An overview of the wide variety of food eaten by the descendants of the Spanish exile.
Sephardic cuisine refers to the foods eaten by a large and diverse group of Jews that bear the unique stamp of their regions of origin, which include Spain, North Africa, the Middle East, Egypt, and Turkey. Italian, Indian, and other non-European Jewish foods are also sometimes included in this mix.
There is logic to this broad grouping: Almost all of these lands were part of the Islamic world. The Arab conquest of the 7th and 8th centuries united land from the Iberian peninsula and the Atlantic Ocean to China and India. Active trading went on between these lands, spreading new food all over the region. Eggplant from India, spinach from Nepal, and spices from the Near East are examples of foods that spread throughout the Islamic empire.
Jews participated actively in Islamic society. They were successful in cultural, political, and financial arenas. Thus Sephardic cuisine often represents refined, even aristocratic, food. Besides the quality of the food, the Jews of the Islamic world stressed quantity as well. Asceticism was not valued, and lifecycle celebrations such as circumcisions and weddings were lengthy and luxurious.
Cookbooks that cataloged medical advice alongside recipes were a common genre of literature in the Muslim world. The 13th-century Cookbook of the Maghreb and Andalusia, one of the most important of these books, lists five Jewish recipes. All of these are full of spices and aromas and are detailed in their ingredients and preparation. One such dish, a chicken with giblets, was made with, among other things, fennel stalks, coriander, oil, citron leaves, eggs, flour, and chicken liver. The dish is first roasted and then left to sit in murri—a fermented condiment used in medieval cooking—vinegar, rose water, onion juice, and spices. All the dishes in the book, including the Jewish ones, exhibit delicate attention to flavor, texture, and presentation. Jews also authored recipe and dietetics books. Isaac Israelicus’ 10th century Book of Foods was translated into Latin in the 15th century and used in medical schools until the 17th century.
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