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  • Stella Hanan Cohen

Flavors that last through centuries.

In Sephardic recipes we can trace the presence of a diet and a taste shared by the three religions until 1492.

Stella is a writer and artist who is currently living in Zimbabwe. Juan was a Navarrese civil servant of century XVI. So at first glance there seems to be nothing in common between them apart from being human beings, but look at where, it turns out that they both share the same recipe and the same flavour. Separated by 500 years and 9,000 kilometers apart, I recently came across two cooking formulas that referred to exactly the same sweet. One was written in Spanish around 1550 and the other appeared just nine years ago in a cookbook published in English.

The first belongs to the ‘Gift of human life’, the manuscript in which the general treasurer of Navarra Juan Vallés compiled recipes for beauty, health and cooking and which was hidden in the Austrian National Library until 2008. The second is included in ‘ Stella’s Sephardic Table ‘, the book in which Stella Hanan Cohen collected her family’s recipes in 2012. Born in Zimbabwe, she is a descendant of Spanish Jews and spoke Ladino at home since she was little. Their ancestors left Castile to settle on the Greek island of Rhodes, where they preserved their language, culture and customs. They also protected their culinary heritage, passing recipes from generation to generation until they ended up being edited by Stella, a great fan of the kitchen, and even recorded on video and disseminated on Instagram.

It is in this social network that I first saw Mrs. Cohen’s «royal cake» or «masapan kon sharope», some small marzipan sweets filled with lemon jam that she herself makes by hand and whose border she patiently and strategically decorates with the tip of a knife. This is how their grandmother, great-grandmother and all their Sephardic ancestors made them.

The illustrious Juan Vallés also described them in exactly the same way, who five centuries ago called them “marçapan and diacitron pastries or pastries” explaining that marzipan paste had to be filled with preserved citron (a kind of citrus fruit) and “when pastelicos are filled cover them with the same pasta and refine the edges with a knife”. Such is the same thing that Stella did with her instagram cakes, so long after and without knowing anything about the existence of that Navarrese kitchens.

Not only does this show us that the oral transmission of culinary knowledge works wonderfully across time and space, but that ancient Sepharad Jews ate much more like their Christian or Muslim neighbors than we usually think. In fact, if we removed the taboos of pigs and other animals not allowed by Judaism from the equation, we would realize that the diet of the three cultures was very similar throughout the Middle Ages. They had at their disposal the same raw materials, the same spices or condiments, and the same cooking techniques.

In Al-Ándalus, Castilla or Aragon, the rich of any religion could choose what they put on their table, while the most humble - whatever their faith - were satisfied with simple foods such as legumes, vegetables and bread. Once the Christians of the north began to imitate the more sophisticated uses of the Andalusians and to adopt their ingredients (rice, almonds, sugar, aubergines, artichokes ...) the gastronomic repertoire of the Iberian Peninsula in a certain way became unified, especially in the case of the most privileged social classes. Jews, Muslims and Christians shared for centuries, better or worse, a single land and a majority diet that today we identify as Mediterranean, based on wheat, oil and vegetables.

If you open any Spanish gastronomic encyclopedia, it is likely that you will find that this or that dish and the one from beyond are of supposed Jewish or Islamic origin. There is nothing that we like more than a good myth and tradition - and even historiography - has always preferred to say that marzipan, Santiago cake or torrijas are of “exotic” root rather than accepting a simple regional or non-denominational origin . Or that recipes were shared and became fashionable just as before. So much so that Juan and Stella have a common flavor and history, that of the same cuisine preserved through the centuries.

Article title: Sabores que permanecen a través de siglos


Website title: El Comercio

Date accessed: March 23, 2021

Date published: March 18, 2021

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