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?

As is common in Judaism, the Rabbinic rules and regulations pertaining to what foods exactly are prohibited are complex and vary between different Jewish communities. For example, Ashkenazis, or Jews with mainland 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, Sephardic Jews, or those whose provenance is in the Iberian Peninsula, use legumes without compunction.

In any case, unless you are studying to become a rabbi, the best rule of thumb if you are trying to host a Seder or bring something to one, or if you wish to kasher (i.e. make kosher) your home for Passover, is to stick to products marked “Kosher for Passover,” and, when in doubt, to ask someone observant.

Over recent years, 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 exotic products, thereby likely setting yourself up for disappointment over, say, a potato flour chocolate cake, which surely cannot compare to one made with regular wheat flour.

Rather, take the opportunity that 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 is definitely a common Passover delicacy to open the meal, though so delicious is it that it is also eaten year round in many Jewish homes. Gefilte fish (see below) is another common dish typical in Ashkenazi homes. Other common Seder menu items at Ashkenazi Seders are beef brisket, potato kugel, and macaroons or non-dairy chocolate-covered matzah for dessert. Sephardic dishes commonly served at the Seder include 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. One the one hand, the afikomen serves not as a fun way to get kids involved. After all, what child doesn’t love a treasure hunt, particularly if some incentive, however small, is added?

On the other, 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. At least in the case of shmurah (handmade) matzot, the flavor really is unlike anything else we tend to eat.

It is often the case in Judaism that we use food as a vehicle to spiritual reflection. This is because food 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.

What is gefilte fish?

Gefilte fish is a traditional Ashkenazi dish made from deboned fish meat that is ground and mixed with egg, matzah meal, and spices. The mixture is usually boiled or poached, but sometimes also baked. In olden times, the mixture was often served stuffed into an intact fish skin (hence the name, which in Yiddish means “stuffed fish”), but nowadays it is generally served as is, or with a garnish of carrot on top. It is commonly eaten with a bit of chrayn, or horseradish sauce, to give it a bit of kick. This is one of those foods people either love or hate, but it is worth trying a bite before you decide which camp you fall in! Who knows? You may be surprised.