It was shortly before Passover in Spain, when the scent of orange blossoms perfumes the south, that Ferdinand and Isabella issued the infamous edict in 1492, expelling all the Jews from the country.
Many Jews took their house keys with them as they fled during the mass exodus that followed, certain they would one day return to the beloved homes where their families had lived for generations. The keys remained treasured heirlooms for some, the stuff of poetry and legends for others, but they were never used again: Jews were not allowed back into Spain until the mid-nineteenth century.
But Spain was never far from their life in exile: in the language they spoke, Ladino, based on Old Castilian; the liturgy and music they brought; and in the foods and cooking styles that distinguished their cuisine and influenced the gastronomy of their co-religionists.
The Hebrew word "Sepharad" may have referred to a place in Asia Minor when it was first mentioned in Obadiah 1:20, but by medieval times, it denoted the Iberian peninsula. It is not certain when Jews first settled in Spain. Some sources date their arrival around the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE; others say they most likely came with the Romans in the first century.
Persecuted under the Visigoths who conquered the area in the fifth century, Jews welcomed the Arabs who arrived in Spain in 711. With Arab control came religious tolerance, and Jews flourished in many fields, including banking, trade, diplomacy, science and medicine. Iberia became one of the two great centers of European Jewry (the other, around the Rhine River Valley was the cradle of Ashkenazi Jewry). The Iberian flowering culminated in a golden age beginning in the tenth century that lasted three hundred years, and gave birth to such fabled names of Jewish letters and religious scholarship as Samuel Hanagid, Judah Halevi, and Maimonides.
Jewish life in Muslim Spain changed drastically when Maimonides was still a child, as the fanatical Almohads took over the area. The Jews flourished again for a time under the Christians who reconquered Spain province by province. But by 1391, with famine and plague rampant, virulent anti-Jewish riots broke out; thousands were killed in the pogroms that ensued and thousands of others converted.
These New Christians, or conversos, achieved greater heights of power and influence than they had ever been able to as Jews in Christian Spain. Now they could enter professions formerly closed to them and even marry into the aristocracy.
The Old Christians, rankled by what they saw as favoritism to the conversos, complained that the conversos were secret Jews, "Judaizers" who continued to practice their religion. The Church too questioned the "purity" of the converts, and some historians today point out that it is quite likely that the Crown owed steep debts to conversos who had financed their constant costly wars,. And so the Spanish Inquisition was instituted in 1478 to root out heretics, with a reach that would eventually extend to the Spanish New World (including present day New Mexico) and would not be abolished until 1834.
But the Inquisition was not enough. After 1500 years in Spain, the Jews were given four months to find new homelands. Some escaped to Portugal, which was to expel its Jews just five years later. Some went to Italy, Holland, North Africa, or later found their way to the New World. But the majority fled to the lands of the Ottoman Empire, where the Ottoman Sultan Bayazid II had invited them, noting that Ferdinand "is impoverishing his country and enriching my kingdom."
There had, of course, been a Jewish presence in all these Ottoman lands for centuries. For example, the Mizrachi community in Iraq dates back to antiquity when King Nebuchadnezzar brought Jews to Babylonia after he destroyed the First Temple. Jews had been living in Bulgaria during Herod's time, and Jewish communities dotted mainland Greece and its Mediterranean coast way before the Romans came to conquer the area.
But while technically "Sephardim" refers only to Jews of Spanish and Portuguese descent, the term has come to mean (especially among Ashkenazim) all of the Jews from the diverse communities of the Balkans, the eastern Mediterranean, North Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Asia.
Today, the constellation of cuisines in the Sephardi world reveals both the profound influence of the Iberian Jews and the elements of the cooking they absorbed in their new host countries. Iberian Jewish cooks had already been introduced to many favored Arab ingredients and styles when they lived in Spain and Portugal-not only during the years of Muslim occupation there, but also through the journeys Jews regularly made then to Arab lands to conduct trade and diplomacy, or to visit far-flung family and the renowned centers of Jewish learning located there.
In Arab Iberia they had adopted vegetables such as artichokes, eggplant, spinach, chard, and chickpeas; nuts, like pistachios and almonds; rice; pomegranates and citrus fruits; and flavorings including saffron, capers, citrus juices, orange flower and rose waters, and sugar. Using these ingredients, they had forged a unique cuisine synthesizing elements of Jewish, Arab, and Iberian Christian cooking. They fried foods in olive oil, not lard as the Christians did, or the clarified butter used then by many Arabs. They combined meat with fruit or used delicate sweet-and-sour flavors as the Persians did.
Ironically, the best information we have today about the original cuisine of the Spanish Jews comes from testimony and documents in the Inquisition archives. In their fascinating book, A Drizzle of Honey: The Lives and Recipes of Spain's Secret Jews, authors David Gitlitz and Linda Davidson show how Judaizers revealed themselves not only by koshering their meat and abstaining from cooking on the Sabbath, but also by preparing such foods as almodrote-a dish incorporating eggs, vegetables, and cheese, still popular in Sephardi kitchens-and albóndigas-balls of chopped meat or even fish, often combined with vegetables like spinach or leeks. According to Gitlitz and Davidson, meatballs were originally an Arab dish, but by the time of the Inquisition, "Together with the Sabbath stew, adafina, meatballs were-at least in old-Christian eyes-one of the defining characteristics of Ibero-Jewish cooking."
Even more ironic-as lovers of contemporary Spanish food can attest-many of the telltale proofs of secret Jewish cooking once despised by old Christians are mainstays of Spain's cuisine today: the lavish use of garlic and onions; olive oil as a frying medium; the eggplant and chickpeas formerly singled out by satirists as Jewish; and cocido, an iconic national dish very similar to a Sabbath stew, but containing pork.
Later waves of conversos continued to enrich Sephardi cuisines with foods from the New World. Many of them had found temporary respite in Portugal or hidden in Spain, and converted back to Judaism when they fled to Italy, France, England, Amsterdam, and the New World. Introduced to tomatoes, chiles and other peppers, potatoes, corn, squash, beans, and chocolate in these lands, they soon began trading and manufacturing these products, which quickly found their way in Sephardi kitchens.
How do Jews of Spanish descent celebrate Passover, which begins this year on Monday evening, March 29th? The karpas (spring vegetable) on the seder plate might be celery or parsley dipped into tears of vinegar, not salt water. Maror (bitter herbs) would most likely be romaine, chicory, or a tart green like arugula, not horseradish. Ingredients for the fruit-nut paste, haroset, may borrow from the exotic pantries of the Mediterranean: dates, apricots, oranges, pistachios, pine nuts, coconut. Huevos haminados, eggs slow-roasted in onion skins until they are creamy, pale brown, and faintly oniony, make the beitzah (roasted egg).
Kitniyot (rice and legumes) are generally not restricted, although some Sephardim may go through special processes to prepare them for Passover use. Peas, favas, and green beans-early spring crops in the Mediterranean area-are very popular at seder meals.
Other vegetables play major roles as well. Artichokes or apio, a lightly sweet-and-sour combination of carrots and celery root, may be served alone as a first course; spinach or leeks might show up mixed with potatoes and sometimes meat and made into fritters, meatballs, or casseroles. Roast lamb is a popular main course, often accompanied by minas, baked dishes of matzoh, meat, and/or vegetables, often layered like lasagna.
Desserts rely on ground almonds or walnuts to replace flour or matzoh meal. Flavored with orange, they evoke the scent of Spain, so many Passovers ago.