Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Passover, now and then

Passover (or Pesach – "pay-sach" – in Hebrew) is a Jewish holiday particularly associated with food (though most are!) – or in this case, with the absence of certain foods. If you are an Ashkenazi Jew (of Eastern European, rather than Mediterranean origin), as I am, you are prohibited the following foods on Passover: anything with flour, all breads, flat or otherwise (no pita, naan, crepes, tortillas, etc), nothing with yeast at all (injera is obviously out!), peanuts, beans, pulses, lentils, all pastas, cereals, rice, cakes, doughnuts, muffins, most alcohols with yeasts or grains . . . the list goes on. Think about not eating all that for eight days, and instead eating this:

This is matzah, which most non-jews have encountered before – a flat cracker-like bread with no yeast. The most kosher is shmura (literally 'protected,' – the grains have been monitored and protected from fermentation). Shmura matzah resembles cardboard in appearance (see above) and taste. Oddly this is some people's favourite type of matzah. Great shmura matzah is handmade and round and baked in 18 minute cycles (the number 18 is very important to Judaism, as numerologically the letters that make up the number (chet and yuud) also form the word 'life' in Hebrew: chai).

My rabbi step-brother sends us some shmura matzah every year, handmade in Brooklyn. I quite like egg matzah, which is more mellow tasting, and is really meant for the infirm, the young, the old and the pregnant. I have to say I don't currently fall into any of those categories, but I'll still eat it – it's the tastiest!

My favourite part of Pesach is the seder meal. Seder means 'order,' and there are two dinners, one on the first day of Pesach and one on the second. What we eat at the seders now is significantly different than the food even my mother's generation would have had at their childhood seders, so I'll describe both, as I found the differences really interesting.

We have matzah ball soup – chicken broth with dumplings (knaidlach) made with finely-ground matzah, eggs, oil and various seasonings (depending on what you prefer). Mm. Some like them light and fluffy, some dense and chewy (that's my favourite). Here's a picture of my dad making them. When they rise to the top of the boiling pot they are done (kind of like gnocchi!).

My dad makes the soup too, with whole chickens, artichokes, garlic, celery, carrots . . . lots of veg. Here are the two bowls of matzah ball soup I had on the first and second seders (don't worry, I soon added a second matzah ball to that second bowl of soup):

My mom told me her grandmother would go to the butcher for her chicken, and the butcher would pluck your chicken in front of you and cut it into about six pieces. If you were lucky, or if you asked for them, you could get unlaid chicken eggs from inside your chicken. These were then cooked in the soup, and my mom and the other kids would fight over who would get these eggs, as they were the tastiest bit.

This is the seder plate. At the top it says Pesach in Hebrew. Right below that is a pink blob of choraine, minced horseradish. It is pink because of beets, and should be extremely hot (spicy). My brother and I pile it on to gefilte fish (to follow) to make it as hard to eat as possible and see who can stand it.

To the right of the choraine is charoset, a mixture of walnuts, wine, apples and spices, and sometimes raisins. Here is a montage of the ingredients when I made the charoset for the second seder.

Continuing around the seder plate in a clockwise direction is an orange, parsley, a lamb shankbone and an egg. Every item has a significance, which you can read about here.

After the soup, we eat gefilte fish, which I have to say is an acquired taste. It is a minced combination of various white fishes, made into a . . . mound of sorts. This is as good as it ever looks:

And nowadays you just buy it in cans or jars, and it comes suspended in a horrible clear jelly. Here are two cans – why is one 'gold label,' I wonder? As you can see, you put choraine on it, partially to disguise the flavour.

However, gefilte fish used to be made by hand. My great-grandmother would go out and buy a live carp and cart it home, run the bath, and let it swim around for a week in the bathtub, until it was needed for its contribution to the gefilte fish. My mom and her brothers would visit it and watch it and name it (name most often chosen: Jackie), and then cheerfully return a few days later to eat it.

For the main course of dinner, we now eat turkey or beef, but people also eat brisket or chicken or lamb. My family also used to eat knishes, which are dumplings made with potato dough, schmaltz (chicken fat), and a filling of cheap meats (lung, liver, intestines, tongue) that were ground by hand. It was some serious work for my great-grandmother! Here is the table set for the first seder dinner. You are meant to drink four glasses of wine during a seder, but we usually just drink one glass in four parts.

And here is everybody digging in to dinner on the second night:

There aren't many desserts that are left to you at Passover, as flour is out, so that means no cookies, cake, pastries, etc. So some eat cakes made with egg whites (I ate one this Pesach made with thirteen egg whites in it!) or small macaroons made with coconut or chocolate. I like these candy fruit slices that always seem to turn up at Pesach:

And I made meringues for the second seder:

My mom says they used to have tsimmes for dessert, which is sort of a stew with prunes and apricots and raisins and a simple syrup (though other families make it savoury, and have carrots in it). Dessert would have been fairly simple.

Apart from the seders, Pesach is a difficult time for eating balanced meals. I managed to do it this year, but it was a struggle! Thankfully the next holiday – Shavuot – is the cheesecake holiday!


moyrad said...

Mmmmm everything looks so tasty. One of my favourites is the chicken soup with matzah balls. MMMMMMMMMMM We have to make that sometime. I must say the one time i sampled the charaine it was hot. So corrosive that it ate away the tupperware it was stored in.

I would like to know how your Bubbi and Great-Bubbi killed the fish.

Next year we should have a pesach for the orphans here.Don't you agree.

Meg said...

Wow Laura – that was such a great post! You explained the passover meals before, but seeing the pictures made it so much more real to me. I love that story about the your grandmother and the fish – I always remember you talking about illustrating that. You still should!

I like those candy fruit slices too :)

We should definitely make matzah ball soup again. And with artichokes this time – that sounds so good!