It’s a little hard to envision Passover dinners without big groups of people gathered around the table and groaning platters of food. The traditional crowded seder meals largely won’t be happening this year, thanks to social distancing in the time of COVID-19. And that means the gentiles among us won’t be getting any invitations to our Jewish friends’ seder tables either, which we will miss.
I grew up with Jewish neighbors in a town with a sizable Jewish population, so our food traditions intermingled. My mother was an enthusiastic supporter of our neighbor’s Hadassah ladies’ organization, and they happily traded dishes back and forth. I’ve even taken a matzo class.
But I know Passover dishes can be a mystery to many gentiles. That’s what makes it so exciting to land a seat at the table: you get to learn about a whole new world of carbs, meat, and sweets that your friends have been familiar with their entire lives, and how they relate to Jewish history.
So in lieu of that, and from a safe distance, we asked chefs and authors known for Jewish cuisine to give us an overview of the foods served at Passover. It’s not quite the same as eating them, but this way, non-Jews can be prepared for next year’s invitation.
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What’s the Passover dish that can make someone fall in love with Jewish cuisine?
“Brisket is the thing I love serving non-Jews. It sounds like a joke out of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, but it’s true. It’s so hard for anyone not to love a tender, flaky slice of beef with a little onion, tomato, carrots, and lots of love. If you can cook a great brisket you can get anyone to smile at your dinner table.” —Zachary Engel, executive chef, Galit, Chicago
“Matzo ball soup. It’s a revelation for people who have never had it before. So many people can connect with memories of chicken soup, so when you add these plump savory dumplings to a known classic, it’s usually life-changing.” —Alon Shaya, founder, Pomegranate Hospitality
“My go-to’s are potato latkes, pastrami sandwiches, and matzo ball soup because these are the comfort food dishes of my childhood. Generally, these dishes are not common in non-Jewish households, but they were (and still are) in my home and so near and dear to my heart.” —Yehuda Sichel, chef, Abe Fisher, Philadelphia
“Except for gefilte fish, a recipe I love but that does not cross cultural borders, I don’t differentiate between Jews and non-Jews. Good food is good food. That said, I serve brisket.” —Joan Nathan, author of Jewish Cooking in America
What would you teach non-Jews about Passover cuisine?
“It’s a story of food and and a beautiful tradition to keep. The sweet charoset that resembles the mortar used to rebuild the temple, the egg symbolizing a new beginning. Each food symbolizes something significant during the exodus, and following along with a group of people to discuss the stories, the flavors and the memories is a treat no matter what religion you are.” —Alon Shaya
“I’d say both observant and non-observant Jewish people take this holiday and its traditional dietary restrictions very seriously. Over Passover, Jewish people do not eat, drink, or own ‘chametz,’ or food that is made from grain. In no other cultures do you see foods made from mashed-up matzo meal as a replacement for flour (we’re a little crazy!).” —Yehuda Sichel
“Passover comes out of an earlier spring festival where people thanked God or the gods for the new foods of the spring…wheat and barley, greens coming from the earth, and new lambs born in the spring. Matzo became the bread of freedom, maror (bitter herbs) the bitterness of slavery, and lamb the sacrifice in the Temple. This year, I am sure the symbolism of the 12 plagues and the coronavirus will be discussed at every seder in the world.” —Joan Nathan
“To understand the cooking of the Passover holiday, people have to grasp the inventiveness that Jews showed while coming up with Passover-friendly dishes. Foods often came out of necessity, poverty, and limitations we set on ourselves due to our traditions, like matzo brei or matzo ball soup. Even the kids’ favorite, matzo pizza, is a great example of Jews in search of a joyful meal during a difficult time. Our ancestors survived slavery in Egypt and a tumultuous exit so we may celebrate with what we can while also honoring the sacrifice they gave for future generations. Passover cuisine is sometimes interpreted as burdensome or a chore, but it’s actually representative of how Jews celebrate the smallest joys in life.” —Zachary Engel
What are some new Passover dishes that you’ve been exploring?
“Last year, my daughter was born, and I took some time to be with her. During that time, our Chef de Cuisine, Mario Juarez, took the reins with Abe’s menu. Recently, the two of us developed the Matzo Ball Tamale. It’s an insane way to incorporate matzo meal into a staple Mexican dish. I’m thrilled that one of the most ambitious dishes we’ve ever developed at Abe Fisher is also a hit with our guests.” —Yehuda Sichel
“I have always tried to push the boundaries with Passover menus and if anything, the older I get the more I like to scale them back now to make them more ingredient focused. I love in the spring all of the flowering herbs that we have access to in Louisiana. I like to ask my farmer friends to find me blossoming bitter herbs like wormwood, parsley and coriander. They pair beautifully and classically with lamb on the bone.” —Alon Shaya
“I will be serving Greek hard-boiled eggs in a spinach sauce [a recipe found in her book, King Solomon’s Table] as well as a flourless chocolate torte. As King Solomon said, ‘There’s nothing new under the sun.’ Certainly, not in ingredients. What I love about Jewish cuisine is that it’s very regional, because Jews have had to move so many places throughout their lives, for good and bad reasons. They have to adapt to new climes, create new recipes, always initially based on dietary laws.” —Joan Nathan
“At Galit, we’ve been using some traditional elements of Jewish cuisine in classic Western preparations. For instance, we serve challah as a replacement for brioche toast on a foie torchon dish. We are taking a dark pumpernickel rye bread and making it into a crouton-like crumble to add texture to our beets and tehina salad. These foods of the Jewish food canon are familiar to a lot of American diners. These foods ground Galit in the familiar, relatable and comfortable when a lot of our more Middle Eastern-focused fare seems foreign to some guests.” —Zachary Engel