Ashkenazi Jews Embrace Sephardic Fare

Now that the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet are being realized, American Jewry is embracing Sephardic cooking.

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This article illustrates a recent trend among American Jews of Eastern European origin: They are embracing the cuisine of their Sephardic brethren. It is an example of the blurring of traditional cultural lines that takes place among American Jews. Reprinted with permission from the Forward newspaper.

Back in the day, Sabbath meals at Rissi Zweig's home in New Jersey consisted of gefilte fish, mayonnaise-based salads, kugels, chicken, meat, a couple of cakes and some nondairy ice cream. "And that's just Friday night," she said. 

Chuck the Cholent

But such artery-clogging decadence is so last decade. Now, "We try to model our home after the Sephardic  tradition [which includes those Jews of Spanish and Mediterranean descent]," said Zweig, who prefers a menu of grilled fish, salads, whole grains, and lots of fruits and vegetables. 

Ladies and Gentlemen, it's time to chuck the cholent, lynch the latkes, and ban the brisket: Now is the moment of Sephardic food. In the never-ending search for the "latest" thing, Ashkenazic Jews [those of Eastern European descent] are embracing Sephardic cooking by the multitudes, attending Sephardic cooking courses, buying up cookbooks (Sephardic-influenced cookbooks are the top-selling Jewish cookbooks on Amazon.com), liberally using olive oil (how very Mediterranean), and consuming ubiquitous tubs of hummus, now found everywhere from small-town supermarkets to kosher pizzerias. And while the Sephardic community has been eating this way for thousands of years, only recently are Ashkenazic Jews discovering its spicy, diverse and healthful appeal.

hummusOf the recipes in his recent book Adventures in Jewish Cooking (Random House), kosher chef Jeffrey Nathan estimated that "80 percent or more are Sephardi--even though I'm Ashkenazi." 

"To me, what I'm finding is that people are going away from standard Ashkenazic foods like cholent," he said. "Sephardicfoods are not only more healthy but also more tasty. They're making Israeli salads with couscous or Moroccan spiced salmon." 

Nathan has made the switch in his upscale Manhattan kosher restaurant, Abigael's, as well. "There's a certain mashed potato that I do," he said. "I used to use nondairy creamer and margarine--margarine is the worst thing in the world for you. Now I use just a little bit of vegetable broth and olive oil. It tastes better, without a doubt. Instead of rich sauces, I've turned to salsas made with fresh fruits and vegetables, cilantro, acids like vinegar, and limes."

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Lisa Keys is a writer living in New York City.