The history of Jewish food is like a puzzle or a mosaic. During the Middle Ages and around the time of the Spanish expulsion of Jews in 1492, two important Jewish centers emerged in Western Europe - Iberia (called Sepharad; Sephardim pl.) and the Rhine River Valley. In Central and Eastern Europe, the Jews that lived in that region were called Ashkenaz (which means Germany; Ashkenazim pl.) Although Sephardim and Ashkenazim were geographically close and shared many traditions and religious rites, they were also dissimilar in many ways. Gradually, each developed different customs including the celebration of holidays, law, the pronunciation of Hebrew, and food.
The Ashkenazim became resourceful in adapting to the local foods, while those Jews living in Muslim countries (such as Spain prior to 1492) had culinary customs that were almost identical to those of their neighbors. Like Jewish law, the Muslim diet forbade the eating of pork, and used little if any dairy products in the preparation of meals. Therefore, Sephardic Jews were easily able to adopt Muslim foods and recipes. The Jews of Spain and Portugal developed a diet that combined Iberian, Arabic, and Jewish cooking styles. This cuisine was much more diverse and sophisticated than that of the medieval French/German Jews.
The Jews who were natives of Middle Eastern countries, who are referred to as Hamizrach or Oriental Jews, were the ethnical Jewish communities of the Orient. They were from countries that included Iran, Iraq, Kurdistan, Armenia, Uzbekistan, Bukhara, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Yemen, Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, Algeria, and part of Morocco. At the height of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey controlled many of these areas. When the Spanish expelled the Jewish communities in 1492, many Sephardim fled to Turkey at the invitation of the Sultan. Because a large number of Sephardic Jews lived in the same areas as the Hamizrach in Turkey, they have more or less blended together. Even today there remains some confusion as to who is Sephardic and who is Hamizrach.
According to author Claudia Roden in The Book of Jewish Foods, “Every cuisine tells a story. Jewish food tells the story of an uprooted, migrating people and their vanished worlds. It lives in people’s minds and has been kept alive because of what it evokes and represents.” (Roden 1997:3)
What is familiar fare in one Jewish community may be unfamiliar to the Jews of another. Jews developed new recipes wherever they went by adapting and adopting the foods of that country to their kosher diets, making it their own with the addition of a special spice or a new ingredient.
When it comes to food, Sephardim, Ashkenazim, and Hamizrach all share similarities and differences with one another. No matter where they lived, their diets conformed to the rules of Kashrut, Jewish religious dietary laws, and they utilized whatever ingredients were available from the land and sea. All three groups prepare many of the same foods according to local customs and traditions, but the spices and ingredients in their recipes may differ. Where Ashkenazic Jews might use potatoes, barley and sweet paprika, other Jews will use rice, chickpeas and spices such as saffron.
A History of Turkish and Sephardic Cuisine
Turkish cuisine is extremely diverse, and includes a nearly global mixture of spices, condiments, and recipes from northern, southern, eastern, and western communities, countries, and empires. This complex culinary combination was the result of the trade routes through Constantinople (now Istanbul) and the expansion of the Ottoman Empire. Food was extremely important to the Ottomans, and they would only incorporate the very best food into their cuisine.
Two components were combined that aided in developing Sephardic cooking in Turkey: Spanish heritage and Turkish culture. In fact, many recipes still carry their Spanish or Ladino titles. There was a gradual osmosis or fusion of existing cooking styles. This successful fusion of elements merged into individual dishes.
Sephardic cuisine was very similar to Turkish cuisine, and over lapped in many ways. Sephardic cooking is sensual, aromatic, and colorful, and the dishes make use of anything that provides flavor, including seeds, bits of bark, resins, pods, petals, pistils and flower waters. The Sephardic Jews were very sensitive to beauty and pleasure, and good eating has always been part of their traditional Jewish life. Their cooking is of a kind that lifts the spirits. Hospitality had an all-important place in their culture, and they entertained warmly, graciously, and constantly.
Within the Sephardic community, there were as many separate cuisines and cultures as there were geographic areas, so there is no single Sephardic recipe for anything! For instance, the cooking of the Jews of northern Morocco comprised Spanish, Jewish, and Arabic traditions. Jewish desserts were strongly influenced by the extraordinary capacity for sweets so dear to the Turkish palate. Syrups are lavishly used to enrich the pastries and provide a melting texture to cakes. Orange cakes are typical of all the Mediterranean Jewish communities, something these communities have in common with Spain.
Another sweet that Sephardim are associated with is Tishpishti, sometimes called revani in honor of a Turkish poet who lived during the sixteenth century (Marks 2000), tezpişti, tishpitti, tichpichti, and tezpistil. This dessert is credited to the Sephardic Jews who immigrated to Turkey after 1492 (Wassermann 2009). According to Nathan, the word tishpishti comes from the Turkish words tez (quick) and pisht (done)- a quickly cooked cake (Nathan 2001). Tishpishti is a famous Judeo-Spanish specialty of Turkey that is a rich, luscious Passover walnut cake bathed in syrup (Roden 1997). There are similar recipes that exist in Northern Spain, so the dessert may have originated there, possibly as a Passover cake of the Jews there. However, other authors state that Tishpishti was always served on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year (Miner and Krinn 1984).
Tishipisti is an extremely versatile dish. According to some authors, Sephardic Jews made the cakes out of Semolina, but adapted the recipe for Passover by using matza (Marks 2000) and ground almonds in place of the flour (Wassermann 2009). Another author tells us that tishpishti is a cake baked for Sabbaths and holidays, while others claim that the cake is used throughout the year. Although many cooks use walnuts, a variety of other nuts including almonds and hazelnuts have been used as well (Goldstein 2000, Marks 2000). Some cooks use syrup made of honey, while others use a sugar syrup that is infused with lemon (Goldstein 2000).
Goldstein, Joyce. 2000. Sephardic Flavors: Jewish Cooking of the Mediterranean. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books.
Ilkin, Nur, and Sheilah Kaufman. 2010. The Turkish Cookbook: Regional Recipes
and Stories. Northampton, MA: Interlink Publishing.
Kaufman, Sheilah. 2002. A Taste of Turkish Cuisine. New York: Hippocrene Books.
Marks, Gil. 2000. The World of Jewish Desserts. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Miner, Vivian Aichech, and Linda Krinn. 1984. From My Grandmother’s Kitchen: A Sephardic Kitchen. FL: Triad Publishing Company.
Nathan, Joan. 2001. The Foods of Israel Today. New York: Knopf.
Roden, Claudia. 1997. The Book of Jewish Foods. New York: Viking.
Wasserman, Tina. 2009. Entree to Judaism: A Culinary Exploration of the Jewish Diaspora. New York: Urj Press.
(Spanish Walnut Cake with Syrup)
Typically prepared for Passover among Sephardic Jews.
For the syrup:
2 cups sugar
2 cups water
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 tablespoon rose water
for the cake :
a little melted butter for the pan
5 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup walnuts, chopped
1/ 2 cup ground almonds (almond flour or meal)
1 cup sugar
Freshly squeezed juice and zest of one orange
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
To make the syrup: In a medium-size pan over medium heat, boil the sugar and the water with the lemon juice for 15 minutes. Stir in the rose water, mix well, remove from heat. Cool, cover, and refrigerate.
To make the cake: Preheat the oven to 350F. Line the bottom of an 8x8-inch cake pan with foil or parchment paper. Brush with a little melted butter.
Using a mixer, combine all the ingredients
thoroughly. Pour batter into the cake prepared pan and bake for 1 hour, until browned on top. A tester should come out clean.
Immediately turn the cake out into a deep dish, peel off the foil or paper, and pour half of the cold syrup over the cake, or cut the cake into serving pieces and put them on plates, drizzle syrup over each pieces allowing them to absorb the syrup for 15 minutes, then turn and pour remaining syrup over the cake/pieces.
Serves 6 to 8.
Walnut Spice Cake With SyrupTezpişti
Aegean, Marmara, and throughout Turkey
This is a version of a very popular cake that is served throughout Turkey and Greece all year round. In Turkey, it is very popular among the Sephardic Jewish community and a flourless version is typically prepared for Passover. Other versions of the recipe add cognac
to the sugar syrup. For the best flavor, make the cake a day ahead. The combination
of nuts, a moist cake, and syrup will have your guests begging for the recipe!
1 cup canola oil plus extra for greasing
1½ cups sugar
3 large eggs
3 teaspoons baking powder
1/ 2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/ 2 teaspoon ground cloves
2 cups flour
1 cup milk plus 1 teaspoon vinegar, mixed well
1 cup chopped walnuts
Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease and flour a 9 x 13-inch cake pan. Using a mixer set to medium speed, beat the oil with the sugar until well blended, about 3 minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, and cloves, mixing well. Set the mixer to its lowest speed and gradually add the flour and milk in alternating batches. Stir in nuts and pour batter into the prepared pan. Bake for about 35 to 40 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool in pan on a wire rack. Cut into diamond shapes.
To Prepare the Syrup:
Combine all the ingredients in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Boil on medium heat for 5 to 7 minutes, stirring constantly. If using, add the cognac or brandy, mixing well. Pour hot syrup over cooled cake. Let cake sit for several hours to absorb the syrup. Serve the diamonds in cupcake papers if desired.
2 cups sugar
1 cup water
2 cinnamon sticks
1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 tablespoons cognac or Metaxa
(Greek brandy) (optional)
This version of Tezpişti, is from THE TURKISH COOKBOOK Regional Recipes and Stories by Nur Ilkin and Sheilah Kaufman (Interlink Publishing) which will be released in the next few months. We have also written A TASTE OF TURKISH CUISINE (Hippocrene Books, 2002) which is in its third printing.
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