Editor’s Note: This is a guest article with photos by Blair Chavis*.
Food is integral to nearly every Jewish holiday, but when Passover arrives, food plays a leading role. The eight-day holiday, which begins tonight, kicks off with two epic dinners called Seders the first two nights. Families sit around a large table and read aloud the story of the Jewish people’s exodus from slavery in Egypt using a ritual book called the Haggadah, only read on Passover. Seder participants read from the Haggadah both before and after the meal, with special foods enjoyed during the storytelling, along with an abundance of kosher wine.
The Seder Ritual
Levels of family observance vary, and families may choose between hosting one or two Seder meals. The Seder meal (including a Haggadah reading) can last anywhere from one hour to five hours! As a child, my family’s four-to-five hour Seders seemed as if they would never end. But I also loved getting together with my immediate family and cousins for a long evening of food and games. For instance, after the meal and before the second reading of the Haggadah, the children traditionally search for the hidden matzah (unleavened bread eaten throughout Passover) tucked away somewhere in the house and the child who finds the matzah claims a prize. Also, at the end of the Seder, families can play word games in the Haggadah about the story of the exodus from Egypt. To this day, I relish in watching my dad try to read a poem about the plagues while holding his breath.
Passover Food Rules
Various sects of Jewish people observe the holiday differently. For instance, if one is from an Eastern European background—also known as Ashkenazi Jews—as I am, dietary restrictions include no leavened breads, rice, legumes, corn, or corn products (such as corn syrup). Jewish people of a Spanish origin—also known as Sephardic Jews—can eat legumes such as beans, as well as corn, rice, etc. Every Jewish individual and family also adapts their customs based on their own preferences in accordance with these rules. As such, a family’s origin tale can also tell the story of their Passover recipes’ ingredients.
The Seder Plate
The Seder plate is central to the Seder meal, and each item on the plate has significance to the Passover story. Nearly the all of the items on the Seder plate are sampled by Seder participants during the reading of the Haggadah.
- Zeroa – A roasted bone, usually a lamb shank bone, symbolizing the lamb sacrificial offering in the Temple of Jerusalem. Seder participants do not eat this.
- Karpas – A green vegetable dipped in salt water. Parsley, celery or a boiled potato can be used. Salt water represents the Jewish people’s tears during slavery.
- Haroset (See recipe below) – A mixture of chopped nuts, apples, sweet wine, and spices. This sweet, brown, apple mixture represents the bricks and mortar the Jewish slaves used to build the pyramids in Egypt. As you’ll find with my recipe below, Ashkenazi Jews make haroset traditionally with chopped nuts, apples, cinnamon, and sweet red wine. Sephardic Jews might also include additional ingredients such as dates and honey.
- Beitzah – A roasted egg, symbolic of a festival offering in the Temple. Seder participants can eat this during the Seder meal.
- Maror – Bitter herbs, either romaine lettuce or horseradish. Bitter herbs symbolize the bitter hardships the Jewish slaves endured in Egypt. Participants eat a small sample on its own or sandwiched between pieces of matzah.
- Matzah – Eaten at the Seder meals and throughout the Passover holiday. It’s believed that the Jewish people fled so quickly from Egypt, they did not have time for their bread to rise. Symbolically, Jewish people eat matzah (Pl: matzot) throughout the holiday.
Mom’s Haroset Recipe
As mentioned, Haroset is part of the Seder Plate. However, some Jewish people love the recipe so much, they make a big batch and enjoy it throughout the Passover week. It’s eaten atop a piece of matzah, or sandwiched between two pieces. The recipe I’ve provided is based on a serving that would only be needed for the two Seders.
- 3 small apples, peeled and chopped fine
- 4 tablespoons matzo meal
- Cinnamon, a generous sprinkling
- 1 to 2 handfuls chopped walnuts
- 4 tablespoons brown sugar
- 1/2 cup sweet red wine, grape or blackberry flavored
- Wash apples, cut into quarters, and then peel or skin the quarters. Finely chop apple quarters into small pieces. Add 4 tablespoons matzo meal. Sprinkle cinnamon generously over mixture. Add 1 to 2 handfuls chopped walnuts and brown sugar. Stir in wine. Taste and add more sugar, nuts, or cinnamon, to taste. Mixture should be sweet.
- Cover and refrigerate until serving. Place on Seder plate.
Throughout the year, Jewish people might use two sets of plates and silverware to separate foods made with dairy and foods containing meat, as those who closely observe kosher rules will not mix the two. Some people also have an additional set of plates and silverware only used on Passover, as there are additional dietary restrictions. My family has always used our collection of depression era plates and cups for Passover, which come in greens, pinks, yellows, and other colors. These lovely and sometimes intricately carved dishes were actually freebies from gas stations and movie theaters during my grandparents’ generation, according to my mom. However, now considered antiques, these dishes are quite valuable.
What to Eat
The Seder meal consists of several courses and can vary between families. Generally, it can start with chicken soup and/or a salad. The main dish might include a brisket or turkey. Side dishes might include various savory or sweet matzah-based casseroles, also called kugels. The term “kugel” generally refers to a Jewish casserole, and can include other casseroles throughout the year that might include ingredients such as noodles. Dessert can include flourless cakes, cookies, etc. As with matzah, bread and dessert dishes should not include rising agents.
Both my parents’ families are of Eastern European descent. Among my grandparents’ most coveted recipes is our family’s chicken soup recipe from my Russian grandmother, Eda—my dad’s mother.
My grandmother Eda didn’t write down all of her recipes. My mother shadowed her through demonstrations and wrote them down, trying to interpret bowl-fuls, scoops, and pinches. Ironically, when I tried translating my grandmother’s recipe with my mother, it appeared my mother still relies on some of these measurements. Regardless, Eda’s soup is still legendary in its replication. Thus, the measurement of a bowlful can be interpreted loosely. Here’s her approximate recipe.
*BLAIR CHAVIS is a Chicago-area native and has had a long love affair with food and cooking, and adores desserts in particular. Blair has a background in journalism and has worked for news outlets including the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Public Radio. She now works as a Food Editor for Prime Publishing editing recipe Web sites, blogging about food, and working with fellow food bloggers. At home, Blair loves sampling new recipes and exploring the delicious variety of restaurants Chicago offers. When not working or cooking, she enjoys watching foreign and independent films and eating dessert first.