When I married into a Yemenite family in Israel more than 40 years ago, it raised some eyebrows. Since my family was of Polish and Russian origin, I was embracing a different culture, including foods that were unlike the Ashkenazi ones I had grown up with. When the Jews are classified into two broad groups, my in-laws count as Sephardim — Jews from Mediterranean and Middle Eastern lands.
In Israel, such “mixed marriages” of Ashkenazim and Sephardim have become much more common, and this is naturally reflected in today’s Passover menus.
Some cooks compose their Seder dinners from Ashkenazi and Sephardi dishes; others incorporate new flavorings in their cooking. My mother, for example, learned to season her chicken soup with a pinch of the Middle Eastern spice blend that my mother-in-law used generously: cumin, turmeric and pepper.
Chicken soup with herb-flecked kneidelach (Yiddish for matzo balls), a hallmark of Ashkenazi cooking, is now served by my Yemenite in-laws and appears on so many Israeli Passover tables that some might think it is mandated by the Haggada, the Seder ceremony book. And it’s even better when served with zehug, the chile-garlic relish that accompanies Yemenite soups.
Many people are open to new flavors but not to changes in the list of ingredients they consider forbidden on Passover. Although there is a consensus about avoiding wheat and leavening, which means that cooks omit baking powder from their matzo ball recipes during Passover, Jews from different communities disagree about other ingredients.
The most contentious is the category of kitniyot, which in everyday Hebrew means dried beans, peas and lentils, but when used as a Passover term includes additional ingredients such as grains. Ashkenazim tend to prohibit kitniyot, while many Sephardim permit them. Customs vary, depending on the family’s background and its degree of religious observance. Major menu decision-making might take place in the case of marriages between members of the two groups.
Rice is popular among many Sephardim during Passover, but if an Orthodox Ashkenazi Jew sees a rice dish on the Seder table, he or she might be shocked. Grain- and bean-based oils such as corn and soybean and certain spices such as mustard are excluded from the Ashkenazi Passover pantry due to the kitniyot proscription. To avoid confusion, some companies label their products “kosher for Passover for kitniyot eaters only.”
Ashkenazi potato or matzo kugel with mushrooms and onions was a standard on our family’s Seder menu when I was a child. Now I add browned mushrooms and caramelized onions to enhance our Mediterranean potato kugel, which is flavored with saffron and dotted with diced hard-boiled eggs, carrots and peas. Ashkenazim who avoid green peas on Passover can omit them or substitute diced broccoli or asparagus.
In fact, making recipe adjustments like this to accommodate Seder guests of different backgrounds might be the key to successfully breaking bread — or matzo — together.