Passover101 Food

What is matzah?

Matzah (plural matzot) is a flat, unleavened bread made of just flour and water. This bread commemorates the haste with which the Israelites fled Egypt, which meant they had no time to wait for their bread to rise. The bread is also called the “Bread of Affliction,” as it is representative of poverty and privation in that it is about the simplest food one can eat. On a more spiritual plane, matzah also represents humility: just as we eat a simple, plain, unleavened bread, we are called on to focus on “deflating” our own egos. 

What is Chametz and why do I have to get rid of it?

Chametz comes from the Hebrew word chamutz, meaning sour (think sourdough), and refers to all leavened bread and baked goods that are prohibited during Passover in view of the injunction to eat only matzah. Specifically, any bread or baked product made of the five grains mentioned in the Bible (wheat, oats, rye, barley, and spelt) is prohibited if leavened in any way. Observant Jews will also abstain from anything that has not been stamped as “Kosher for Passover” by the Rabbinate, so that even non-leavened products without this seal are still off limits. Some even take this as far as products like salt, sugar, and even toothpaste.

What is Kosher for Passover food?

The Rabbinic rules and regulations pertaining to what foods exactly are prohibited are complex and vary between different Jewish communities. For example, Ashkenazis, Jews with Eastern European heritage, prohibit not only grains but kitniyot (legumes) as well. This includes corn, rice, soy, beans, lentils, garbanzos, and pretty much anything else you might think of milling flour from. Conversely, Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews from Western Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa, do eat legumes and rice. If you are bringing something to a Seder, check with your host about their level of observance and preferences.  Recently, many attempts have been made to make Passover fare as close to what we eat the rest of the year using non-traditional flours and other such substitutions. Indeed, the Kosher for Passover aisles in supermarkets often have a staggering selection of products considering all the dietary restrictions of Passover. However, especially if you are new to Passover, it is well worth appreciating the utter simplicity of matzah for what it is. In other words, it may be best not to focus on the curiosity of such products, which cannot compare to one made with regular wheat flour. Take the opportunity Passover offers to appreciate all that the ineffably simple matzah represents: the affliction of a life of privation, the comfort of sustenance even in its most basic of forms, the chance to deflate the excess from our lives and simplify, and myriad other possible meanings and lessons.

What foods are traditionally served at a Passover Seder?

Apart from the symbolic foods that go on the Seder plate and are used as part of the ceremony, there are a number of dishes associated with the Passover meal. Matzah ball soup and gefilte fish are common in Ashkenazi homes, as well as brisket, potato kugel, and macaroons or non-dairy chocolate-covered matzah for dessert. Sephardic dishes commonly served at the Seder include huevos haminados (hard-cooked eggs), spicy fish, leek meatballs, and zucchini salad.

What is the Afikomen?

The afikomen is a piece we break off from the middle matzah at the beginning of the Seder, and subsequently hide somewhere in the house for a game of hide-and-seek toward the end of the meal. On the one hand, the afikomen serves as a fun way to get kids involved. On the other hand, according to tradition, the afikomen is the last thing we should eat at the Seder meal. Many people and haggadot refer to it as a “dessert,” but the reality is that this is a bit misleading. Obviously, a piece of simple unleavened bread is no sweet delicacy. The real purpose of this custom is to savor the uniquely simplistic flavor of just flour and water with nothing else added. We use food as a vehicle to spiritual reflection because it builds a bridge between our material selves and our spiritual selves by feeding both our bodies and our minds. By ending the meal with that special, simple flavor on our tongues, we hope that the lofty and timeless themes we have reflected on during the Seder will linger with us even after we have cleared the table and gone off to bed.