Food: To the manna born

Claudia Roden How to transform a traditional Passover meal into an eclectic and symbolic feast. Photograph by Patrice de Villiers

The Passover Seder meal which celebrates the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt was, for us children in Cairo during the late Forties and early Fifties, an exhilarating occasion with an ambiguous comic touch. Had we been left behind?

We sat with our cousins at one end of the extended table as the men and boys with their embroidered skullcaps chanted their Hebrew in Arabic tunes (including that of the Egyptian national anthem). Reading from the Haggadah, my father relived for us in our French mother-tongue, with great passion, the unfolding events of the Israelites' escape from slavery in Egypt more than three thousand years before. His voice became exalted when he got to the crossing of the Red Sea, the manna from heaven and the giving of the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai.

He ceremoniously passed around the ritual foods from the Seder tray with explanations. The matzo was to remind us of the Jews who had no time to let their dough rise when they fled. Lettuce, symbolising new growth, was dipped in salted water which represented the tears of the Jewish slaves; and bitter herbs (rocket and cress) were to remind us of how bitter slavery had been for our ancestors. A shoulder of lamb represented the lamb sacrificed by the Israelites on the eve of their Exodus; long-boiled eggs the offerings to God in the Temple. Haroset, a date and raisin paste, recalled the Nile silt that the Jews had used to build the pyramids for the Pharaohs.

Finally, everyone averted their eyes when my father poured into a bowl the wine while enumerating the 10 plagues brought upon the Egyptians as a result of the Pharaoh refusing to let the Israelites leave the country - the Nile turning to blood, infestations of frogs, lice, flies, cattle disease, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, death of the first born. As the oldest female child in the family, I held the bowl with my eyes closed and ran to flush the contents down the lavatory.

Could our ancestors really have built the pyramids with silt? We tried to feel sad, but the idea of our ancestors as slaves was hilarious as we sat around the table surrounded by servants. They too fell about laughing in the kitchen when my father enumerated the plagues brought on their ancestors.

Pesach (Passover) was a joyful period of frenetic activity, beginning with weeks of cleaning, whitewashing, the selling of hametz (leaven, fermented dough and grain which is forbidden in Jewish households during Passover) to Muslim neighbours, and the acquisition of matzos which were produced in large round sheets in a Jewish bakery in Mit Ghamr.

Passover week was spent in a round of visits to every member of the extended family. We sat in large circles and were treated to coffee and sherbets (almond milk, rose, apricot and tamarind syrup), almondy pastries and coconut jam. Some of our older relatives wore kaftans - one was a cabbalist who wrote magic charms on pieces of paper - some of the younger ones were communists or Zionists, but the gatherings were always harmonious and affectionate.

By the early Fifties, after the first war against the new state of Israel in 1948, the situation began to sour and the celebration of Passover became tense. We shouted "Next year in Jerusalem" with trembling passion. To Muslims the plagues began to sound like imprecations against them.

A few years ago I found myself at the Grand Temple, the great synagogue in Cairo, at Passover. There were not the required 10 Jewish men to perform the prayer. Everyone was looking at the entrance desperately hoping that a male Jewish tourist would walk in. The thought of our own exodus from Egypt became unbearably sad as I remembered the packed synagogue with blazing lights and exuberant chants, and all the people I spent my childhood with, the men in their top hats, the women in their finery chattering in the gallery.

`The Book of Jewish Food' by Claudia Roden is published by Viking, pounds 25

Pesce sott'olio con salsa verde (cold fish in olive oil with green sauce), serves 6

Italian Jews make this fish dish on Friday to be eaten cold on Saturday. I have chosen it for the Seder because the salsa verde which is served with it can represent the bitter herbs of Passover. In Italy they use fish such as bream, bass and John Dory, but you could use any firm white fish such as cod, haddock or halibut. Wrapped in foil, the fish steams in its own juice; marinating it in olive oil and lemon juice keeps it moist and juicy.

11/2 kg fish fillets, any firm white fish

salt

juice of 1 lemon

125ml of mild extra virgin olive oil

white pepper

Season the fish lightly with salt. Brush a large sheet of foil with oil, place the fillets together, one on top of the other, in the middle and wrap loosely into a parcel, twisting the foil edges together to seal it. Place in a tray and bake in a preheated oven (400F/ 200C/gas mark 6) for about 30 minutes or until the flesh begins to flake when you cut into it with a pointed knife - check after 20 minutes. Let it cool in the foil.

Remove the skin and put the fillets, in large pieces, in a serving dish. Beat the lemon juice with the oil and the cooking juice from the fish. Add very little salt and white pepper and pour over the fillets. Leave to marinate, covered, for several hours or overnight in the refrigerator.

The salsa verde

In Italy everyone has a special version of salsa verde. It can be made to taste mild or sharp, or even sweet and sour. The following mixture is an exciting and refreshing favourite.

1 very large bunch of flat-leafed parsley, stems removed

75g pine nuts

5 small pickled gherkins

8 pitted green olives

3 crushed garlic cloves

3 tablespoons wine vinegar or juice of 1/2 lemon

salt and pepper

250ml mild extra virgin olive oil

Put all the ingredients except the oil in a food processor and blend. Add the oil gradually - enough to make a light paste.

Artichoke hearts and broad beans, serves 6

Many Sephardi communities eat broad beans during Passover. This combination with artichoke hearts is an old one. It was the Friday night standby at my parents' home in London. In Egypt, vendors used to come to the kitchen door and sell artichokes by the crate. Here, I use frozen artichoke bottoms from Middle Eastern stores. They are so good you cannot tell the difference.

500g fresh shelled or frozen broad beans

500g frozen artichoke hearts (or bottoms), quartered or cut in half

salt and pepper

4 tablespoons light olive oil

2 garlic cloves, crushed in a press or finely chopped

juice of 1 lemon

1 teaspoon sugar or more to taste

2 sprigs of mint or dill, finely chopped

Put all of the ingredients in a pan together with enough water barely to cover and then simmer gently for 15-20 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender and the liquid is reduced. This dish can be served either hot or cold.

Agneau aux raisins secs ou aux amandes (lamb with raisins and almonds), serves 6

In Sephardi Jewish communities lamb is part of the Seder meal because it represents the sacrifice which the Jews made to God before the Exodus. This dish is a Passover speciality which comes from Fez and Meknes in Morocco. As usual for festive occasions, the dish is sweetened. Start with only a tiny bit of honey - it may not be to your taste - and add more if you like.

500g small pickling onions, peeled

5 tablespoons peanut or light vegetable oil

1kg lamb shoulder or fillet of neck, cubed and trimmed of excess fat

salt and pepper

1/4 teaspoon saffron

1/4 teaspoon ginger

100g seedless raisins

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1-3 tablespoons honey (optional)

100g blanched almonds

Put the onions in a large pan with 3 tablespoons of oil and the meat, and saute, stirring, until the meat changes colour. Add salt, pepper, saffron and ginger. Cover with water and simmer for one and a half hours, or until the meat is tender and the liquid reduced to a rich sauce, adding a little more water if it becomes too dry. Add the raisins and cinnamon and cook for another 15 minutes. Add the honey, if using, and cook 15 minutes more.

Lightly fry the almonds in the remaining oil until slightly coloured. Chop them coarsely or leave them whole. Serve the lamb hot with the almonds sprinkled on top.

Gateau a l'orange, serves 12 or more

Flour-free cakes made with nuts or almonds are a Passover speciality in all Jewish communities. The orange cakes are something Sephardi Jews still share with Spain today. This one, with whole boiled oranges, which came to us in Egypt from Spain, is moist like a pudding.

2 oranges

6 eggs

250g sugar

2 tablespoons orange blossom water

1 teaspoon baking powder

250g blanched almonds, coarsely ground

Wash the oranges and boil them whole for one and a half hours, or until they are very soft.

Beat the eggs with the sugar. Add the orange blossom water, baking powder and almonds and mix well. Cut open the oranges, remove the seeds, and then puree in a food processor. Mix thoroughly with the egg and almond mixture and then pour into a 23cm (9in) oiled cake tin - preferably non-stick and with a removable base which has been dusted with matzo meal or flour. Bake in a preheated oven (375F/190C/gas mark 5) for an hour. Let it cool before turning out.

Haroset from Egypt

Haroset is the fruit paste that is part of the Seder-night ritual. The fruits used vary. The Ashkenazi version is with apples. In Egypt we believed ours, with dates and sultanas, was the most correct because we knew the colour of the Nile silt which was used to make the mortar for the pyramids, which the paste represents.

250g pitted dates, chopped

250g large yellow raisins or sultanas

125ml sweet red Passover wine

60g walnuts, coarsely chopped

Put the dates and sultanas with the wine in a pan. Add just a little water to cover. Cook on very low heat, stirring occasionally, until the dates fall apart and it thickens to a soft paste. Pour into a bowl. Sprinkle with walnuts

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