When haimishe food is rice with lots of spice

By Zoe Winograd, June 6, 2013
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For many of us living in the UK, Jewish cooking is all about the Ashkenazi staples — gefilte fish, cholent and chopped liver.

Yet increasingly, the more exotic Sephardi food traditions are starting to register on our horizons.
Following in the footsteps of Claudia Roden, many of our favourite food writers and cooks offer very different customs. For them traditional home cooking was based on ingredients like orange blossom, tamarind and dates rather than pickles and chicken fat.

“Babylonian Jewish cooking is very close to Iraqi cooking,” says Linda Dangoor, author of Flavours of Babylon. Dangoor left Baghdad at 10 years old but remembers a childhood of Babylonian and Persian recipes with an abundance of vegetables and spices: “Iraq was the land of plenty for fruit and vegetables from the sun and fertile soil.”

Her family moved to Beirut, lived in France for 14 years, then came to the UK. “A love of food is all I share with the French,” she laughs, since butter — a French staple — was not common in kosher Iraqi households.
Dangoor maintains the customs learned from her maternal grandmother in Iraq in her London kitchen. During Pesach she flavours desserts with nuts, almonds and rose water — “our sweets are perfumed which is a Middle Eastern trait” — and her dumplings are made with tamarind and dates.

For Shabbat, she makes t’beet (recipe, right) the Jewish Babylonian equivalent to cholent. And the all-important ingredient on any Iraqi table is rice — “rice is with everything”.

Putney-based Claudia Camhi learned to cook in her family’s kitchen in Chile. “It was the heart of the home — always full of people and food,” says the mother-of-two.

Her culinary background was mixed as her grandparents had migrated from Turkey to Chile in the 1960s: “My family had to adapt the traditions of the Ottoman Empire to the ingredients that were available to them in Chile,” she explains.

Her family used a plentiful amount of native American spice merken, which they infused with Middle Eastern and South American ingredients such as aubergines, corn, roasted potatoes, stuffed peppers and, of course, rice. Camhi also recalls that “rice was always on the table”.

Now living in London, Camhi continues to fill her home with the traditions of her childhood. “The weather is different here which alters the cooking a little, but our kitchen still remains a hub.” On a Friday night Camhi’s children enjoy the mixed tastes of her heritage. “My daughters love broccoli which actually originated from the Mediterranean. We eat it in a very Chilean-Spanish way like a tortilla.”

Fabienne Viner-Luzzato has a name that reflects her rich Sephardi heritage. Her great-grandparents were born in Italy but moved to Tunisia where her grandparents, parents and five of her six siblings were born. In the 1960s her parents moved to Paris where Viner-Luzzato was born and raised. Her family home was always full of people and traditional Tunisian food.

She describes the warm feeling of waking-up on Friday mornings to the smell of couscous and freshly baked challah. “Friday night was a big thing in our home when my mother would cook traditional Tunisian foods for 20 or so people,” she recalls.

The meal started with a kemia (Tunisian-style tapas) which included roasted almonds, brik (filo pastry filled with tuna or egg), shakshuka and many salads. “After that you were not hungry but we still ate couscous, vegetables and chicken,” she laughs.

Like her Sephardi peers they also ate a lot of rice dishes, especially on Pesach when traditionally rice was the only staple food available. She explains that Tunisian Jews had many Jewish traditions unique to them such as putting a green leaf on top of the cupboards at the end of Pesach to ensure a green, productive year.

She also learned her cooking skills from her mother. “I remember going to the markets with my mother, choosing the fish and looking at the vegetables. She learnt this from her mother who learnt from her mother who learnt from her mother. They passed on traditions and recipes.”

Now with an Ashkenazi husband, Viner-Luzzato’s Friday nights do begin with chicken soup but they invariably also include couscous and hours of cooking with her three children.

The exotic dishes from the rich melting pot of these and other Sephardi cooks offer us the chance to bring a host of colour and spice to our tables.

Last updated: 2:00pm, June 6 2013