Author Archives: Copeland Marks

About Copeland Marks

Copeland Marks has written numerous cookbooks, including The Great Book of Couscous and The Exotic Kitchens of Peru.

North African Cuisine

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Excerpted and reprinted with permission from Sephardic Cooking, published by Donald I. Fine, Inc.

Morocco

The Moroccan cuisine is considered the most inventive, flavorful and perhaps ingenious of the cooking styles of the Maghreb; at least the French say this about their former colony. Frequently, it is included in the world’s 10 greatest cuisines, which is an indication of its reputation in culinary circles. Jewish cooking is an amalgam of traditional local dishes married to Sephardic ideas brought to Morocco at the time of the Inquisition and, importantly, guided by kashrut (the Jewish dietary laws). From these various influences, a universal Jewish style emerged and was polished over the centuries.

The hallmark of Moroccan cooking is the use of aromatic spices such as cinnamon, coriander, ginger, saffron, turmeric, and paprika for color. Dried fruits—figs, apricots, prunes, raisins—are included in meat dishes and complement the spices that emphasize the sweet fruits. Almonds, walnuts, and olives, the produce of a rich agriculture, are lavishly incorporated in many dishes. To top if off there is the famous harissa, a chili‑hot condiment, available for a sharp contrasting impact.

Salads in their numbers, both fresh and cooked, are some of the most popular concoctions in a semidesert atmosphere. From the Jewish point of view they are pareve and can be served with both dairy and meat dishes. Couscous is the single preparation most closely identified with Morocco and other Maghreb countries.

The Sabbath and its admonishment to pray and rest has also produced an assortment of scheena, those all‑inclusive one‑dish meals that are prepared late on Friday, cooked all night over smoldering coals, and are ready for dining after synagogue at noontime on the Sabbath. They are generally meat, potatoes, chick‑peas and seasonings, very slowly baked and melting in flavor and aroma.

Tangier

Pointed toward Spain but politically ruled by the whims of sultans, the town of Tangier lived a life of its own, distinct from both Spain and Morocco but dependent on both. The Jewish community, religious and poor, nevertheless developed a variety of dishes: some to celebrate the Sabbath, some for daily use, and many based on the inevitable couscous.

Fish was the principal food, the logical outcome of living in a port town with such quantity and variety of fish from the Mediterranean. The seasonings were mostly garlic, onion, tomato, herbs and the occasional cayenne pepper to stimulate the taste buds. No dramatic culinary styles were uncovered, but the sweet couscous of the Tangerines is unique. Homestyle cooking, leaning toward Spanish taste, is the key to the cooking of Tangier.

Tunisia

Following their expulsion from Spain in 1492, Jews crossed into North Africa and filtered into Tunisia, principally Tunis, joining the already‑settled community there in the Hara, the Jewish quarter, which had been established in the 11th century. An additional community from Leghorn (Livorno), Italy, joined the Tunisian Jews in the 16th and 17th centuries, thereby adding the Italian flavors and style of cooking to the existing cuisine.

A brief intrusion occurred in 1535, when the Spanish conquered Tunisia and ruled for about 40 years. They were fresh from their conquest of Mexico and Guatemala and it is logical that they may have brought the hot chili with them as well as other New World botanical discoveries, which profoundly influenced the cuisine. Hot chilies were incorporated into harissa, the ubiquitous spicy table condiment beloved by Tunisians.

The Turks conquered Tunisia from the Spanish in 1574 and introduced their celebrated pastries, which are the backbone of Tunisian sweets to this day.

No cuisine develops in isolation. The stage was now set for the assembly and evolution of a cuisine that included disparate but compatible ideas from the Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, Spanish, Portuguese, Turks, Italians, and finally the French, when they established a French Protectorate in 1881. Tunis, the capital city, became an important center of Jewish learning.

It was the French, with their genius for culinary adventures, who pulled all the components of the existing cooking styles together. The presentation of dishes was of special importance in developing a sophisticated culinary environment and the French stressed this facet of food preparation.

A worldwide dissemination of foodstuffs resulted in such imports as the tomato from the Valley of Mexico, turmeric from India, the artichoke from the Romans—all for the delectation of the 19th‑century Tunisians.

Tunisian Jewish cooking in the 20th century is based on religious dietary laws, married to the existing established style of cooking that the Jews found upon their arrival from Spain, the use of this wealth of ingredients, plus their own intrinsic ingenuity in inventing or modifying local foods. Cooking for the Sabbath resulted in the t’fina of many varieties—that exclusively Jewish pot‑au‑feu, which obviates the necessity of cooking on the Sabbath. Then there is the couscous, the national dish of Tunisia, which the Jewish cook glorifies with several modifications.

Personal preferences in dining are not due to political exhortations but are reflections of a culture, a way of life, sometimes based on one’s economic status. The Jewish cooking of Tunisia, as in other countries of the Maghreb, often makes something out of nothing or more frequently places an individual stamp on the country’s existing style of cooking.

Libya

Jews from Leghorn, Italy, arrived in Libya in the 17th century. They settled in Tripoli, the capital, and the Italian influence on the cuisine began.

How would one describe Libyan Jewish cooking? Greatly influenced by Italy, it still relies on the basic practices of the Maghreb (North Africa). Couscous, chick‑peas, white beans, lamb, beef, fish, hot chilies, parsley, basil, tomato paste, cuminseed, caraway, turmeric, and nutmeg add flavor to foods that are hearty, simply seasoned and imaginatively combined. The kosher dietary laws are paramount to the cookery.

Couscous, a pasta, is the national food of Libya and of the Jews. It is prepared at home. Arab influence contributed cinnamon and other spices, which are used with meat, especially the use of the cinnamon stick, as being more subtle than the ground cinnamon. Italian influence inspired the use of tomato paste and sauces, which, in turn, came from Central America via the Spanish.

The hot red chilies especially took firm hold in the area and these are used generously although often subdued by lemon juice. Hot and pungent flavors are hallmarks of the cooking.

Libyan cooking is seasonal and depends upon the availability of vegetables and fruits. Jews had an obsession with the freshness of the foods, fish and fowl. Jewish men were the shoppers for the Sabbath and holidays, buying up the necessary quantity and variety of foods in the bazaar. The women stayed home and cooked.

T’fina, dishes prepared for the Sabbath, can be translated as “buried in the coals”—the way they once cooked the food and kept it warm until the families returned from the synagogue to partake of the Saturday noonday meal. Ashkenazis had their cholent and the Jews of Libya (and Tunisia) their t’fina. A grand illustration of this is the Lamb with Kishke and Peas. (Everyone has a word for it—in Morocco it’s scheena and in Baghdad, hameen.)

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Mediterranean Food

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Excerpted and reprinted with permission from Sephardic Cooking, published by Donald I. Fine, Inc.

Turkey

At the time that the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, Turkey was the center of the Ottoman Empire, which existed from the late 13th century to its decline in 1924, when Kemal Ataturk, the designer of modern Turkey, abolished the Ottoman caliphate. Sultan Beyazit II, who reigned from 1482‑1512, responding to the expulsion with compassion but also a degree of opportunism, rescued the Jews from the Inquisition, causing the famous 16th‑century historian Rabbi Eliyahu Capsali to relate: “So the king of Turkey heard of all the evil that the Spanish king had brought upon the Jews and heard that they were seeking a refuge and resting place. He took pity on them, and wrote letters and sent emissaries to proclaim throughout his kingdom that none of his city rulers may be wicked enough to refuse entry to the Jews or expel them.”

After that edict, Turkey, the Middle East, and the Balkans opened up their borders. Tens of thousands of expelled Jews came to Turkey. (Were they the boat people of the 15th century?) Istanbul, Salonika, Greece, and Izmir (formerly Smyrna) became important centers of the Sephardim.

The Iberian Jews of Spain and Portugal were highly educated in the professions, in international trade, finance, and medicine, and Sultan Beyazit, knowing this full well, welcomed this transfusion of human talent into Turkey. The Jews brought the first printing press to the Ottoman Empire, for example, and established a printing industry in 1494, two years after the expulsion.

They were not alone in their religion. They found, upon arrival in Turkey, Jews who were long‑time inhabitants of the region and known as Romaniates, pre‑Ottoman Empire Jews who were named thus through their early Roman connections. These Romaniates were ultimately, after some years, absorbed by the Sephardim.

The Jews lived in their own areas, maintained their own organizations, and created their own cuisine. Jewish men went forth into the cities to work, while the women for the most part remained at home. A lady from Izmir explained the Jewish cooking by saying that “The Turks borrowed from us and we from them.” Cooking rules and recipes were passed down from mother to daughter and resulted in a continuity of culinary ideas throughout the centuries and to the present.

There were two components that combined to develop Sephardic cooking in Turkey—Spanish heritage and Turkish culture. This was a gradual osmosis and not a rapid modification of existing cooking styles. The availability of fresh produce is an important factor in the creation of a cuisine and, in this case, new ideas were developed around ingredients that were available and inexpensive, like the eggplant.

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. Strong seasonings are hardly ever used in the Sephardic cuisine except for an occasional sprinkling of hot chili flakes. Chicken, beef, and lamb are the meats of choice, but in recent years less beef and lamb are used since red meat is now considered unhealthy. Cholesterol has entered the thinking of the Sephardic kitchen, and has even influenced the choice of cooking oil—sunflower has become the most popular. Duck is never eaten. I never saw a duck in Turkey (nor did I see a turkey!).

The Sephardic kitchen relies on appealing combinations of meats, vegetables, or fish served up in casseroles, pies, stuffed vegetables or pastries, and Yufka (wrapped appetizers and snacks). The tendency is to bake foods or simmer them on top of the stove. The large meat roasts of European cooking are unknown. Bread is the staff of life, and rice, in the form of seasoned and garnished dishes, is not far behind.

Greece

There was an overlapping, rather than a sharp differentiation, between Jewish life in Greece and Turkey. Both countries were of the Ottoman Empire and there was a homogenization of both culinary and cultural Judaic activities. Without doubt, the Ottoman was the single strongest influence on the cooking—with emphasis on the sweets. But the native recipes were supplemented by those brought from Spain by the Jews, and those recipes continued to carry Ladino titles.

As in Turkey, the cooking consists largely of casseroles in the ovens, stews on top of the stove, and preparations wrapped in fillo (culminating in the great classic Spanakopeta). Vegetables are important ingredients in this cooking, stewed or enrobed in fillo. Strong seasonings are even less important to the Greek palate than to the Turkish. The flavors result from the natural combinations of poultry, lamb, or fish and a variety of herbs and greens. The reign of the eggplant in Greece and Turkey is permanent. There are those who say that Greek cooking is no more than a satellite of the Turkish, but I am not of this opinion.

No cuisine is established in isolation nor is Sephardic cooking in Greece a carbon copy of that found in Turkey, although both clearly show the Ottoman influence.

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Jewish Indian Cuisine

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Excerpted and reprinted with permission from
Sephardic Cooking
, published by Donald I. Fine, Inc.

India is an Asian Earth Mother of great cultural and culinary diversity. Harbored among its millions for many centuries were three unusual Jewish communities, located in different regions of the country. I refer to the Baghdadi Jews of Calcutta, the Bene Israel of Bombay on the Konkan peninsula, and the so‑called Black Jews of Cochin in southwest India. These three groups developed their cuisines within the framework of Judaic laws in an essentially Sephardic system, independently of each other.indian spices

 

In early times, there was little knowledge of the existence of the Bene Israel and the Jews of Cochin throughout the rest of the world. Only later, during the 18th century, after the Jews of Bombay and Calcutta became established in their communities, was the word out that there were other Jews somewhere in India—isolated and even racially different but indisputably Jewish.

Calcutta: The Baghdadi Jews

In about 1800, the universal pull of trade started the movement from Baghdad, in trickles then in concert, to Calcutta. From then on, all the establishments of a Jewish community were organized there: educational, cultural and civic—from schools to synagogues and the cemetery.

The Jews brought with them from Baghdad their preferences such as hameen, combinations with vegetables and meat, and the famous koobe (stuffed dumpling). What they discovered in India was an almost entirely new group of spices and herbs that the local population were using, such as turmeric, cuminseed, coriander, hot chili, fenugreek (hilbeh), cardamom, mustard seed, and fresh ginger. In addition, tropical vegetables of the pumpkin family; loobia, the long bean; the coconut; bitter melon; and many more growing in the luxurious soil and tropical climate. These were incorporated into their dishes from the “old country,” and the gradual evolution of a new style of cooking began.

I was fortunate to have worked in Calcutta during the mid-20th century, when there was still a substantial number of the Baghdadi Jews living there. By the time I arrived, the Calcutta Jews had their own cuisine firmly stabilized and familiar to the entire community. Some recipes were completely new inventions, while others were Jewish by adoption but came from Baghdad to India. What gave it continuity was its use of the Judaic dietary rules of kashrut [the laws of keeping kosher] and its identity with their way of life in a new home.

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Middle Eastern Cuisine

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Excerpted and reprinted with permission from Sephardic Cooking, published by Donald I. Fine, Inc.

Baghdad (Iraq)

Baghdad, the Great City, was founded in 762 and Jews have resided there from the beginning. The traveler, Benjamin of Tudela (1127‑1173), recorded in his diary that there were about 40,000 Jews in Baghdad, dwelling “in security, prosperity and honor under the great Caliph.” There were 28 synagogues at this time, supporting wise men, philosophers, and magicians who were expert in witchcraft—a great center of Judaic learning and a factor in spreading education and progress in Iraq. The people studied Judaic lore and spoke a Judeo‑Arabic language. The Jews were traders bringing silk and spices from China, but also dealt in textiles, indigo, liquor, medicine and precious stones.

From the ninth to the 17th centuries the vicissitudes of political disputes and tribal controversies were menacing. The conquest of Baghdad, first by the Mongols in the 13th century, followed by Tamerlane, and then the Ottoman Empire’s struggle with the fanatical Persians, brought about a political seesaw of prosperity and denial for the Jews, always at the whim of the incumbent ruler.

Starting with the British administration during World War I and for some years afterward, conditions improved for the Jews. During this mandate the Jewish population swelled to 100,000. Oppressive activity during 1947 reduced the numbers to about 77,000.

But through it all, the food was a constant and uniting factor, since favorite dishes travel with the community wherever it may go. The Baghdadi specialize in soups, a variety of dumplings, and rice dishes—the same as many other communities. The difference is in the seasonings—hot chili and the intense spice mixes have been replaced by the herbal seasonings of the Middle East. Judaic ritual is followed, resulting in many slow‑cooked preparations.

Persia (Iran)

In a culinary way the Persian Jewish cuisine follows closely the cooking of their Muslim neighbors. The dietary laws of kashrut are followed with the only differences those based on family preferences.

The Persian style of cooking must be included in the list of the world’s greatest cuisines. It is cooking flavored with herbs without the sting of chilies or the overpowering essence of garlic. The quantity, quality and variety of herbs is the outstanding characteristic of their cooking.

I naturally compare the cooking of Persia with that of India, where I lived for many years, since they are both Indo‑European peoples and geographical neighbors. The Indians opted for hot foods using many spices to develop a pungency that is altogether addictive for some. Persian cooking has been more partial to herbs and it resulted in a more understated cuisine than the Indian. Both have their aficionados. The surprise is that people of the same race developed cuisines with completely opposite emphases.

Rice is the dominant grain in Persia and the Persians are the world’s greatest rice cookers. No other cuisine produces such a variety of unconventional rice combinations. Fruits and vegetables are both used in combination with rice. Spice seeds are added to provide crunch and texture; herbs are generously added to rice dishes to complement egg and dairy foods, and there are sweet rices eaten with meat. What other cuisine has the ingenuity and adventurous spirit to adorn rice with a sweetened mélange of cherries, dried orange peel, and almonds?

In the Persian stew, khoresht, small amounts of meat and poultry are glorified with a variety of chopped herbs. Herbs both well known and esoteric are added by handfuls to their recipes. All of these herbs and spices are used in Persian cooking: basil (rayhon), black pepper (felfel), cardamom (hail), celery (karafs), chive (tareh), cinnamon (darchin), coriander (tochme gishneez), cuminseed (zeere), dill (shevit), fenugreek (chambaliley), leek (tareh faranghi), marjoram (golpar), mint (nano), oregano (osha), parsley, large‑leaf (jafaree), saffron, savory (marzey), scallion (piaz cheh), sumac (sumac), tarragon (tarchum), turmeric (zardchubeh).

Onion, but not garlic, is ubiquitous. The Persians in antiquity thickened their savory or sweet dishes with powdered walnuts, and the idea (disseminated through conquest) was taken up with alacrity by the Arabs and Romans. Fesenjan, a world class stew of walnuts, pomegranate and meat or poultry, is extraordinary.

Persian Jewish food, with its preoccupation with herbs, vegetables and moderate amounts of meat, is a relevant cuisine for our day. Cooking without excessive reliance on fats and oils is a hallmark of the Persians.

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Red Sea Cuisine

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Excerpted and reprinted with permission from
Sephardic Cooking
, published by Donald I. Fine, Inc.

Yemen

When Israel was created in 1947‑48, it led to an astonishing event—the famous airlift, sometimes known as Operation Magic Carpet. It moved most of the remaining Yemenite community (about 50,000) to Israel during 1949 and 1950. They took with them their traditional way of life, including a limited but appealing style of cooking. 

Agriculture is an important factor in establishing a cuisine, and semidesert or mountainous terrain does not produce the quantity and variety of food that is needed to inspire the creation of new combinations, which also conform to dietary laws. But within their limitations, they created food with an exotic appeal, proven today by the popularity of many Yemenite restaurants that have proliferated around Israel.

red sea cuisineBoth song and story celebrate the admiration that has always been felt by the Jewish men of India for the Yemenite girls. This led to both intermarriage and an interchange of customs, some of which influenced their food, especially the seasonings.

Yemenite cooking can be reduced to a few categories, with the Indian influence quite often apparent. There are unusual and delicious breads for daily and Sabbath use; meat soups and meat stews (chicken is used only in soup—never roasted or fried); a spice mix for seasoning foods, and a hot chili chutney with fenugreek, a spice that is certainly of Indian origin. The Jews did not make cheese, but butter was prepared from the milk and cream of the cattle.

Yemenites have no desserts as such, but substitute fresh fruit in season. The snacks that replace sweets (jala) are the dry green beans, dry fava beans, dates, almonds, and other mixed nuts. They make a Haroseth of sesame seeds, honey, almonds, walnuts, and red wine; or with dates, sesame, walnuts, almonds, peanuts, raisins, wine, and hot water, cooked together to a paste. The nibbling goes on and on during the Sabbath.

Arak, a colorless alcoholic liquid, is the national drink of the Jews. It is made from grapes, plums, apricots or other seasonal fruits, and the taste differs according to the fruit used. Arak is the Sabbath ritual drink.

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