Sephardic Foods – rich in diversity

Last week I wrote that my definition of Sephardic Jews is limited to the descendants of Jews who were exiled from Spain and Portugal in the late 15th century. Communities were scattered and reestablished eastward across the Mediterranean and northward to Amsterdam and Hamburg. This forced mass migration also includes people who remained behind and continued to secretly practice Judaism, referred to marranos (a term no longer used), conversos, Crypto-Jews, Anusim, and other names. Some of their food practices reveal their Jewish heritage to the ever-vigilant inquistors. [Read A Drizzle of Honey, by David Gitlitz and Linda Davidson for more the food of the Crypto-Jews.]. I also wrote last week that groups of Jews with other backgrounds have lived in many other regions. Their traditions are also based on adaptations to practices in these areas.

Routes of Exile

Sephardic foods are a wide representation of Mediterranean flavors. They reflect the Iberian heritage and are tempered by local food traditions. Spanish and Portuguese, Moroccan, Greek, Bulgarian, Turkish all play into the foods of these peoples. Something to keep in mind is that not all Sephardic food is enjoyed in all of these regions! Shakshuka that wonderful vegetable stew topped by poached eggs is a case in point. Google it and you’ll see that it’s often attributed as Sephardic.” As far as I know, shakshuka was not eaten historically in the Balkan Ottomans.

A wider repertoire of herbs and spices contribute to rich flavors rather than adding piquancy. Garlic and lemon figure large as well as oregano, dill, parsley, and mint. Olive oil was used in place of animal fat. Aromatic is the word frequently used to describe the spices used by Sephardic Jews living in North Africa – turmeric, ginger, hot peppers, cinnamon, paprika, saffron, caraway, and cumin.

Herb Market, Athens, Greece 

Meats found on the Sephardic table included chicken, beef, and lamb. They were stewed into soups, grilled, and roasted sometimes with vegetables. Meat dishes often used ground beef or lamb. Fish came from the surrounding seas. Fish was frequently found on the Shabbat table. Like other cuisines some Sephardic cooking is accompanied by sour sauces. Okra, artichoke, spinach, and cabbage were cooked with meat and lots of lemon juice.

Seasonal vegetables were more abundant in the Mediterranean than in Eastern Europe. Sephardim used tomato, pepper, eggplant, zucchini, artichoke, okra, and fava beans in soups, stews, side dishes, salads, and pickles. Many were stuffed with ground meat or only rice and herbs or chopped vegetables as a substantial part of a meal. Italian Jews prepared artichoke in an innovative way. Leeks and fennel are thought to be used first in Jewish cooking then adopted by their neighbors. And of course, olives figured large. Eggplant was used in many forms as can be imagined: stewed, stuffed, pickled, roasted, and pureed.

And here’s a song in which the tomato and eggplant battle for vegetable supremacy, this time in a classic Judeo-Spanish song, Si Savesh La Buena Djente (Dear People, Do You Know of the Battle of the Vegetables) – (

This site gives the words of the song:

In a kosher home, meat and dairy are not served together, so when a milk-based product appears it’s often the star of the show. I wrote last week that Ashkenazi dishes include cheese blintzes, noodle kugel, and pickled herring in cream sauce. Sephardic Jews eat cheese-filled turn-overs like burek or sambusak. Some writers believe that there were fewer dairy dishes in the Sephardic repertoire. Not so, a wide variety of cheeses, such as feta, kefaloteri, and other dairy products like yogurt were regularly used in the Sephardi kitchen.


In medieval times, the Sephardim developed quite a repertoire of egg dishes, including frittatas and egg-lemon sauce; their expulsion from Spain in 1492 helped to spread those dishes throughout the region.

Beans, grains, and breads were part of the daily Sephardic diet. Jews claim to be the source of bean dishes that pilgrims of the Middle Ages and later Puritans copied. Garbanzos in a number of forms, fava, and other beans were used frequently. Jews in North Africa utilized couscous, in the Middle East used cracked wheat, and in the Balkans, rice was used. A rich repertoire of savory and sweet pastries were made with phyllo dough or warika (Morocco), paper thin pastry sheets.

Desserts were rich with nuts – almonds, pistachio, filberts, pinenuts, walnuts – and other ingredients such as sesame seeds, lemon and orange juice, orange and rose water, and dried fruits – raisins, figs, dates. Dried dates, apricots, figs, and raisins eaten by the ancient Israelites are still used in Jewish cooking. Sephardim had fresh fruit year-round, but they still dried a portion for portability and preservation. Other desserts include burekas, pastelas, bimuelos, and fritas. A sweet we enjoyed at home as kids was called St. John’s bread. It’s the yummy chewy seed pod of the carob tree.  Where can you find it now?

St John’s bread, carob

Today, it’s proverbs and songs. Sephardic oral tradition is exceedingly quick. In graduate school I had the opportunity to read reams of proverbs collected in the early 20th century by scholars captivated by Judeo-Spanish.   Here’s several examples of proverbs that related to cooking and food:

La mujer y la sartén en la cocina se llevan bien. [The woman and frying-pan in the kitchen get on well together.]

El que tiene hijas, comera biñuelos. [Whoever has daughters will eat doughnuts.]

Bimuelos, sorry not from my kitchen

Songs or coplas are rich in food imagery.  Did you might explore the tomato/eggplant song above? It’s thought that Sephardic Jews popularized eggplants, a transplant from the Arab world, with numerous recipes. Another song about eggplants  (aubergines) from the island of Rhodes – Seven Ways of Cooking Eggplants [Siete modos de guisar las berenjenas] is based on an early 18th century copla and details 35 different eggplant dishes! This song also is filled with traditional Sephardic attitudes towards women. Use this link to listen to a version – This link gives some of the lyrics –

Good cooking goes hand-in-hand with being a good Jewish housewife. A girl who did not learn how to cook was criticized. Una muchacha en Selanica tells about a young girl in Salonica who, when her mother hit her for burning yapraquitos [stuffed grape leaves], converted to Islam. The song says: “She was as Jewish as anyone can be, but now she has became a Turk, and all because of stuffed grape leaves: was it worth it?” Actually, our family history tells of a sister of my grandfather (Joseph Bacola) in the early 20th century who married a Turk, was disowned by the family, and lived in Albania. 

A similar song in Yiddish, Hot a yid a vaybele [A Jew has a wife] tells of the housewife who is threatened with divorce for burning the Shabes kugel. . Who would have known?


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