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Mighty matzo

(article, Zena Chew)

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Roasted eggs. Lamb bones. Fresh herbs. Brittle crackers. Chopped fruit and nuts. If you’ve ever celebrated Passover, you’ll recognize this unusual assembly as the components of the Seder platter, the dish of symbolic foods present on every Passover dinner table. If you’re more of an Easter person, you’ll still recognize these foods as undeniably springlike; you just might be more used to seeing the eggs in baskets and the lamb with meat on its bones.

The celebration of the ancient Jews’ liberation from slavery in Egypt, Passover is the second most important holiday in the Jewish calendar, after the High Holy Days in the fall. It’s also the Jewish equivalent of a spring festival, and an annual family-dinner ritual. Here are the Passover basics: history, rites, and even recipes. 

h3. Spring cleaning

In Hebrew, Passover is called Pesach, which means “to pass over.” That’s a short way of saying, “The Angel of Death passed over the homes of the enslaved Jews, and killed only the first-born children of the Egyptians.” This bit of selective destruction was the last of the 10 plagues visited by God on the Egyptians. Afterward, the Jews were told to get out of the country so fast that their bread dough didn’t have time to rise. The unleavened, crackerlike bread they baked on their journey back to Israel lives on today in the form of matzo, eaten during Passover instead of bread.


h1.Going kosher

To keep kosher, you can’t eat milchig (milk) and fleischig (meat) in the same meal. Your meat must come from kosher animals — animals with cloven hooves that chew their cud — sold by kosher butchers. You can’t eat blood, you can’t eat bugs, and you can’t eat any seafood except the kinds with fins and scales.

Anything that’s not milchig or fleischig is called pareve, which means neutral. This category includes fruit, vegetables, grains, legumes, eggs, and fish. But there’s a catch: fish cannot be eaten with fleischig, so no surf-and-turf. Sorry.

There is, however, a get-out-of-kosher-free card: If, for example, a knife touches some cold cheese and then some cold meat, the knife is not ruined because the essence of the food can only attach itself to the utensil when the food is hot.


Like Christians abstaining from meat (or chocolate, or whatever) during Lent, the season before Easter, observant Jews get ready for Passover by giving their homes a thorough spring-cleaning and getting rid of any leavened foodstuffs. During Passover, you can’t eat any chametz. That’s anything containing wheat, barley, spelt, rye, or oats. Before Passover, you have to get all the chametz out of your house, or at least symbolically out of your house.

In Seattle, 22-year-old Ben Dershowitz works for Hillel, a national Jewish student organization with a branch at the University of Washington. He’s their mashgiach, which is basically like being the kosher police. 

In the Dershowitz family, he says, they gather up all their chametz and put it in the basement. Then they sell it to someone who’s not Jewish. “You set it up through the rabbi,” Dershowitz says.  “It’s kind of a cop-out, but it works really well. You sell it for a fraction of the value of the food. Then, after Passover, you buy it back for the same amount.” 

He says he’s never heard of a chametz’s temporary owner showing up to claim the goods. “But if someone wants to come eat my half-eaten box of Cheerios, gay gazindrah hait (go right ahead),” he shrugs. 

After you clean your house and sell your chametz, you get some new chametz! The day before Passover, one person in the family hides 10 pieces of bread around the house. The family does a ceremonial search using a feather and a candle. You find the pieces, and on Passover morning, you burn them. Then, says Dershowitz, just to be safe, while you’re burning the chametz, you tell God that you’ve done your best: “Any other chametz in my possession, it’s garbage and not mine.” 

h3. Kosher kitchens

In your own home, you only have to be as kosher as you want to be, but if you want to cater Passover-week lunches for hundreds of people, you have to follow all the rules of your local va’ad, the group of rabbis who keep your community informed about kosher law.

That’s Leah Jaffee’s job during Passover. She’s a kosher caterer in Seattle, and during Passover she transforms the dining room at the University of Washington’s Hillel into the only kosher-for-Passover restaurant in town. “It takes a whole week to clean up, three weeks to cook, a week to eat, and another three weeks to forget about it!” says Jaffee.

The kitchen at Hillel has two identical food preparation areas, one for milk and one for meat. (See "Going kosher" sidebar.) Each area can be closed off by a steel garage door. Passover at Hillel is strictly fleischig (meat-based), so the milchig (milk) area remains padlocked. They have two storage areas downstairs: milchig dishes and serving utensils in one, fleischig dishes in the other. The Passover dishes — an entire third set of dishes used only during Passover — are kept in the fleischig closet, wrapped in black plastic bags. 

[%image reference-image float=left width=400 caption="Passover Seder platters vary, but they usually feature an egg, a lamb bone, greens, bitter herbs or horseradish, salted water, and a mixture of chopped fruit and nuts called charoset. Matzo crackers and wine are generally served as well."]

Don’t worry if you don’t have three sets of dishes. You can still kasher your own kitchen for Passover. (Quick dictionary: Kosher is an adjective, kasher is a verb, and everything falls under the oversight of kashrut, or kosher law.) Anything made of stainless steel can be made pareve (neutral) with a splash of boiling water, removing the essence of the milk or meat. Dershowitz says you can also kasher a wooden utensil by shaving off the outer layer of wood. Not surprisingly, most people stick with the stainless.

If you’re getting really serious in your kashering, you probably should remove all the food from your kitchen, because it may be tainted with chametz. Jaffee completely re-stocks the Hillel pantry: “Salt and pepper is kosher, but I need new salt and pepper, new spices, everything.”

h3. Menu planning

Now that you’ve kashered your kitchen, you can stock it with Passover groceries: eggs and matzo. “Eggs are the binder for everything,” says Jaffee. She and her staff crack more than 6,000 eggs during Passover week, cracking them one at a time into a separate bowl, to check for un-kosher blood spots. (Bloody eggs are discarded.) 

Matzo is a shape-shifting ingredient during Passover. You can soak squares of matzo and use them like lasagna noodles. You can break the matzo into little pieces, called farfel, and put those in a sweet or savory kugel. You can buy ground matzo and make matzo balls — dumplings cooked in chicken or vegetable soup. If you’re really missing bread rolls, you can make some buttery egg bread using matzo meal. And, for dessert, you can whip up a chocolate or lemon sponge cake with eggs and matzo flour.

But you don’t have to buy all your Passover food from the Jewish section at the supermarket. Hannah Cordes, the year-round chef at Hillel, likes to prepare all her Passover food from scratch — no processed products. “I want to recognize every ingredient and know what’s in it,” says Cordes. “For me and my group of friends, eating organic, sustainable, and local is really important, in addition to also being kosher.” She says she takes her children to the farmers’ market and they pick out fresh vegetables together.

One of the most famous Passover dishes is gefilte fish, a classic Ashkenazi preparation. (See "Ashkenazi and Sephardic" sidebar.) These are poached fish balls made of ground white fish, eggs, onions, and matzo meal. Cordes is inspired by the seasonings in traditional Sephardic Jewish cooking, and her twist on gefilte fish is to make kicky halibut patties with leeks. “It’s fun to spice it up,” she says.


h1.Ashkenazi and Sephardic 

The two main Jewish ethnicities are Ashkenazi and Sephardic. 

Ashkenazi Jews are descended from Jewish communities in Germany and eastern Europe; Yiddish is their traditional language. Sephardic Jews are descended from Jews on the Iberian peninsula (Spain and Portugal); their traditional language is Ladino, a Romance language similar to Spanish.

An Ashkenazi Seder usually features hearty Eastern European foods, such as gefilte fish, matzo-ball soup, and brisket. A Sephardic Seder will have more of a Mediterranean flair, often feature fish, and include kitniyot, such as rice and lentils.


Kathleen Scharon, an elder member of Seattle’s Sephardic Jewish community, loves to bake a Passover frittata with spinach, matzo, and eggs. On milchig nights, she adds kosher cheese. 

“When I was growing up, during the 1930s and 1940s, all we had for dairy was milk,” says Scharon. “We had Passover milk delivered to our home. We didn’t have any dairy dishes, only special glasses set to the side to drink milk. Then, as time went on, dairy items began to be available. Now you can have almost anything for Passover. Yogurt! Cheese!”

Before you plan your Passover guest list, you should decide if you’re serving kitniyot, or “little things,” like rice, peas, lentils, and beans. Ashkenazi Jews can’t eat kitniyot during Passover, but Sephardic Jews can eat all the little things they want. You should definitely go for kitniyot if you have any vegan friends coming for dinner.

Laura Faye Berry is a Jewish vegan living in Knoxville, Tennessee. She says she couldn’t survive Passover without her legumes. “For most vegans, if you don’t eat legumes, you have to eat a lot of nuts, but I don’t like nuts enough,” she says. “There’s no way I could get enough protein just eating nuts for eight days.”

Berry cooks all her beans and lentils from scratch and takes them home for Passover with her parents in Greenville, South Carolina. They’re understanding about her legumes, even if they don’t eat the legumes themselves.

Berry says she tries different dishes every year. She likes quinoa and spaghetti squash with marinara sauce. Now she’s learning to prepare raw-food dishes. “I see people do zucchini, making pasta shapes, or ravioli out of butternut squash,” says Berry. 

“Passover food can get boring,” she admits. “But that’s the point of the holiday, that you’re giving stuff up. If you don’t miss it, then it takes some of the meaning away.”

h3. The Seder

The Seder — the formal, ritualized dinner held on the first night of Passover — is a time for family and friends to get together and teach their children about the exodus of the Jews from Egypt. The dinner comes with a guidebook called the Haggadah. This text mixes up the story with songs, question-and-answer sections, and ritual nibbles of food, so no one gets bored. (For a quickie version, check out Slate's take on the Haggadah.) 


h1.Featured recipes

Epicurious also offers many ideas for Passover menus, including six recipes for charoset.


Remember those springtime foods that turn up at every Seder on a ceremonial platter? Alongside the matzo crackers is a sprig of parsley called the karpas. You dip this in salt water, symbolic of the salty tears of the Jewish slaves. There’s maror, horseradish, representing the bitterness of slavery. Beitzah, a hardboiled egg, is also dipped in tears. The best part is the charoset,_ a sweet mixture of apples, nuts, and dates. The charoset represents the mortar that the Jews used to build the empire of the Pharaoh. (The tradition is to make a sandwich with maror and charoset between two pieces of matzo. It sounds rough, but it’s actually delicious.) Finally, the sixth item on the plate is the roasted shank bone, symbolic of the sacrificial lamb. Berry, the vegan, made a shank bone out of laminated construction paper, and now her parents use this paper bone every year on their Seder plate.

If the kosher rules don’t make sense to you, take heart; it’s not you, it’s them. As Dershowitz says, there are two kinds of rules in Judaism: the rules that make sense and the rules that don’t. “Kosher rules have no logic,” he says, “but we follow them 100 percent because God told us to.”

The point, in the end, is to eat food evocative of history. Dershowitz says that when he eats matzo, “it’s something humbling. When something rises, it’s haughty, it’s bad. We want to squash that down. We eat matzo to keep us humble.” 

One thing everyone agrees on is Matzo Roca. Dershowitz and Cordes both say that this simple combination of matzo, caramel, and chocolate chips is their favorite Passover recipe, a sugary way to end a Seder. Nobody can pass it over.

p(bio). Zena Chew lives in Seattle and eats kitniyot. Everything she knows about being Jewish, she learned at Jewish summer camp.

reference-image, l