Sephardic Cuisine

An overview of the wide variety of food eaten by the descendants of the Spanish exile.

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When the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, most made their way to North Africa and Ottoman lands such as Turkey and the Balkans. Half of the North African Jews lived in Morocco, and the Jewish style of food that was common there is still considered  one of Morocco’s four national food styles. The Jews who settled in the Ottoman lands were typically upper class, and their foods resembled the foods of the urban nobility. The kebabs, pilafs and dolmades (stuffed vegetables) of Turkish Jewry are still some of the most recognizable Sephardic dishes.

Fruits, vegetables, spices, and grains were plentiful in the Mediterranean climate, and thus plant foods figured heavily into Sephardic cuisine. Indeed, Jews were responsible for spreading the use of certain plant foods. Italian Jews prepared artichoke in an innovative way. Leeks and fennel, first used in Jewish cooking, were also later used in non-Jewish cooking in the area. Meats were eaten by Mediterranean Jews, but--except for Shabbat (the Sabbath)--fish was more often on the menu.

The Sephardic Jewish communities began to decline in the 18th century. Colonialism and natural disaster hit these communities hard and, on the whole, the Sephardic communities became impoverished. Nonetheless, Sephardic cuisine still retains the character of its unique heritage, a panoply of foods from many different lands that reflect an intense intermingling of cultures that were often well-to-do and sophisticated. It is difficult to identify particular Sephardic foods as Spanish or Greek or Arab. The movement of the Sephardic community and the unique blending of cultures gave rise to an assimilated and variegated cuisine.

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