Preserving a Diverse Culinary Heritage, One Recipe at a Time

Written by Jackie Feldman on . Posted in Food/Dining

Jennifer Abadi’s upcoming cookbook shines a spotlight on Jewish cuisine and culture from Africa, Asia, and Sephardic Europe.

Like many women in the Sephardic world, Jennifer Abadi realized early on that the recipes and cuisine her family brought over from Syria were in danger of extinction. While there are close to 150,000 Syrian Jews spread out across the world, many of the traditional dishes and recipes are being lost due to assimilation, newer food trends and preparation techniques, and the passage of time.

 

With the help of her family, including her grandmother Fritzie, Jennifer was able to record these historic Syrian Jewish recipes, interwoven with stories about her family, into the cookbook “A Fistful of Lentils: Syrian-Jewish Recipes from Grandma Fritzie’s Kitchen” (available on Amazon).

I’ve owned “A Fistful of Lentils” and followed Jennifer’s food blog, Too Good to Passover, for years. As an amateur chef, food preservationist, and lover of all things Sephardic, I’ve always been impressed with her recipes and dedication to preserving Syrian Sephardic cultural heritage and cuisine.

Jennifer is getting ready to publish a new cookbook, “Too Good to Passover: Sephardic & Judeo-Arabic Seder Menus and Memories from Africa, Asia, and Europe.” I spoke with her about her new book, the idea of “Jewish cuisine,” and the future of Sephardic culture in America.

Tell our readers a bit more about your background and life. Where is your family from originally? 

My mother’s family is originally from Aleppo, Syria, but my mother was born here in the U.S. and raised in Brooklyn and later Oklahoma City. My great-grandfather, Haham Matloub Abadi, was the first head rabbi of the Syrian-Jewish community in Brooklyn. My maternal grandmother Fritzie was the oldest of five children and was born in Aleppo. She came to the States when she was about eight years old in 1923. My mother's father, Abraham Hidary, was also born in Aleppo.

My father was born and raised in New York, and his mother was from Riga, Latvia. His father was American. I was also born and raised in New York, in the Upper West Side of New York City, and still live here today. 

How did your cultural experiences growing up shape your cooking style? 

My experiences in Syrian Jewish culture were mostly from my visits to Brooklyn when I was younger. I remember my great-grandmother and what a fantastic pastry-maker she was. Her cookies and pastries were perfectly formed and flavored. She had an extra full sized freezer in one of the bedrooms right between two beds which held all kinds of treats she made ahead for guests, dinners, parties, Shabbat. Her main language was Arabic, and she spoke English with a thick accent that I can still hear. Whenever I would visit the SY's (as they refer to themselves) with my family, tables of flavorful and colorful food would be presented and generously spread out for all to enjoy. I loved this beautiful display of hospitality for her guests. It felt warm and welcoming. There were always many different dishes to choose from, and large portions. 

Back home in Manhattan life was much different from Brooklyn where you felt like you were stepping back in time. Even though my mother would prepare contemporary foods of the time, she often threw in spices like cumin, allspice, or mint into her dishes. We also seemed to eat a lot more yogurt than my friends did, as well as pita bread and bulgur wheat (items no one else I knew in the neighborhood ate at the time, except for maybe my cousins who lived down the street). 

Before the blog and the cookbooks, how did you get involved in teaching people about cooking?

My first cooking class was at the JCC Manhattan on the Upper West Side, where I taught Syrian-Jewish cooking. Eventually I started to teach at other places like ICE [The Institute of Culinary Education], as well as the Natural Gourmet Institute. I teach North African, Mediterranean, Central Asian, and Middle Eastern cooking and culture. My best sources for recipes are from great home cooks, and my interest is not only in learning how to make delicious food, but how to record, develop, and preserve recipes from being lost with each generation.

Tell us about your new cookbook, “Too Good to Passover.”

I have been researching, developing, and writing this book for 10 years. My goal for this book is to preserve the Passover traditions and foods for the Jewish communities of the Mediterranean, Middle East, and Asia that have been changing due to migration to North America, Israel, and other parts of Europe. I also thought it important to record recipes that may be lost in the younger generations due to food trends and the changing ways in which people eat.

It has 21 chapters, with each chapter dedicated to a different Jewish community in the Arabic, Mediterranean, and Sephardic world. There are 23 countries represented in all, including Turkey, Spain, Morocco, Egypt, Ethiopia, Greece, India, and Iran, to name a few. Each chapter opens with interviews of one or more individuals from that particular community about their memories of Passover and the Seder.

It will be self-published in both printed and e-book form, and will also include my own illustrations. My goal is to have it ready for Passover 2018.

How did you approach the challenge of creating a cookbook that would also serve as a vehicle for preserving and sharing different Jewish cultures?

During my research, I discovered many interesting things that are hard to relate in a few sentences. By taking the time to speak with individuals from so many different regions while focusing on only one major holiday, I was able to see what traditions were shared from one community to the next, and how they were different. I also observed how each Jewish community adopted food techniques or recipe styles, as well as rituals from their Christian, Muslim, or Hindu neighbors, and adapted them to their own needs.

By talking to over 100 people about their experiences, I learned that history, geography, and politics changed the way different Jewish communities observed Passover.

My goal is to record, develop, and share recipes from these communities so that an important part of our heritage is not completely lost over time. I also want to redefine what is considered Jewish food, and reinterpret the word “cuisine” to include Jewish dishes that are Sephardic, Judeo-Arabic, and Ashkenazic, and have their own styles, techniques, traditions, and ingredients.

Do you see a revived interest in Sephardic culture, traditions, and cooking in America?

I don’t think it’s so much of a “revived” interest but rather an overall new interest in non-Ashkenazic Jewish cooking.

In America, “Jewish” cooking and culture has traditionally been defined by the Eastern European majority who live in the U.S. Even non-Jews I meet often equate foods like gefilte fish and potato latkes as being Jewish; they don’t really think of Arabic food, or dishes with Central Asian flavors to be Jewish.

Some of the interest in Arabic cooking has come out of recent news about the Middle East. Americans are becoming more educated about countries like Iraq, Iran, and Syria, and learning that Christians as well as Jews also lived there. For the Ashkenazic community, there is an interest in food that they consider to be more flavorful than typical Eastern European dishes. Sephardic dishes are especially appealing because they are exotic but simultaneously have a connection to Jewish culture and history.

There is also a general interest in Western culture in discovering one’s past through DNA testing, which has created more curiosity in other cultures; this includes links to a Jewish past.

What are your future plans?

I will be promoting “Too Good to Passover” by giving talks about my research, and I will continue to teach hands-on cooking classes for all of my recipes from these regions as well as food demonstrations. I’m not sure what I will do after that, but I have thought about developing a food product based upon some of my recipes. We will have to see!

By Jackie Feldman

 Jackie Feldman is a young professional living and working in Washington, D.C. She runs the group “Sephardic Jews in DC,” which hosts events in the metro DC area that celebrate Sephardic culture, religious tradition, and customs. She also has her own food blog that features a healthier spin on many traditional Jewish and Sephardic recipes: https://healthysephardiccooking.wordpress.com/.