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Exploring Jewish Portugal through the Community’s Culinary Traditions

Sephardic Jewish food is a vibrant tapestry of culinary traditions developed among the Sephardi Jews, who originated from the Iberian Peninsula which includes Portugal. 

Although the cuisine originated in the Iberian Peninsula, it has been since impacted by the many communities Sephardic Jews have joined around the world. Sephardic Jewish food is a tapestry of flavor and history. 

Portuguese Sephardic food often includes vegetables, salads, ground beef, and stuffed vegetables. Traditional Sephardi dishes typically include spices such as turmeric, cinnamon, cumin, coriander, ginger, caraway, and cardamon, and sometimes use scented water like rose and orange. It is still cooked in many Sephardic families today. 

Some Portuguese Jewish dishes are actually quite surprising. For example, did you know Portuguese Jews invented fish and chips? The dish, according to Claudia Ronen, author of “The Book of Jewish Food”, descended from the Spanish dish Pescado frito. When Jewish refugees were forced to act like Christians, they would serve fried fish on Fridays and eat it cold on Shabbat.

The practice of eating cold fish on Shabbat still exists today, hundreds of years after the expulsion. 

In a country where much of the food centers around ham, Sephardic Jewish food also has its own take on sausages. 

During the Inquisition, it was often a test at dinner tables to see who would eat the ham served–a way to find out who was Jewish and who wasn’t. The consequences, if a Jewish person was caught not participating in the ham feast, could be devastating. 

But many Sephardic Jews found a way to keep their Kosher dietary laws without getting caught. 

Alheira sausages are garlicky and filled with bread crumbs–and they were created so that Jews during the Inquisition could hang sausages out of their windows much like their Christian neighbors. This sausage, however, was not made of pork–it was usually made of bread and chicken.

During the Inquisition, many Sephardic Jews left Portugal and settled in countries like Turkey, Greece, North Africa, and the Arab regions of West Asia. They carried their language, Ladino, and they also brought with them the cuisine of the Sephardic Jews. 

Much of the Sephardic cuisine from Portugal was connected to Moorish foods since Jews and Muslims shared many of the same food restrictions. They share citrus flavors, cilantro, almonds, and cinnamon use, and a tradition of fried foods. 

In this article, we’ll delve into the diverse and delicious world of Sephardic Sephardic cuisine in Portugal.

Portuguese Jewish food has it all

A Short History of Portuguese Jews

When the Moors of North Africa ruled over Portugal until the middle of the 13th century, the Jews of Portugal enjoyed prosperous and peaceful lives.

When the Christian Kings took over the region, Jews were still highly regarded for a while. T

they were high up in government and business. In 1492, luck changed when Spain expelled its Jewish population. Many Jews fled to Portugal, but their refuge was short-lived. 

Between 1540 and 1794, the Portuguese Inquisition destroyed what had once been a vibrant community, scattering the remains to surrounding countries.

Many ended up in London, Amsterdam, Turkey, Greece, France, Brazil, Morocco, and other places. Some of the earliest synagogues built in North America were founded by Sephardic Jews escaping Portugal. 

History of Sephardic Food

The history of Sephardic Jewish food can be traced back to ancient Spain when Jews likely ate from the abundance of crops available to them, such as wheat, olives, and grapes, following the dietary laws of kashrut. 

During the Visigothic period (fourth to eighth century CE), Jews and Christians interacted in food-related activities, including cultivating crops and sharing communal ovens. In this period, the Jewish diet consisted of bread, wine, and kosher meats, but detailed information is scarce.

A more distinct Sephardic culinary repertoire emerged during the early medieval period when the Muslim conquest of the Iberian Peninsula introduced Muslim gastronomic inclinations. 

Sephardic Jews adopted ingredients and cooking techniques influenced by the food of the Persian Empire, incorporating items like eggplant, leeks, spinach, cucumbers, and garbanzo beans into their dishes. 

Much of Sephardic Jewish food today reflects this shift in Sephardic Jewish food. 

Religious and political shifts in medieval Spain, including the Reconquista and the establishment of the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions, significantly impacted the Jewish communities. 

Jewish food in Portugal and Spain is especially important because of its historical significance.

Culinary practices became a target for identifying suspected Judaizing individuals. 

The Edict of Expulsion in 1492 expelled Jews from Spain, attributing food practices like the sharing of unleavened bread and ritually slaughtered meats as specifically Jewish. 

Crypto-Jewish women, who retained their connection to Judaism in secret, played a crucial role in preserving Jewish rituals and food practices within the home. Now, with Synagogue groups that meet to make Sephardic food, as well as other modern events, many Sephardic Jewish women continue to carry on their family’s food traditions to the next generations. 

Are Sephardic Jews from Portugal?

Portuguese Jews are Sephardic Jewish. Many of the Portuguese Jews in the country today descend from Jews that lived as Conversos during the Inquisition. 

What is typical Sephardic food?

typical Sephardic food

Sephardic food is a distinct type of cuisine from Jews of Spanish and Portuguese descent. It often includes vine leaves, olive oil, salads, lentils, fruits, chickpeas, herbs, and nuts. There is also often the use of lamb or ground beef and fresh lemon that brings brightness to the dishes.

Like many traditional Jewish foods, certain dishes come up more often on special occasions and holidays. One of the best ways to explore Jewish Portugal through culinary traditions is by lining up the cuisine with the particular holiday it is associated with. 

Shabbat: Slow-Cooked Delights and Savoury Pastries

On Shabbat, Sephardic Jews prepare delectable dishes that simmer slowly on a low flame overnight, allowing for a delicious meal the following day. This is similar to the cholent, a slow cooker stew in Ashkenazi communities.

One such dish in the Sephardic community is ropa vieja, known as Chamin or Dafina in different regions. 

This slow-cooked stew originated when Sephardic Jews fled Spain and settled in northwestern Africa. It usually also includes vegetables and can be customized according to personal preferences. 

Sambusak, eaten by Sephardic communities since the 13th century, is a semicircular pocket of dough filled with mashed chickpeas, fried onions, and spices, is another traditional Shabbat dish in Sephardic Jewish cuisine.

Adafina, a traditional Saturday dish, is made of meat, chickpeas, fava beans, onion, garlic, cumin, and an array of spices, this slow-cooked stew symbolizes the Jewish heritage of many families. Adafina, which was prevalent during the middle ages, became a sign of a Jewish home during the Inquisition.

Interested in trying Jewish foods on Jewish heritage tours? Look into our Portugal Jewish Heritage Tours

Passover: Symbolic Foods and Charoset Variations

typical Sephardic food in passover

During Passover, Sephardic Jews have a wider range of ingredients they can use compared to Ashkenazi Jews. In the Sephardic Jewish community it is permissible to eat kitniyot (legumes and grains forbidden to Ashkenazi Jews). 

One of the symbolic foods eaten during the Passover seder is charoset, which represents the mortar used by the Jewish slaves in ancient Egypt. 

While Ashkenazi charoset typically consists of apples and nuts, Sephardic charoset varies depending on the region. It often features raisins or dates, resulting in a thicker consistency.

Another Passover specialty is mina, a pie made with a matzo crust filled with meat or vegetables. It is a delicious and satisfying dish enjoyed by Sephardic Jews during the holiday.

In Portugal in particular, the sponge cake “pan de Espana”, was eaten by Jews during Passover, but with matzo flour and corn flour replacing the flour. 

Rosh Hashanah: A Sweet Start to the New Year

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is a time of reflection and celebration. Traditional foods eaten during this holiday are known as yehi ratsones and symbolize good fortune for the coming year. Some of the typical dishes include:

  • Apples dipped in honey or baked in the form of a compote called mansanada. 
  • Dates, which are enjoyed for their natural sweetness.
  • Pomegranates or black-eyed peas, symbolize abundance.
  • Pumpkin, often prepared as savoury pumpkin-filled pastries called rodanchas.
  • Leeks, transformed into flavorful fritters called keftes de prasa.
  • Beets, usually peeled and baked, add vibrant color to the table.
  • Fish, often served whole with the head intact, signifying a prosperous year.

These symbolic foods are arranged on a platter called a Yehi Ratson platter and shared with family and friends.

Yom Kippur: Breaking the Fast with Unique Traditions

After the Yom Kippur fast, Sephardic Jews have various customs regarding the first food they consume. 

Sephardic Jews often include other dairy foods in their breakfast meal instead of bagels and lox. They may choose soups and stews with meat as well as dishes that are typically served as main courses, rather than the brunch foods favored by Ashkenazim.

The tradition of eating meat to break the fast among Sephardim has its roots in Spanish tradition, with examples of meat-based menus mentioned in historical texts.

Some of the more common foods for breaking the fast:

  • Avgolemono, an egg-and-lemon soup in a chicken broth base that is thickened with rice, is popular among Jews in Greece and Turkey.
  • Chicken couscous and harira, a thick soup with stewing meat, fava beans, and lentils.
  • Hamine, which are eggs cooked for hours until their yolks turn creamy and their whites become light brown. 

These days, Sephardic Jewish cuisine is a mixture of Portuguese, Spanish, and all of the diasporic locations Sephardic Jews have moved through. 

This is reflected in the foods they prepare on Yom Kippur and other holidays. 

Hanukkah: Celebrating with Irresistible Delights

Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, is also a space where Sephardic food shines.

For Hanukkah, sweet cheese pancakes called Cassola, spinach patties called Ceftes de Espinaca and fried pastry frills are popular.

Purim: The Celebratory Party Holiday

Cozido, a hearty dish of meat, chickpeas, and vegetables served over couscous, is traditionally prepared during the winter months leading up to Purim. 

While it is a dish enjoyed primarily in Portugal, it also holds significance in Spain and Brazil. The combination of flavors and textures in this dish creates a comforting and satisfying meal.

stuffed vegetables with meat and rice

More Special Sephardic Portuguese Dishes

There are many other Sephardic Portuguese dishes that may not be connected with a particular holiday. 

Boyoz, for example, is a flaky pastry made with flour, sunflower oil, and tahini, and adds a touch of indulgence to Sephardic cuisine. This delightful treat is enjoyed on various occasions and showcases the influence of different cultures on the Sephardic culinary repertoire.

Couscous holds a special place in Sephardic cooking, often served alongside vegetables, chickpeas, and fava beans. This versatile grain is a staple in Sephardic households, providing a comforting and nutritious base for various dishes.

Interested in learning more about the history of Jews in Portugal and Spain? Check out our blog on Sephardic Jewish history.

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