“Syrian cooking is a lot of work. Everything has an art to it,” says Sonia Didia, an avid Syrian-Jewish home cook, keeper of her family’s recipes and resident of Brooklyn.
“A lot of our foods are stuffed, like vegetables stuffed with rice and meat, cheese, or nuts.” When speaking with Sonia, you can immediately identify her roots in Europe and the Middle East, most notably in how quickly she jumps from English to Arabic when talking about ingredients and food traditions from the Syrian-Jewish community. “Our spices are very different,” she says, “we use allspice, kammūn [Arabic for cumin] and different types of peppers. We’ll use tamarind for sweet-and-sour and put it in our kibbeh [Middle Eastern-style meatballs] that we eat on Rosh Hashanah.”
Not only are many of the spices and ingredients different in Sephardic cooking, but what’s served at the holidays can also differ too. Late summer and early fall in the northern hemisphere coincides with a very busy Jewish holiday season, and Jewish families are in a constant cycle of celebration, which means a lot of eating. The Jewish New Year of Rosh Hashanah begins the holiday season, and a Sephardic Rosh Hashanah seder is steeped in symbolism. “We eat black eyed peas to symbolize being prosperous and pomegranates are common at Seder to symbolize the 613 mitzvot [Hebrew for commandments],” she says. Dates and other dried fruits and nuts are commonplace at a Sephardic Rosh Hashanah Seder, and, Sonia explains, “we make a lot of things with rice.”
In the United States, what we consider Jewish food draws from Ashkenazi traditions and is typically dictated by dietary laws [kashrut], holidays and Shabbat traditions. Bagels, latkes and brisket quickly come to mind as some favorites, but heartier dishes with potatoes, noodles, breads and meat are the norm.
Sephardic traditions are inherently different, largely owing to the fact that they hail from the Middle East, a warmer region at the center of the spice trade and at the crossroads of many civilizations. As Jews migrated out of Spain and Portugal, finding their way to Aleppo and Damascus, they also found themselves in cities near both the Mediterranean Sea and the Euphrates River. These locales introduced them to the rice, bulgur and semolina frequently found in Syrian cuisine, common East Asian spices like turmeric, and the dried fruits and fruit pastes of Persian cuisine—most notably tamarind.
The Jews who settled in Syria were able to take these diverse ingredients and incorporate them into the culinary traditions they had picked up in southern Europe. Where Ashkenazi food traditions are heavy, salty and fatty, Syrian-Jewish cooking is bright, with sweet and sour notes, and is often cooked with vegetables and dried fruits generally unavailable to the Ashkenazi cooks in Eastern Europe. Artichokes and eggplants are common, and tomatoes and egg dishes have roots in the Spanish, Portuguese and Italian culinary traditions that they brought with them as they emigrated east. Where Ashkenazi cooking might use schmaltz or kosher margarine as cooking fats, Syrian Jews may use olive oil. And though rice and legumes are common in everyday Syrian-Jewish cooking, they’re even more commonplace in holiday meals where wheat cannot be consumed.
For Yom Kippur, a holiday typically associated with fasting, Syrian Jews break-fast with foods like sambusak, a savory pastry stuffed with cheese and herbs or spinach. “Everything has a lot of cheese,” Sonia joked, “and we’ll have them with coffee and kahk [cookies with pistachio and honey].” Hanukkah in a Syrian-Jewish household, interestingly, does not differ from the Ashkenazi traditions. Some families may serve cheeses or dishes with nuts, but “Hanukkah is all about the miracle of the oil lasting for eight days, so we still do the latkes and doughnuts, but there’s nothing specific to Sephardic traditions,” explains Sonia, “for us, it’s not much different than a normal day.”
Even a Friday night Shabbat, a common ritual in many Jewish families, will look different in a Syrian-Jewish household. “Similar to holiday dinners we have chicken and meat dishes, and appetizers like kibbeh and meat ‘pizza.’ We don’t really do the chicken soup, gefilte fish, and chopped liver like Ashkenazi Jews,” says Sonia. A traditional Shabbat meal would also include salads, stuffed grape leaves, and other Middle Eastern dishes.
Fifty to sixty years ago, says Sonia, it was common for Syrian Jews to shop along Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn Heights to go to the non-Jewish Middle Eastern stores. “They’d go there to pick up pita, spices and nuts, but the stores weren’t kosher, so they couldn’t buy meat,” she explains. “Eventually the community grew big enough that they needed their own stores.” Which is how, she says, the Syrian-Jewish stores, bakeries and specialty shops—like Mansoura, David’s Kosher, and Holon Foods—started to open along Kings Highway.
Opened in 1961 in Brooklyn’s Gravesend neighborhood, Mansoura is a Syrian-Egyptian bakery and has maintained a tradition of Middle Eastern pastries for decades that is a favorite of Sonia’s and many other Syrian-Jewish families. The Mansoura family has roots in Syria and Egypt and they are also of Sephardic descent. Like many Syrian-Jewish families, they left the Middle East in the mid-19th century as part of a mass expulsion, evacuation and migration of nearly all of Syria’s Jewish population, and eventually made their way to western Europe, Latin America and Brooklyn. They make traditional pastries and treats that are enjoyed by Syrian and other Sephardic Jewish families, and also prepare many of the Syrian-Jewish pastries consumed on Jewish holidays.
On the Sunday before the start of Rosh Hashanah, Mansoura is buzzing with activity. The shop is run by the descendants of the Mansoura family that brought their baking skills from Syria (by way of Egypt and Paris) to Brooklyn nearly six decades ago. Josiane Mansoura and her sons David and Jack run the shop, make the pastries and candies, and prepare orders to be shipped all around the world. Josiane is preparing trays of pastries for her regulars while other customers come in to purchase pre-made assortments to bring to their holiday gatherings.
“We sell a lot of common Middle Eastern pastries like baklava, but we also sell many Syrian desserts, which are really popular with our customers in the neighborhood,” Josiane says as she prepares an elaborate tray of Turkish Delight, Apricot Roll and Maamoul. True to the Middle Eastern roots of this Sephardic community, many of the confections use dried fruits and nuts.
Present on many holiday tables in the Middle East, and a popular cookie at Mansoura, Maamoul is a small stuffed cookie that is filled with either dates or chopped nuts. The cookie is so popular, that the shop was sold out of all the varieties a few days before Rosh Hashanah. “Most of our business is actually from outside Brooklyn. There are Syrian-Jewish families in South America and Europe that order from here,” Jake Mansoura explains.
Maamoul (also called Kahk), Apricot Roll, Kataifi (a rolled cookie made of shredded dough, pistachios, and orange blossom syrup) and Basbousa (a sweet semolina cake with coconut and almonds) are all decidedly Syrian. They’re popular for holidays, and sell by the dozens, which was evident by the numerous families that came in to buy boxes of mixed treats. “I buy them for my guests or for when I go visit my family,” one woman said as she flipped between Arabic and French when speaking with Josiane. Or, as another woman explained, “My grandchildren don’t like chocolate candies, so I come here to get Apricot Roll and Turkish Delight for them.” It’s obvious that the delicious confections that Mansoura makes have helped them remain a mainstay in the neighborhood, but it’s also a connection to their community and a reminder of old-world food traditions that keep families coming back.
Culinary traditions are a way for families and cultures to express who they are and are a link to the past. In many ways, “it doesn’t have a lot to do with religion, but it brings you back to your roots and traditions,” Sonia says. Food traditions are a link to the past, and for New York’s Syrian-Jewish families, it’s a reflection on their long journey to Brooklyn. Holiday food traditions are a time for family to gather and reflect on the past, present, and future. “The dinner, the food, the routine, it keeps us together. You need time to reconnect with everyone around you,” Sonia says. And whether through faith, or food, or both, cooking and enjoying meals together does just that.