By the middle of Jennifer Abadi’s recent “Exotic Shavuot” cooking class at the JCC in Manhattan — “exotic” being a stand-in for “Sephardic” — participants were scurrying around the sub-basement kitchen, making sure their ingredients weren’t overcooking. While one area smelled of onions sautéing, the aroma of sweet syrup wafted from a burner across the room. The sounds of Egyptian songstress Umm Kulthum played softly in the background.
Abadi typically begins her workshops with an introduction about the region whose food the group will be cooking, complete with maps and shopping lists. In each class, participants select the dish they will prepare from among five or so on the day’s menu. Throughout the lesson, Abadi and her assistants circulate the room offering help, and Abadi demonstrates tricks such as onion chopping or filo-dough-handling techniques.
The students in Abadi’s classes on Sephardic cooking come from a variety of backgrounds, and have various levels of culinary expertise. Most participants are not Sephardim, but Ashkenazis looking to diversify their cooking repertoires. Some may have a Sephardic parent or grandparent, and they are trying to reconnect with that heritage.
Occasionally she finds herself working with people from the community whose cooking she is teaching; for some, they have not learned the family’s cuisine. In a recent interview over steaming mugs of fresh mint tea, Abadi remarked, “They want connection — it could be a spice, a dish, a combination of flavors. The memory is in their taste buds.”
A petite, dark-haired woman in her mid-40s, Abadi is actively establishing her place as a prominent Sephardic chef, culinary historian and revivalist. Ever since “A Fistful of Lentils,” her cookbook-memoir was published in 2002, Abadi has been building her reputation and her knowledge base, and has become an authority on Sephardic cuisine in New York. The world of Sephardic food is not large, and it is dominated by women.
Abadi maintains a collection of Sephardic cookbooks for reference. Some she picked up on her travels; others, like the “Sephardic Ladies of Zimbabwe,” were gifts from fans. She has developed a database of recipes from the Jewish communities of Syria, Turkey, Greece, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt and Iran, and her menus are often compilations of these different tastes. Sephardic foods reflect the flavors of these countries but have been adapted, most importantly for kashrut.
Abadi approaches Sephardic cuisine with an insider-outsider perspective. Her mother is Syrian but her father was Ashkenazi. While most of her cousins from her mother’s side grew up in traditional Syrian enclaves of Brooklyn and New Jersey, she was raised on the Upper West Side and attended Reconstructionist Hebrew school.
In somewhat Syrian fashion, Abadi still lives near her family in a brightly painted apartment near Central Park. She and her husband and their two young daughters live in the same building in which she was raised and that her mother, Annette, owns. Abadi’s mother lives downstairs, and her sister in an apartment upstairs.
When Abadi embarked on her quest into the cuisine of her maternal lineage, she dropped her father’s name, Goldman, and adopted that of her grandmother Fritzie. She began with the Syrian cuisine she favored from her childhood, spending hours at Fritzie’s side, learning and recording her aromatic blends. Abadi then made these recipes consumable for the general public, meaning fewer “fistfuls” and more “tablespoons.”
Over a decade-long period she devoted her spare time to the project while working in graphic design. Abadi not only wrote the text and developed the recipes, but also compiled family photos, drew illustrations and designed the book layout. Her aspirations were high; she writes, “This cookbook is more than just a collection of recipes. It is a torch holder of a remarkable culture that has clung to its origins with pride and tenacity over thousands of miles and many years.”
She is currently at work on a Sephardic Passover cookbook covering cuisines from Afghanistan to Yemen. She has been interviewing Sephardim from around the world, and documenting their unique Passover customs and recipes on her blog, toogoodtopassover.com.
Sephardic cuisine is full of symbolism and Abadi will not only tell you which foods the Sephardim favor, but why. For instance, many Sephardim prepare dishes with leeks on Passover because the Hebrew verb “karat,” which means to “cut off,” sounds similar to the Hebrew and Aramaic word for leek, “krissa,” and the Arabic, “karat.” Leeks are served for Passover to represent our breaking away from slavery, and they also stand for the whips of the Egyptian taskmasters.
In the Sephardic culinary lexicon, pomegranates and fish represent fertility, fava beans symbolize springtime and renewal, and foods that are round and plentiful such as beans, seeds and couscous, are served on Rosh HaShanah to symbolize health and prosperity.
Gloria Ascher, a professor of Judaic studies at Tufts University who is of Turkish descent, stresses the importance of food in Sephardic communities. “Food should be watched over, cooked slowly, tended, encouraged, nurtured. Food is already an important part of Sephardic culture in the Golden Age in Spain — Maimonides places major emphasis on food in his suggestions for maintaining ideal health.”
There is a certain nostalgia connected to this food history since many of these communities no longer exist in their original countries; culinary memory is drawn from our elders, who learned from their elders. It is passed down from generation to generation, wherever history takes us.
To Abadi, Sephardic cooking is “eating to go to a lost world.”