A tradition of Moroccan Jews, Mimouna, held on the last night of Passover, is a celebration of liberty and friendship as well as a way to greet the spring. Doors are thrown open, people sing and dance in the street, and well-wishers stop by to laugh, drink and share the bounty of foods set out to herald a sweet and successful new year.
"The women would run from synagogue to set the tables," says Suzanne Amsellem, 69, of Silver Spring, recalling her youth in the Jewish quarter of Fez, Morocco, when the women would race home to prepare for the feast. Sundown on the last night of Passover signals the end of the holiday's prohibition on eating chametz, leavened foods.
The table is covered in a white cloth. On top of that "we put leaves of wheat to represent abundance, greens and flowers to show spring blooms, dates and honey for a sweet life, fish for fertility, a bowl of milk and white flour for purity," says Amsellem, who welcomes 20 to 30 people each year on Mimouna (pronounced mih-MOO-na). Tradition also calls for eggs, bean stalks, dates and coins to be placed atop the flour to represent good things for the new year.
The food most anticipated is mofleta, a delicious thin dough fritter of flour and water, usually dipped in honey. Samy Ymar, 60, president of Rockville's Magen David Sephardic Congregation, serves mofleta with honey and strawberries. Fez native Danielle Mamane, co-author with Kitty Morse of "The Scent of Orange Blossoms" (Ten Speed, 2001), a book of Jewish Moroccan cuisine, drips orange blossom oil in the mofleta and dips it in a mixture of sugar, warm water and butter, then caramelizes it.
Jewish Moroccan women are legendary for their cooking, notes Claudia Roden, author of "The Book of Jewish Food" (Knopf, 1996). Many Jews in Morocco are of Spanish descent, their ancestors having found their way to North Africa during the Inquisition. There are Spanish, Portuguese, Berber, Arabic and Ottoman influences in their cooking. The unique taste comes from "a mixture of spices," says Roden. "Meats served with fruits like quinces, pears, apples or dates. In sweet dishes, they'll use saffron, cinnamon or ginger. In salads, they'll put cumin and chili, fresh coriander and paprika."
At Mimouna, tables are heaped with stacks of mofleta; grilled fish; couscous dishes, usually sweet ones topped with pumpkin, zucchini, fried almonds and raisins; several types of jam, such as orange flower, grape or currant preserves; almond or walnut pastries; zaben, a candied meringue; nougat made of sugar and egg and worked until it's hard; mahiya, a licorice liqueur; and mint tea.
Several stories account for the origin and name of Mimouna. Some say it comes from the Arabic "maimuna," meaning wealth and good fortune. Others connect it with the Hebrew word "emunah," faith. Other explanations include an association with the famous scholar Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, known as Rambam, whose father died in Fez in 1204 on the day after Passover.
Whatever the derivation, the celebration includes a parade of friends and neighbors traveling from house to house to eat, drink and be blessed. Traditionally, the first stop is the rabbi's house, then the parents', then the home of the people first visited in the new year -- the place where one's good fortune was begun. "You greet people by saying 'tarbehu utisaadu,' " which is Arabic for "may you be successful and be happy," says Amsellem.
The following day, revelers head outdoors for barbecues and picnics. Some people visit a body of water to commemorate the parting of the sea as told in the Passover story. In Israel, where there's a large Moroccan Jewish community, the day after has become almost a national holiday with thousands of people converging in parks. In America, Amsellem and her family follow the custom of wearing Arab attire: "colorful gold and silver caftans," she says. The men wear jalabas, robes, and cover their heads with a red or white tarboosh, which is like a fez, instead of a yarmulke.
"There's a carnivalesque atmosphere," says Prof. Daniel Schroeter, University of California-Irvine's Teller chair in Jewish history and author of "The Sultan's Jew: Morocco and the Sephardi World" (Stanford University Press, 2002). "Jews would even borrow clothing from their Muslim neighbors, and during certain Muslim celebrations outside the Orthodox Muslim calendar, Muslims would sometimes dress as Jews."
This close connection with Muslims has always been an important part of the celebration in Morocco, where perhaps only 7,000 Jews still live. (In the 1960s there were approximately 15,000 Jews in Fez alone.) For centuries, says Schroeter, North African Jews and Muslims shared similar customs such as hilulot, in which believers would visit the tombs of holy men and occasionally women -- often the same person in both cultures -- on the saint's death date.
During Passover, Muslims would often keep the chametz for their Jewish neighbors and then sell it back to them on Mimouna. Food writer Mamane remembers a Muslim neighbor coming every year with "two big fishes hanging out of a basket" that her mother would clean and prepare. Mamane expects many of her Muslim neighbors to come to her Mimouna celebration this year.
Between the food, wine and tea there are, of course, blessings. "My father would sit at the head of the table with the bowl of milk and the green leaves of lettuce," says Amsellem. " 'Length of days and long life and peace they shall add to you,' " he would say, quoting several passages from Proverbs in English, Hebrew and Arabic. "And then he would dip a romaine leaf in the milk and touch your forehead. You'd get milk on your face and everyone would laugh" -- a good beginning to any successful new year.
(Makes 15 fritters)
This tall stack of fritters, though fried in an unconventional manner, makes for quite the conversation starter. (The fritters could also be fried and served individually.) The stack is then pulled apart into individual fritters and dipped into sweet accompaniments. Leftovers -- which are unlikely -- can be coated with a buttery, toffeelike sauce.
Adapted from "The Scent of Orange Blossoms" by Kitty Morse and Danielle Mamane (Ten Speed Press, 2001).
For the fritters:
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus additional for the work surface
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons water
About 1/2 cup vegetable oil
Honey, sugar and/or preserves for serving
For any leftover fritters:
1/2 cup unsalted butter or margarine
1/4 cup sugar or honey
2 teaspoons orange blossom water*
For the fritters: In a large bowl, combine the flour, salt and water and stir to combine. Transfer to a lightly floured surface and knead until you have a breadlike dough, about 3 minutes. Break the dough into 15 portions of equal size.
Lightly oil a work surface. Using your fingertips, spread each ball of dough to a diameter of 6 to 7 inches. (It is important to spread the dough thinly.) Repeat with the remaining dough. Set aside.
Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Immediately fry the first fritter until golden on the first side, 21/2 to 3 minutes. (If the oil does not immediately bubble when the fritter is added, it is not hot enough.) Flip the fritter and fry until golden on the second side, 21/2 to 3 minutes. Leave the fritter in the pan. Immediately place an uncooked fritter on top of the first fried fritter. Immediately flip the stack so the uncooked fritter is on the bottom. Fry until golden on the first side, 2 to 21/2 minutes. Place another uncooked fritter on top of the uppermost one, flip again and repeat the cooking process. (All fritters, except the first one, will fry on one side only.) Add oil to the skillet as necessary. Continue adding and flipping the fritters until you have a stack of 15. (If desired, may cook in 2 or 3 shorter stacks.) At this point, you can serve the hot fritters with honey, sugar and/or preserves on the side.
For leftovers: Break any leftover fritters into bite-sized pieces. In a large skillet over medium-high heat, heat the butter, sugar or honey and orange blossom water until the butter is melted. Stir to combine. Add the fritter pieces and toss to coat. Cook, turning the pieces occasionally, until coated with syrup and lightly caramelized, 10 to 12 minutes. Serve immediately.
*Note: Orange blossom water can be found in Middle Eastern and specialty food stores and in some supermarkets.
Per fritter: 85 calories, 2 gm protein, 13 gm carbohydrates, 3 gm fat, 0 mg cholesterol, trace saturated fat, 39 mg sodium, 1 gm dietary fiber
Per leftover fritter: 120 calories, 2 gm protein, 14 gm carbohydrates, 6 gm fat, 9 mg cholesterol, 2 gm saturated fat, 40 mg sodium, 1 gm dietary fiber
Confit of Grapes
(4 to 8 servings)
This sweet, lightly spiced version of preserved grapes is a nice substitute for preserves on the holiday table.
From Claudia Roden's "The Book of Jewish Food" (Knopf, 1996).
2 cups granulated sugar
2 cups water
1/2 to 3/4 teaspoon ground ginger
4 cups seedless grapes, rinsed
1/2 cup (2 ounces) whole blanched almonds (optional)
In a large saucepan over medium heat, bring the sugar, water and ginger to a simmer and cook gently for 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to low, add half of the grapes and, if desired, half the almonds and cook gently until the grapes are softened, 20 to 25 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the grapes and almonds to a shallow container, leaving the syrup behind. Repeat with the remaining grapes and almonds. Transfer the grapes and almonds to the container. Set the pan with the syrup aside to cool for at least 10 minutes. Pour the syrup over the grapes, cover and refrigerate until chilled through.
Per serving (based on 8, including sauce): 217 calories, trace protein, 56 gm carbohydrates, trace fat, 0 mg cholesterol, trace saturated fat, 1 mg sodium, trace dietary fiber
Moroccan Baked White Fish
Here a whole roast fish, infused with the flavors of garlic and parsley, makes an eye-catching centerpiece. The fish is drizzled with a golden saffron mixture and surrounded by vibrant slices of lemons, tomatoes and bell peppers. (You may need to call the seafood counter in advance to reserve a whole fish.)Serve with steamed couscous.
From Joan Nathan's "The Jewish Holiday Kitchen" (Schocken Books, 1998).
1/2 cup vegetable oil, plus additional for the baking dish
1/2 teaspoon saffron threads
1/2 cup boiling water
5-pound whole trout, rockfish or white fish, cleaned and gutted, head and tail removed if desired
1 cup coarsely chopped fresh parsley leaves
1 head of garlic, cloves peeled and minced
4 medium tomatoes, thickly sliced crosswise to form rings
1/2 green bell pepper, cored and thickly sliced crosswise to form rings
3 lemons, scrubbed and sliced crosswise to form circles
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly oil a glass or earthenware baking dish large enough to accommodate the fish.
Place the saffron in a small bowl, pour the boiling water over the saffron and set aside to steep for a few minutes.
Place the fish in the baking dish. Stuff the cavity of the fish with about three-quarters of both the parsley and garlic. Sprinkle the remaining parsley and garlic around the fish and neatly surround the fish with a single layer each of slices of tomato, bell pepper and lemon.
Pour the saffron water over the fish and vegetables. Drizzle about 2 tablespoons of the oil over the fish, then pour the remaining oil over the vegetables surrounding the fish. Using aluminum foil, loosely cover the head and tail (if you have not removed them) to prevent them from burning.
Roast the fish, uncovered, until the skin is golden and crisp and the fish flakes easily with a fork, about 30 minutes, depending on the size.
Using 2 wide spatulas, carefully transfer the fish to a serving platter. Using a sharp knife, make a small slice through the skin behind the fin and, using a fork, roll the skin from the fish. Serve immediately.
Per serving: 408 calories, 61 gm protein, 15 gm carbohydrates, 14 gm fat, 105 mg cholesterol, 2 gm saturated fat, 255 mg sodium, 5 gm dietary fiber
Almond and Walnut Macaroons
(Makes 35 macaroons)
These miniature macaroons have a depth of flavor beyond their deceptively simple directions. A dusting of confectioners' sugar lends a slight sweetness to the crisp exterior, which gives way to the dense, nutty center of nuts, egg whites and vanilla. From "The Scent of Orange Blossoms" by Kitty Morse and Danielle Mamane (Ten Speed Press, 2001).
2 cups finely ground almonds (about 10 ounces whole, blanched almonds ground to a powder)*
1 cup finely ground walnuts (about 5 ounces walnut halves ground to a powder)*
3 large egg whites
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
About 11/2 cups sifted confectioners' sugar
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Place 35 small paper or foil baking cups (about 11/2 inches in diameter) on a baking sheet.
In a bowl, combine the ground almond and walnut powders. Set aside.
In a large bowl with an electric mixer on high speed, beat the egg whites and vanilla until stiff peaks form. Using a spatula, gently fold the nut mixture into the egg whites. Using your fingers, knead the mixture lightly until a sticky but stiff dough forms.
Pinch no more than 1 inch of dough and roll it into a ball shape in between the palms of your hands. (If the macaroons are larger than a scant 1 inch, they will not bake completely in the allotted time.) Roll each ball in the sugar and place it inside one of the paper liners.
Bake until the macaroons turn light golden, about 25 minutes. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool. (May store in a tightly sealed container for up to 2 weeks.)
Per macaroon: 95 calories, 3 gm protein, 7 gm carbohydrates, 7 gm fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 1 gm saturated fat, 6 mg sodium, 1 gm dietary fiber
*Note: To finely grind nuts, place them in a food processor or blender and chop or mix until ground to a powder. Remove any large chunks of nut that remain.
Stacey Freed, former managing editor of the B'nai B'rith International Jewish Monthly, lives in western New York.