Let's Eat

Celebrating Rosh Hashanah Sephardi-style, with cow's brains and quince jam

Three JC food writers share how their families welcome in the new Jewish year


Jar of homemade quince jam with fresh quince fruit on white background. Selective focus. Copy space.

Jewish food traditions stretch well beyond the apple and honey of the Ashkenazim.

Baklava, nikitouche, spinach patties and even cows’ brains are just some of the foods you’ll find on the plates of Sephardi families over Rosh Hashanah.

I was raised on the festival foods of East European Jews so in an attempt to broaden my gastronomic Rosh Hashanah horizons, I spoke to three JC food writers to find out what was on their tables growing up — and what will be on their menus this year.

Shiri Kraus’s paternal grandparents immigrated to Israel from Bulgaria. “My grandpa — whose family originated in Andalucia — had been a wealthy merchant back home, but he arrived in Israel with literally nothing. They started with a plot of derelict land and only ate what they could grow or farm on it.”

Despite this, they didn’t go short. She remembers her grandma cooking up banquets not just for the High Holy Days but also for Shabbat and out of a tiny kitchen, to boot. “My dad’s siblings all lived within a kilometre of grandma’s house. Now it baffles me to think that we all fitted around her table.”

Top of her family’s new year menu was a stew made from cows’ brains. “If you mentioned it to my dad, his eyes would light up. To him it was a delicacy,” laughs Kraus, admitting she and her siblings were less keen.

“I have a vivid memory of my grandma peeling the membranes off the brains for hours,” says Kraus, adding that the chunks of brain were cooked in a tomato-based stew which was served with thick slices of white bread to mop up the juice.

"Leek patties also graced the Krauses’ table every new year. They were so labour intensive, my grandma only made them for festivals. And when she did, there’d be a queue of people snaking outside the kitchen door, waiting to eat them.”

Another family festival favourite was quince, she says. The fruit was cooked in a sweet syrup until soft, almost jam-like, and then served in chunks with a glass of ice-cold water.

“We plucked the fruit from the trees on the plot of land and Grandma cooked them with sugar, peppercorns and cinnamon to welcome in a sweet new year. There was always a lot of sugar in her dishes at new year.”

Other sweet treats included egg and sugar-based pecan cookies made with the nuts harvested from their trees, and a self-styled marzipan. “Grandma ground the nuts finely but not as smoothly as shop-bought marzipan. She couldn’t afford gadgets to shape her marzipan prettily, so she would press the still hot mixture into a bottle cap and then pushed it out through a doily, to imprint it.”

Homemade marzipan also featured in Fabienne Viner-Luzzato’s Rosh Hashanah family meals. "My mother would use it to fill pastry cigars that we dipped in honey,” explains the French-born food writer whose family came from Tunisia. (Her apple and honey filo cigars on the facing page are inspired by her mother’s dish.)

For main, “we always ate a chicken dish too, usually with olives and preserved lemons,” she says. In fact, chicken was a bit a of a theme, she says, thanks to the atonement ritual practised by some strictly Orthodox Jews on eruv Yom Kippur which involves passing the live animal over a person’s head for good luck.

She adds: “One year, mother didn’t like my then boyfriend and insisted I have one swung around my head because she wanted my life to turn around. It was highly traumatic, and there was a lot of chicken to eat after it.”

Some of it made its way into a chicken soup served with nikitouche, tiny, round pasta shapes similar to Israeli couscous.

Other foods on the family’s table included the Tunisian Jewish dish Tfina Pkaila, a meat stew topped with a fried spinach sauce: “pkaila” means spinach in Tunisian Arabic dialect. The vegetable is thought to bring good luck, and appears on Sephardi and also Italian Rosh Hashanah seder plates.

Joanna Nissim grew up with Ashkenazi menus, but after marrying into an Indian Iraqi family, has adopted her in-laws’ seder plate tradition. She makes an individual plate for each person with a portion of each symbolic food.

She says: “I include a roasted fish head, it’s good luck to eat a bit of it, stir-fried green beans (lubya), apple, honey, a date, beetroot, carrot and some pomegranate seeds.

“I also make leek patties and spinach patties, and I occasionally cook a combined leek and spinach patty but that gets me into trouble as it causes issues with the bracha that is said over each food as it is eaten.

"And a green lamb curry is always on the table too. It’s not symbolic, but everyone loves it. I pack it with coriander, mint, ginger garlic and onions.

"A batch of deep fried potatoes, aloo Makala, are also a new year treat in the Nissim household.” They take, she says, two days to make and for this reason don’t appear on the family’s table outside of the chagim.

More traditionally, she always serves Fesenjan, the sweet and sour Iranian stew made of chicken, or another meat, with pomegranate sauce and walnuts. And the celebratory meal always finishes with baklava and sticky pastries “because they’re drenched in honey,” and a fragrant jam made with apples, cardamom and rose petals.

At the end of the day, Rosh Hashanah comes down to the sweet stuff.

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