It seems as if every Passover tradition now carries a modern zing. Jews who don’t eat rice during the eight-day holiday, which starts at sundown Monday, can serve quinoa, the trendy un-grain. An orange and tomato added to the Seder plate of symbolic foods acknowledge current struggles for freedom. The plate itself now comes in every form you can imagine — even in the shape of moon craters.
This is all part of one of the oldest and best-known Jewish holidays, commemorating the Israelite slaves’ exodus from ancient Egypt, led by the humble and heroic Moses. The Seder plates I’ve grown up with create a culinary retelling of the story using five elements: karpas, a fresh herb to represent spring, usually parsley; maror, the “bitter herb” God told the Israelites to eat on Passover, often represented as horseradish root; charoset, a rendition of the mortar the slaves used in Egypt, a spiced fruit salad; a roasted egg, another symbol of spring; and a roasted lamb shank bone to acknowledge the lamb that God told Israelite families to sacrifice. (I’ve seen that last one appear in the form of a chicken neck or a roasted beet.) Some Seders also feature hazaret, a mild bitter vegetable usually represented by romaine lettuce.
The other staple of the Seder table is matzoh, the crisped, unleavened flatbread that echos the last loaves the Israelites formed — but never had a chance to bake — as they fled. Both tradition and the oft-repeated commandment in the Bible to eat unleavened bread make matzoh a must.
Maybe it’s the simplicity of those foods that has made the Passover table a palette for innovation — and is the reason I hadn’t thought up a single twist that hadn’t already been done.
I couldn’t figure out anything different, that is, until I read about chef and food scholar Moshe Basson. The owner of Eucalyptus, a restaurant just outside the Old City in Jerusalem, uses wild chicory for bitter herbs, just as he says the Israelites ate at ancient Seders. That turned on a light bulb: Go back to basics.
“I believe in the importance of preserving food traditions as well as [sharing them] with each other,” Basson says. The menu at his restaurant, now in its third decade, embodies that philosophy. Diners can order heaping dishes featuring indigenous ingredients with names such as Jacob & Esau’s Biblical Red Lentil Stew — a riff on the soup that cost one twin his birthright.
I researched “Passover recipes based on the Torah” and found, among other things, a savory dish of leafy greens that could pass as maror. How could I have missed that? Any tradition that replaces the sinus-clearing horseradish root with a dish that’s one glazed pecan shy of a gourmet salad has potential. So I made a decision: For this year’s commemoration of the Israelites’ escape from slavery, I would try Passover by the book. Well, make that the scroll.
The Torah’s Book of Exodus, Chapter 12, offers one description of the instructions for Passover fare: “The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: [Each household] shall eat [lamb] roasted over the fire, with unleavened bread and with bitter herbs” (Jewish Publication Society translation).
Remy Pessah of Mountain View, Calif., follows those words and long-standing family traditions each year at Passover time. Born in Egypt, the 66-year-old chemical engineer turned fiber artist was raised with Karaite Judaism. (“Karaite” is a form of the Hebrew word “karaim,” or “followers of Scripture.”) She joined the Karaite community in the San Francisco Bay area, which by some estimates includes more than 200 families. Pessah’s Seder table reflects this Jewish movement that takes its cues directly from the Tanach: the Torah, Prophets and additional texts known as Writings.
“Our Seder is pretty much different from the rabbinical Seders,” Pessah says. “The way we read the Haggadah, the preparation of the Haggadah, the whole atmosphere.”
It indeed differs, both in terms of the Haggadah, the book of readings that tells the Passover story and guides the Seder, and the meal. There are no Four Questions at a Karaite Seder. There is no fruity charoset and no wine — the latter is a fermented product. Instead, Pessah serves homemade grape juice.
The rabbinic Seders that Pessah referred to are what most observant American Jews know as the standard. Those Seders are based largely on the ancient rabbis’ redaction of the Tanach. That redaction is called the Oral Torah. The Karaites see the Oral Torah an interpretation rather than hard-and-fast rules. Some of the several thousand Karaites in the United States, especially those far from the Bay Area enclave, practice a mixture of Karaite and rabbinical traditions. The biggest Karaite community resides in Israel, and another pocket lives in Turkey.
Pessah’s Passover meals reflect the strong thread of food culture woven into Karaite tradition. Jews from Ashkenazi rabbinical movements, which include Conservative and Reform, tend to avoid serving lamb on Passover because it too closely resembles the paschal lamb sacrifice, a practice that ceased with the destruction of the holy Temple. But grilled lamb is an important part of Pessah’s Passovers, filling her home with aromas from childhood.
“That’s the first thing you would smell, definitely. That and . . . za’atar, that is mixed with garlic and parsley. We use it with the matzoh,” she says. “We also make homemade jam for the holiday.”
Biblical and mouthwatering. Sign me up.
I decided to test a few Karaite recipes, starting with the flatbread so central to the holiday.
“Making your own matzoh is a wonderful way for any family to experience the holiday,” says Shawn Lichaa, the co-author of “As It Is Written: A Brief Case for Karaism” and founder of the Karaite blog A Blue Thread. He adds sunflower oil, salt and coriander to the flour and water that make up most of the kosher- certified matzoh sold at the grocery store.
Another alternative to the boxed matzoh is Ethiopian kita, a soft, unyeasted flatbread similar to a crepe. Ethiopian Jewish tradition, which also closely adheres to literal biblical rules, turns to this bread during Passover.
But I wanted to understand, on a technical level: Why not the standby store-bought flatbread?
“Because it tastes like cardboard,” Lichaa says.
Karaites can jettison the packaged matzoh because the rules that were followed in order to certify, say, a Streit’s box of matzoh as kosher for Passover came from the Oral Torah. Those rules include that a mashgiach (a rabbi specially trained in kosher law) must supervise the processing of the wheat from field to production facility and oversee that the baking of the matzoh took no longer than 18 minutes.
Religious implications aside, the Karaite recipes blew me away. The maror was tangy and fresh, while the Karaite version of matzoh — not so flat, by the way — had a satisfying, savory crunch. While observant rabbinic Jews seek only kosher for Passover matzoh for the holiday, the Karaite recipe is worth considering for the rest of the year. I plan to make at least a few batches and to try my hand at kita.
My next challenge was to locate biblically correct ingredients in North America, which doesn’t exactly share the climate of the Fertile Crescent. I needed help, and that came from culinary historian Michael Twitty, a Rockville resident who agreed to meet me at the bustling Dupont Circle FreshFarm Market one Sunday.
“The Seder everyone knows today is really Seder 3.0,” Twitty said as we walked by the vendors’ stalls. Rabbinic commentary along with individual and societal innovation account for the added generations. He inspected root vegetables and bags of local spinach as we talked, but he wasn’t finding what he wanted. Later, Twitty would explain how the Seder mainstays I know developed long after Moses carried the Torah down Mount Sinai.
The practice of leaning on pillows, for example, comes from Greco-Roman tradition. Elsewhere, I learned that charoset developed from that same culture as a condiment for the herbs at the Seder. Jews in Europe and the Middle East adopted regional charoset ingredients: chopped fresh apples for Ashkenazi tables and a mixture of dried fruit, such as figs and dates, for Sephardic ones.
After wandering further, we turned a corner. Twitty suddenly opened his arms.
We were standing at a table piled with salad greens. The gnarled fronds looked a lot like the wild chicory Twitty’s grandmother used to harvest in the American South. Other bitter-herb options Twitty brainstormed include dandelion greens and arugula, both of which grow like gangbusters in this region.
Next, I moved on to the lamb. For anyone amenable to serving it at Passover, this one is easy. Most grocery stores and butchers sell lamb chops and other cuts. A great kosher option is KOL Foods, a supplier of grass-fed kosher meat based in the Washington area. The company ships a number of lamb options.
Then it was time for my last and most important consideration: Would my fellow Seder-goers share my excitement? Or is the idea of biblically based Seder dishes too wonky even for Washington?
If Basson’s experience is any indication, I’ll be fine. “We encounter a lot of foodies from around the world” at the restaurant, he says. People not only love the food, he says, but the stories that go along with it.
Kennedy is a Washington writer and teacher. Meats from KOL Foods can be ordered online. She’ll join today’s online chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.
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