In Egypt, when I was growing up, preparations started with the dressmaker, Eti, who had a club foot, coming to the house. She worked with scaled patterns, given away in French magazines. We all helped - my mother by cutting, the children by pulling out tacking threads and picking up pins with a magnet.
The extended family got together for the cooking preparations days in advance. While the family cooks podded beans, washed spinach, trimmed artichokes, pitted fruits and pounded nuts in the kitchen, my mother and aunts sat around the dining table wrapping, stuffing, rolling. We children hung around hoping to catch the gossip which was part of these occasions.
The same foods, all of them significant, were cooked each year: sweet things, "so the year be sweet and happy"; green things, representing a new beginning; round things, signifying continuity and the hope the year be full and rounded; gold things, as a symbol of prosperity and good fortune; beans, chickpeas and seeds, symbolising fecundity and abundance.
An ancient local tradition was to bake a sheep's head in the oven so "that we may always be at the head and never at the tail". This tradition, which appears in writings in the early Middle Ages, also recalls the sacrifice of a ram by Abraham. In our family, we substituted lambs' brains cooked as fritters or in an egg-and-lemon or tomato sauce, or a whole fish with the head left on.
Our dishes - spinach omelette; black-eyed bean stew with lamb and onions; meatballs with cherry sauce; stuffed artichoke hearts, stuffed courgettes, almond pastries - were from Aleppo and Istanbul. Other families prepared different dishes according to where they came from. The Jews of Egypt were very mixed, with people from Syria, Turkey, Greece, North Africa, Italy and elsewhere. Stews, pilafs, omelettes, gratins, as well as fritters and pies were made with chard, spinach, broad beans, green peas, green beans, courgettes and okra. Couscous was made with seven vegetables for good luck and was accompanied by a sweet, fruity side dish. There were round foods such as meatballs, green peas, chickpeas and round or ring- shaped breads and pastries, and sweet things. Potatoes were replaced by sweet potatoes, onions were caramelised, and meats were cooked with quinces, prunes, apricots, dates or raisins, and sometimes also with honey. Nothing sharp or bitter was used - no vinegar or lemon or tamarind or sour pomegranate; and nothing black - no aubergines or black olives or chocolate.
Pastries were made with sesame seeds and aniseed; or stuffed with nuts or dates; or soaked in syrup. Jams and preserves were made with coconut, which evoked purity by its whiteness, golden pumpkin and spaghetti squash, which evoked joy and happiness and prosperity by their colours, and with quinces, figs and dates represented the new fruits of the season. These were exchanged between families and offered to Muslim and Copt neighbours.
On New Year's Eve, the men and boys went to the synagogue while the women and girls set the table, extended with card tables. I wrote the names and painted little portraits on the seating cards. The children were all placed at one end.
They are glorious and nostalgic memories - the long rows of familiar faces, the brilliant white tablecloth, the array of dishes and flickering candles, the prayers and chanting of Hebrew hymns in Arab and Andalusian tunes, the meal unfolding in an uproar of noisy chatter. We finished with "the new fruits of the season" - pomegranates, fresh dates and figs. Pomegranates, which are said to have 613 seeds - the same number as the commandments - were believed to bring new births in the family. We ate the seeds sprinkled with rose water and sugar.
When my parents settled in Britain, we adopted some of the traditional Jewish New Year foods of Britain - slices of apple dipped in honey; round hallah bread with raisins, fish cooked with the head on. In Yiddish folklore, sliced carrots are associated with gold coins, and carrot tzimmes (carrots cooked with honey) are eaten as a symbol of prosperity and good fortune or, according to another interpretation, "to increase merits over shortcomings". Honey cake and apple strudel are other New Year specialities. You will find them, with the round hallah in the Jewish bakeries. Honey cake has been a favourite since the early Middle Ages in Germany where the Ashkenazi culture and style of cooking were born.
The following New Year menu I have put together is from various Middle Eastern Sephardi communities.
Tav Sponaw - spinach omelette (Persian), Loubia - black-eyed bean salad (Egyptian), roast fish with chermoula sauce (Moroccan), mashed sweet potatoes with olive oil and parsely (Tunisia), Rose aux Amandes - marzipan Coil with filo pastry, (Morocco) Maronchinos - almond biscuits (Turkey), coconut jam (Egypt)
Tav sponaw - spinach omelette, serves 4 to 6
Spinach omelette is an everyday dish in Sephardi communities. You find it served for light evening meals, late Saturday lunches, and buffet parties and picnics. Its greeness, which symbolises renewal, makes this a natural for Rosh Hashanah. Although it is often referred to as an omelette, it is hardly that. There are a great many versions. The most usual is simply spinach and egg flavoured with salt and pepper. This Persian one is herby and aromatic.
500g (1lb) spinach
4 tbsp sunflower or light vegetable oil
a bunch of spring onions (about 12), trimmed and sliced
4 tbsp chopped fresh coriander
a few sprigs of mint, chopped
a few sprigs of dill, chopped
salt and pepper
12 tsp nutmeg or allspice
Wash the spinach and remove any thick stems. Drain, and squeeze out the excess water. Put the leaves in a large pan with 2 tablespoons of oil. Cover and steam them until they flop into a soft mass. It takes minutes only. When the spinach is cool enough, press the excess water out in a colander and slice the leaves coarsely with a sharp knife.
In a bowl, lightly beat the eggs. Add the cooled spinach, spring onions, coriander, mint, dill, salt, pepper and nutmeg or allspice and mix well.
Heat the remaining oil in a large, preferably non-stick, frying pan. Pour in the spinach mixture and cook on a very low heat with the lid on for about 15 minutes, until the bottom of the flan has set. Then put the pan under the grill to cook the top. When it has set, turn out on a serving platter.
Eat hot or cold. This is usually served with yoghurt in a meatless meal.
Variations - pour the spinach mixture into a greased baking dish and bake at 350F/180C gas 4 for 45 minutes - Add 100g (4oz) of very coarsely chopped walnuts - Add 250g (9oz) of cottage cheese and 60g (2oz) of grated kasseri or Parmesan - Frozen spinach will do.
Loubia - black-eyed bean salad, serves 6-8
In Egypt, we served this salad for Rosh Hashannah. It represented new life.
500g (1lb) black-eyed beans, soaked for 1 hour
salt, black pepper
1 mild red onion, chopped, or 2 garlic cloves, minced or crushed in a press
4 tbsp chopped flat-leafed parsley
12 tsp cumin (optional)
5 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
juice of 1 lemon
Boil the drained beans for about 20 minutes, or until tender, adding salt towards the end. Drain, then add the rest of the ingredients and mix well.
Variation: a similar salad is made using brown or green lentils.
Roast Fish with Chermoula Sauce, serves 6 or more
For the New Year a fish is served with the head left on so that "Jews would be at the head rather than the tail" or, according to some, "so that they may be ahead with good deeds and serve as a model of goodness".
Red snapper large enough to feed up to 8 people is easily available at the fish market but you may need to ask your fishmonger to get it for you. Other Mediterranean fish such as sea bream and hake may be used instead. The spicy marinade is the all-purpose Moroccan sauce for fish.
3kg (7Ib) red snapper, scaled and cleaned
For the sauce:
I large bunch fresh coriander (weighing about 5oz with the stems on), stems removed
5 garlic cloves, crushed
112 tsp cumin
112 tsp paprika
14 tsp chilli powder, or more to taste
125ml (4 fl oz) groundnut or a mild-tasting extra virgin olive oil
juice of 1-112 lemons
Preheat the oven to 190C/375F/Gas Mark 5). Place the fish in a large roasting tray and score the skin with 3 slashes on each side.
Blend all the sauce ingredients together in a food processor and pour half the quantity over and inside the dish. Leave for about half an hour turning the fish over once.
Bake for about 35 minutes or until the flesh turns opaque and begins to flake away from the bone when you cut into it with a pointed knife. Pour the remaining sauce all over the fish.
If you like a charred skin, preheat the grill and put the fish under it until it is lightly charred. Serve hot.
Mashed sweet potatoes with olive oil and parsely, serves 6
For Rosh Hashanah, sweet potatoes symbolising the hope the New Year will be sweet and happy, are used instead of potatoes in many dishes. Mashed potatoes with olive oil, sometimes combined with parsley, chopped olives, capers or anchovies are a popular accompaniment to fish in Tunisia.
112kg (312Ib) sweet potatoes
135ml (412 fl oz) mild-tasting extra virgin olive oil
A good bunch of flat-leafed parsley, chopped
Peel the sweet potatoes and cut them into pieces. Boil them in salted water until soft. Drain, keeping at least 150ml (5 fl oz) of the cooking water.
Mash the sweet potatoes, then beat in the olive oil. Add salt and pepper to taste and enough of the cooking water to gave a soft, slightly moist texture. Then mix in the parsley. Serve hot or cold.
Variation: add 4 tablespoons capers, squeezed of their juice or about 2 dozen chopped green olives, and fold them in.
Rose aux amandes - marzipan coil in filo pastry, serves 12
This is a splendid pastry and easy to make. In Morocco, they call it a snake (m'hencha), but the Jews there call it a rose. It is made for special occasions like weddings. Since it is quite rich, the portions should be small. Serve it for tea, or after dinner with coffee. When I made it, I noted on my sheet "really wonderful", and it is. You must try it.
250g (9oz) blanched almonds
150g (5oz) sugar 2 eggs, lightly beaten
grated zest of 1 lemon
1 or 2 drops (no more) almond essence (optional)
4 tbsp butter, melted
3 sheets of filo
1 egg yolk for glazing
icing sugar to sprinkle on
1 tsp cinnamon to sprinkle on
For the filling: grind the almonds with the sugar in the food processor. Add the eggs, lemon zest, almond essence, and 2 tablespoons of the melted butter. Blend to a creamy paste.
Open out the sheets of filo when you are ready to use them and keep them in a pile. Brush the top one lightly with melted butter.
Put a line of filling about 2cm/three-quarter-inch thick along one long edge and roll up into a thin roll, tucking the ends in to stop the filling from oozing out. To curve the roll without tearing the filo, you have to crease it first like an accordion by pushing the ends towards the centre with both hands. Lift the roll up with both hands and place it in the middle of greaseproof paper or a greased sheet of foil on a flat baking sheet or the detachable bottom of a tart tin. Curve it very gently, like a snail shell. Do the same with the other sheets, rolling them up with the filling inside, curving the rolls, and placing them end to end to make a long coil.
Brush the top with the egg yolk mixed with a drop of water and bake at 350F/180C/Gas Mark 4 for three-quarters of an hour, or until crisp and browned on top.
Serve cold, sprinkled with icing sugar and cinnamon.
Maronchinos - almond biscuits, makes about 30
I know these little sweets were highly esteemed in Turkey and the Balkans, because one of my elitist grandmother's ironic remarks was, "A los asnos maronchinos", implying that you don't give maronchinos to donkeys. They are perfect to serve with coffee - softer than macaroons, a little moist and not too sweet - and they never fail.
400g (14oz) ground almonds
125-200g(5-7oz) caster sugar
2 or 3 drops of almond essence
2 tbsp rose water
2 eggs, lightly beaten
icing sugar to sprinkle on
Mix the almonds and sugar. Add the essence, rose water and eggs and work to a smooth paste with your hand. Roll into walnut-sized balls, flatten them slightly, and place in little paper cases or on greaseproof or parchment paper on a baking sheet. Bake in a preheated 350F/180C/Gas Mark 5 oven for 25 minutes. Let them cool before dusting with icing sugar.
This jam was made for Passover in Egypt. My mother would give each of us a pot to take home. We wondered every year why we never made it at other times, because we loved it.
500g dried unsweetened coconut
2 tbsp orange blossom or rose water
2 tbsp lemon juice
100g blanched almonds or 100g pistachio nuts, chopped (optional)
Sprinkle the coconut with the orange blossom or rose water and with enough fresh cold water so that it is just moist, fluffing it with your hands. Leave it overnight to swell and soften. Make a syrup by simmering the sugar with 150ml of water and the lemon juice for a few minutes. Add the coconut and bring to the boil again slowly, stirring constantly. Remove from the heat, as soon as it boils. Let it cool a little before pouring into a jar. Serve in a bowl, sprinkled, if you like, with chopped almonds or pistachios.
Variations - an Indian version has cardamom seeds in the syrup - We used to eat jam with whipped cream
Claudia Roden 1997. `The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand and Vilna to the Present Day', by Claudia Roden is published by Viking, pounds 20