The Sephardic Cuisine of the Mediterranean island of Rhodes
In 1492 Queen Isabella expelled the Jews of Spain, the Sephardim, from their beloved homeland in the Iberian Peninsula and many sought refuge in the Ottoman Empire having received a welcoming invitation from Sultan Bayezid II. It was here that my ancestors lived and flourished for centuries in a time of great religious tolerance.
My family has a unique culinary legacy that originated from the Golden Age of Spain and kept alive with the rich and diverse Moorish-Spanish cuisine. This cuisine evolved by my forebears who settled in the Mediterranean island of Rhodes and in Mamaris, Turkey.
With the introduction of rice to Spain in the 8th Century by the Moors, rice became our preferred grain appearing as an accompaniment to most meals. The technique of briefly sautéing soaked rice in olive oil was the basis of our Spanish rice pilafs, (arroz frito).
A myriad of slow cooked stews and bakes using chickpeas, artichokes and aubergines are an intrinsic part of our everyday meals, as are meatballs, (albondigas), derived from the Moorish-Spain, (al bundo), which are simmered in a fresh tomato sauce.
The Arabs introduced angel hair noodles to Spain in the 13th Century and the Sephardim have a distinctive way of browning these noodles (fideyos tostados), imparting a nutty taste. These noodles can also be simmered with tomato and chicken stock as a tasty accompaniment to many meals.
Sofrito is the art of sautéing chopped onions and garlic, and often other vegetables, in olive oil before adding fresh tomatoes and aromatics in the preparation of stews. This first step gives a characteristic depth of flavour to Sephardic stews.
The Jewish tradition of substituting fish, (served with an egg-lemon sauce called agristada), for meat on Fridays in medieval Spain brought the art of shallow frying fish. Sephardic Jews brought this dish to Britain – the iconic “Fish ‘n Chips”.
Moorish Spain brought an array of savoury pastries including the crescent-shaped vegetable-filled pies known as empanadas to our culinary repertoire of pies. The meat-filled pies called pastels, are served with braised hard-boiled eggs, (huevos haminados) - one of the most ancient and characteristic foods of medieval Spain.
Doughnuts, or deep fried fritters, (bimuelos), are derived from the Spanish word bunuelo, which was a popular yeast dough fritter in Moorish Spain. Orange Spanish Sponge cake, Pan de Espanya, which literally means “bread of Spain”, was the quintessential cake among the Jews of medieval Spain originally made with the prolific oranges from Seville. Another of our sweet treats with origin of that time is the candied quince paste, dulse de bembrillo (membrillo). The toasted sesame-seed, honey and almond brittle candies became an addition to our sweet treats. Recipes of marzipan, (masapan), made from freshly ground blanched almonds, and cooked with a sugar syrup, handcrafted into orange blossom scented sweet treats were passed on from the convents of Toledo to our ancestors. Masapan became the much cherished sweet offered at festivities and celebratory tables to this day.
With our resettlement in the east Mediterranean our food was enriched with sumptuous Ottoman delights. We inherited a bounty of plump olives, tart pickled vegetables, salted fish, a splendid variety of cheeses, and savoury filo pastries, which became staples at the meze table. Rice pilafs became enhanced with the addition of fragrant Turkish aromatics, legumes and toasted nuts. Chargrilled skewered lamb and poultry and a variety of enticing stuffed leaves and vegetable dishes became part of our daily fare. Nut-filled, syrupy pastries - aromatic with cloves, cinnamon, mastic and infused with rose and orange blossom water, added an exotic dimension served with a strong cup of Turkish coffee.
Each mouthful of the food we eat today provides a window into the rich tapestry of centuries of our cherished Ottoman Sephardic cuisine and Judeo-Spanish culture transmitted by word of mouth from generation to generation.
I hope to inspire this generation of home cooks to take time to share our vibrant healthy Mediterranean food with the people you care about – it’s just so good for the soul. As the Ladino saying goes “The greater your hospitality, the more fulfilling your life will be”, (“El ke alarga la meza, alarga la vida”).