult. Although they shared historical and religious elements of Jewish identity with the English speaking Ashkenazi community who were already settled in the city, there nevertheless existed important differences. The Moroccan Jewish community was defined by different ethno-cultural characteristics that developed through centuries of living in North Africa. There arose tensions between the two groups that made for an often difficult relationship. In more recent times a better relationship has begun to develop between the two communities, with food being one way for them to learn about each other.
Although Moroccan Jews are subject to the restrictions concerning the consumption of chametz throughout Passover, unlike Ashkanezi Jews, most continue to eat kitniyot during the holiday. This refers to legumes and grains other than those that are part of the five species that can become chametz and are forbidden (these include naked wheat varieties such as durum, bread wheat, emmer, einkorn, six-rowed barley and two rowed barley). Although, it is common for Moroccan Jews to consume rice (which is a kitniyot) during Passover, as is also the case with Jews from other Arabic speaking countries, there is nevertheless a small portion of Moroccan Jews who abstain from it. Furthermore, it is common for many Moroccans to abstain from dairy throughout the holiday.
The food of the Moroccan Jewish community developed alongside, and was greatly influenced by, the surrounding food traditions of their Moroccan Muslim neighbors.
The local Muslim tradition of preparing meat stews that have been sweetened with honey or sugar for festive events was adopted by the Moroccan Jewish community. In turn, during Passover the latter tradition was combined with eating mutton or lamb stews as a commemoration of the lamb sacrificed by the slaves on the eve of the Exodus. Agneau aux Pruneaux (Lamb with Prunes pictured left) is one such recipe and according to cookbook author Claudia Roden, happens to be one of the most popular of these dishes. It happens to be easy to make, with the end result being a dish whose subtly spiced flavors do not betray the ease with which it comes together. Although the recipe calls for honey or sugar to sweeten this dish, because the prunes provide enough sweetness on their own, the honey or sugar called for in the recipe are not necessarily needed. The finished dish is a mix of tender cubes of lamb that fall apart at the touch of a fork, mixed with sweet pieces of prunes both of which are complemented by the addition of tangy ginger and the warmth of cinnamon and nutmeg.
One of the most distinctive aspects of the Passover celebrations of the Moroccan Jewish community is the way in which they end the holiday. In order to break Passover, Moroccan Jews hold the celebration of the Mimouna. This is a tradition that developed in Morocco but which was brought to the new places in which members of the community settled after emigrating. In Morocco, the evening of the Mimouna would be a time during which Jews would open up their homes to both their Jewish and Muslim neighbors. An elaborate table would be laid which would include and dried fruits, nuts, various sweets, and cookies. However, the most popular dish served on this night is a yeast pancake called Mufleta (pictured right), which is served spread with butter and honey. Due to the fact that it contains yeast, the Mufleta rises slightly and becomes lighter as it cooks. Mufleta was originally cooked on earthenware griddles or on an inverted tangine, but now are usually cooked in a metal skillet. They are best served as soon as they come out of the pan when they are warm and soft. Although they take a few hours to prepare, they are definitely worth the effort and are a true Moroccan delicacy.
These two dishes are a great way to get to know the food culture of the Moroccan Jewish community and in turn add a taste of their food ways to your own Passover celebrations.
Agneau aux Pruneaux (Lamb with Prunes)
From Claudia Roden’s The Book of Jewish Food
1 large onion, chopped.
1 garlic clove, finely chopped.
2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil.
1 lbs bones lamb shoulder or fillet of neck, cubed and trimmed of excess but not all fat (I got my butcher to cube the meat for me which makes this recipe even easier)
Salt and pepper, to taste
½ teaspoon saffron powder (I didn’t put any in the stew and I don’t think the recipe suffered for it)
½ teaspoon fresh ginger, finely chopped or grated on a microplane
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ pound pitted prunes, cut into halves
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1-3 tablespoons honey or sugar (optional)
1. Heat the oil, once it is warm add the onion and the garlic and fry until soft. Add the meat and brown it lightly on all sides. Add salt, pepper, saffron, ginger, and nutmeg. Cover the meat with water, stir well and simmer for 1 ½ hours, until the meat is tender. If the meat becomes too dry while it is simmering, simply add more water.
2. Add the prunes, cinnamon and honey or sugar (if using), and add plenty of black pepper to mitigate the sweetness. Simmer for about 15-20 minutes longer until the sauce thickens.
From Gil Marks’ Encyclopedia of Jewish Food
1 package (2 ¼ teaspoons) active dry yeast or 1 (0.6 ounce) cake fresh yeast
1 ½ cups warm water (105°F to 115°F for dry yeast; 80°F to 85°F for fresh yeast)
1 teaspoon sugar or honey
2 teaspoons table salt or 4 teaspoons kosher salt
About 3 ¾ cups (18 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour, or 2 cups (10 ounces) unbleached flour and 2 cups (12 ounces) fine semolina
About ½ cup vegetable oil for dipping
Melted butter for drizzling
Honey for drizzling
1. Dissolve the yeast in ¼ cup water. Stir in the sugar and let stand until foamy, 5 to 10 minutes. In a large bowl, combine the yeast mixture, remaining water, salt, and 2 cups flour. Gradually add enough remaining flour to make a supple dough slightly softer than regular bread dough. On a lightly floured surface, knead until smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes.
2. Divide the dough into 20 egg-sized balls or 40 small balls (half-eggs). The traditional way is to grab the mass of dough and squeeze the desired amount between a forefinger and thumb, them twist and pinch off the protruding ball. Dip and roll the balls in the oil to coat, place on a flat surface, and let stand for 30 minutes.
3. Heat an ungreased large cast-iron or nonstick skillet or griddle over medium heat.
4. On an oiled flat surface and using oiled hands, flatten the balls into 1/8 inch thick rounds. Cook the dough rounds until golden brown on the bottom, about 2 minutes. Turn and cook until golden and cooked through, about 1 minute. Cover the mufletas with a kitchen towel until serving to keep soft. Eat warm, drizzled with butter and honey, before the breads toughens.