At sundown on April 14, children in every Jewish community in the world will ask the question they have asked for 3,000 years. “Why is this night different from all other nights?”
This question, and three other questions, are an integral part of the Seder, the meal opening the weeklong celebration of Passover, the Feast of Unleavened Bread.
Passover commemorates the Exodus of the Israelites from two centuries of slavery in Egypt. The Passover story, as recounted in the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, says that when Pharaoh granted Moses the freedom to lead the Jews out of bondage in Egypt, the people left in such a hurry that they had no time for their bread to rise. Today, Jews celebrate Passover by eating matzo, or unleavened bread.
Passover is celebrated in homes and synagogues with traditions established over centuries. Food is an important part of the festival beginning with the Seder, an evening of blessings, songs, symbols and the retelling of the story of the Exodus.
The meal is both solemn and joyous and is prepared according to the injunction in Deuteronomy that says, “For seven days you shall eat no unleavened bread so that you may remember the day of your departure from the land of Egypt as long as you live.”
Over centuries, the rabbis have interpreted the Torah to create an elaborate set of rules that determine the foods that are permissible and those that cannot be eaten during Passover. For the home cook, the preparation of the Seder meal is a happy challenge.
The meal begins with a ceremonial first coarse of symbolic foods shown or eaten in a certain order as a leader conducts the service from a special book called the Haggadah.
The leader’s plate contains a roasted lamb bone, commemorating the sacrifice the Hebrews made the night before they left Egypt, as well as a roasted egg to signify springtime or renewal.
Other symbols include maror, or a bitter herb like horseradish, to signify the bitterness of slavery; charoset, a mixture of chopped apples, wine, nuts and sugar to recall the mortar used to make bricks while the Hebrews were enslaved in Egypt; a green vegetable, like parsley, to signify the freshness of spring; and salt water, in which to dip the parsley, to recall the tears of enslavement.
The most important symbol is the matzo, which is eaten throughout the meal along with four cups of wine or grape juice. Traditionally, the ceremonial course is followed by bowls of matzo balls in chicken soup or beef broth and then a full holiday meal with dessert.
Because Jews have lived in every corner of the world, the holiday meal varies from community to community. Joan Nathan, an internationally recognized expert on Jewish cooking, was not at all surprised on a visit to Baton Rouge to see local cooks seasoning normally bland matzo balls with red pepper and lots of parsley and chopped green onions.
“The 200 Baton Rouge ‘old time’ Jewish families, most of whom have German or Alsatian roots, prefer their food hot, and they like their matzah balls with some bite,” she wrote in her award-winning “Jewish Cooking in America,” published in 1994.
Chicken, turkey, lamb or beef brisket are favorites for the main course, but no flour or leavening can be used in the preparation.
“Fermenting agents such as yeast are forbidden, as is the fermentation of five types of grain — wheat, barley, rye, oats and spelt — which are named in the Torah and can ferment. Bread, cakes, biscuits — all foods that contain ingredients made from the grains — are hametz (forbidden),” wrote Claudia Roden in her award-winning “The Book of Jewish Food.”
Because of these restrictions, Jewish cooks have become extremely creative. “The demands of cooking without grain or leaven have produced a whole range of distinctive Jewish variants of dishes making use of ground almonds, potato flour, ground rice, matzo meal and sheets of matzos to make all kinds of cakes, pancakes, pies, dumplings and fritters,” Roden wrote.
Here are some examples of Passover dishes that will work for any holiday dinner: