(Note: This article was originally published in Jewish Woman Magazine)
Some starters, Etty Russo insists, are “a must” on her Rosh Hashanah table in Istanbul. There are always the traditional whole cooked fish, spinach and cabbage boreks--savory pastries. And arranged on a silver plate is the family favorite, the keftes de prasa, luscious fritters that combine meat with potatoes and a hefty pile of aromatic leeks.
Whether their ancestors came from the Iberian Peninsula or the other Jewish communities that pre-date it, when Sephardim reminisce about holiday celebrations, most likely there is some incarnation of their storied meatball on the menu. For throughout the Ottoman lands and Italy, Jews created an extraordinary range of beloved keftes, albondigas, polpettes, boulettes, kibbeh, and the many other names they go by.
The Russos’ fondness for their keftes reveals their Spanish roots as much as the Ladino that Etty’s son Moris points out “was spoken at our home along with French and Turkish, sometimes all in the same sentence.” It was in medieval Spain and Portugal that Jews became acquainted with albondigas—balls made of chopped meat, poultry, or even fish. In their book, A Drizzle of Honey: The Lives and Recipes of Spain’s Secret Jews, David Gitlitz and Linda Davidson suggest that the word probably stems from the Arabic al-bundaq, meaning round, or possibly the Arabic word for hazelnut (bunduqun) or chopped meat (albidaca). Albondigas, they note, were “thought of as typically Arab food,” and point to several recipes for meat and fish balls in cookbooks from Baghdad, as well as Andalusia, that date back to the thirteenth century.
While others surely ate meatballs—the ancient Roman author, Apicius, gives meatball recipes in his cookbook too—Jewish affection for them became legendary. They were a hallmark of Ibero-Jewish cuisine. In fact, during the Inquisition, a continued taste for albondigas was a telltale sign that a professed converso was still a Jew in his heart. Servants’ testimony about albondigas betrayed their employers as secret Jews as surely as did adafinas, the slow-cooked Sabbath stews that were made without pork.
After their expulsion from Spain and Portugal, Iberian Jews brought their albondigas to the new lands they settled, where they influenced and were influenced by the diverse local recipes and culinary traditions they encountered there. Today’s meatball variations reflect the rich array of disparate cuisines throughout the Sephardi world.
Where the culinary presence of the Iberian Jews is strongest felt—Turkey, Greece, the Balkans, parts of Italy and North Africa—often the meatballs (and their cousins) are not only cooked along with vegetables, but may be directly combined with them as well. So Bulgarian cooks might use roasted eggplant to make a smoky sauce for simmering albondigas or fold the eggplant puree into the beef to create soft, creamy meatballs with haunting flavor. Many Jews of Turkish and Greek descent welcome the New Year with meatballs of beef blended with fresh spinach, in addition to the leek keftes the Russo family enjoys. This technique--kneading eggplant, artichokes, celery root, carrots and other vegetables right into the meatballs--is said to be uniquely Jewish. Often this type of meatball is dipped into flour, and then just before it is fried, coated with beaten egg, yielding an especially delicate fritter.
For Jennifer Abadi, author of A Fistful of Lentils, a taste of Rosh Hashanah kibbeh is a mouthful of contrasts: the “yin-yang” balance of sweet and savory flavors that Syrian Jews adore in the meatballs she cooks with tangy apricots or sour cherries, sparked with tamarind. The meatballs marry beautifully with the traditional symbolic foods of the holiday: apricots, deep golden in color, remind us of coins and therefore of good fortune; cherries, round for a fulfilled year, unbroken by tragedy.
And then there is the requisite New Year’s fish course that begins the meal for many Egyptian and North African Jews: “meatballs” made of well-seasoned ground fish--bellahat and boulettes, simmered in an egg-lemon sauce or a garlicky tomato one.
The permutations are astonishing. So it’s worth pausing to ask what it is about meatballs that resonates so deeply with Jews?
Obviously, meatballs can be an economical choice. Chopping up tough, inexpensive cuts makes them tender and more palatable. Adding stretchers—cooked vegetables or starchy ones like moistened bread, matzoh meal, bulgur, and ground rice—extends whatever meat, poultry, or fish you have.
And by using a variety of fillers, cooks can lend incredible diversity to their meatballs. Keftes made of beef, mashed potatoes, and ground walnuts taste entirely different from albondigas de apyo, round balls of ground meat mixed with pureed carrots, celery and celery leaves that are dipped in egg just before they are fried.
Not just fillers, but seasonings too can be kneaded directly into the meat or fish, allowing cooks to flavor their meatballs more intensely and thoroughly than stews. Before shaping their albondigas, cooks could incorporate favorite blends, like cinnamon and allspice or mint and rosebuds, and experiment with a sprinkle of the exotic spices
Jewish traders brought back from far flung lands. Inventive cooks might sneak a surprise inside a meatball: an almond, an apricot, or in the case of kibbeh, another meatball inside the first.
Meatballs—whether combined directly with vegetables or just cooked on top of them—were especially appealing to Sephardim, who, Claudia Roden writes in The Book of Jewish Food, “have a reputation as vegetable lovers, even by Mediterranean standards.”
For the Sabbath and holidays, Jews could prepare tempting meatball dishes in advance, with no loss of flavor. The meatballs would remain moist and tender in flavorful broths or tomato and other sauces.
Golf balls, tangerines, eggs, walnuts, and olives—these are just some of the sizes I’ve seen in directions for shaping albondigas and their many cousins. Syrian Jews, says Ms. Abadi, are “obsessed with making everything small and refined.” Her Aunt Essie was known in her family for her ultra-refined cooking technique. “When she made kibbeh m’gheraz,” Jennifer says, her tiny meatballs were smaller than the cherries, so you couldn’t tell one from the others.”
When the meatballs are to be fried, they sometimes exchange their spherical form for a flat fritter shape.
Which brings us to the question “to fry or not to fry?” Many traditional recipes call for sautéing the meatballs and then either serving them as is, perhaps accompanied by a sauce, or simmering them after frying in broth or sauce. Searing meatballs does help them retain their shape better; it may make them a bit richer—and oilier—as well. And it is an extra step, if you are planning to cook them afterwards in a sauce. I used to prepare fish belahat this way, but I’ve come to prefer simmering them start to finish directly in the sauce, as many other cooks do, because they absorb more flavor from the sauce and come out softer (though you need to be slightly more careful that they don’t fall apart, as they are more fragile made this way).
Instead of frying her meatballs or cooking them directly in a liquid, Homa Mehrbakhsh of Baltimore uses an especially savory method to cook her meatballs: she seasons her kufteh well, then cooks them on top of sautéed onions, imparting another layer of flavor to the meat as it simmers. But she says the real secret to her signature meatballs with mushrooms and potatoes, a luscious recipe from her native Shiraz, Iran, is to “take the time to cook each ingredient separately.” Meatballs shouldn’t be a hodgepodge of hastily thrown together ingredients. “Sauté the mushrooms quickly over high heat until they turn golden brown, fry the potatoes with onions in another pot.” She cooks everything completely before combining them with the oniony meatballs.
Time…making even the simplest meatballs used to require lots of it. Today meatballs seem such homey, convenient fare, ultra-easy when you can buy meat or even poultry ready-ground at the market, or quick enough to chop it yourself in a food processor.
Once upon a time, though, meatballs were reserved for Shabbat, holidays, and other festive times, when all that hand-chopping with a mortar and metal pestle was a labor of love. Claudia Roden wrote about the sound of making kibbeh: “the ringing of the metal is in the background of so many of our memories.”
That music may be gone now. But fortunately we no longer need wait for a special occasion these days to enjoy the meatball recipes that follow.
Making Meatballs: Some Sephardi Secrets
· The meat should be ground more smoothly and pastelike than for Ashkenazi meatballs. You can grind the meat (or use already-chopped meat) in a food processor along with onion, and/or garlic, and starches like bread crumbs, or bread that has been soaked in broth or water and then squeezed dry. Pulse, amalgamating all the ingredients, until you have a smooth paste.
· “No filler added” might sound like a great advertisement for hot dogs or ice cream, but it doesn’t work for meatballs. While fillers may have been born out of poverty, meatballs made without them taste decidedly poorer: dry and hard.
· For help in preventing the ground mixture from sticking to your hands when forming meatballs, we turn to Jennifer Abadi who provides this story in A Fistful of Lentils about two cooks making meatballs: “Fortuna brought a small dish of cold water to the table. Grace brought a small dish of oil to the table. Fortuna moistened her left palm with cold water. Grace wet her left palm with a drop of oil. Both cooks took a large pinch of meat and began to form a meatball. ‘What are you doing?’ cried Fortuna. ‘My mother taught me to use only cold water to wet the palm!’ ‘Are you crazy?’ answered Grace. ‘My mother taught me to use only oil!’ (What is so odd about this story, you ask? Both women had the same mother!)”