Passover memories: NYC, Teheran, LA

The season is upon us – only one day left until Passover-Pesach-Pessah-Pesaj (choose your favorite spelling!) begins. Among Conversos in the US and elsewhere, the holiday is known as Santo Moises, and families gather to tell the story of Moses behind closed doors and covered windows.

Pesach is the ultimate Jewish family immigration story as generations gather around the world to tell the story of the Exodus. We are commanded to imagine that each of us today were on that journey, so it is only natural that we also think of all the journeys our unique families have undertaken throughout history. It’s the perfect time to share these stories of family history with the younger generations – make it your tradition!

In America and in Israel, preparing for Passover is a relative snap – except for the cleaning. Everything is available – just sitting there on supermarket shelves.

In Southern Nevada, the major supermarkets had huge displays – the first major display was in the early ’90s, when one very popular item (in addition to the Passover marshmallows which I froze in quantity) was spicy jalapeno gefilte fish! The first year, cartons of the stuff walked out the door. I had never seen it before. There were masses of traditional holiday treats, like chocolate-covered marshmallow twists (best eaten frozen and a personal favorite when I can find them).

However, during our years in Teheran, it wasn’t so easy. There were no easy packaged convenience foods. However, it didn’t matter much as Persian cuisine is a seasonal cuisine and doesn’t use many packaged ingredients. Almost everything is fresh-bought, chopped, cooked: herbs, sauces, stews, etc.

Each year, my mother-in-law would have her huge copper cooking pots (in various sizes like this one at left) re-tinned on the inside before Pesach ensuring properly kosher cooking utensils. She would take them to the mesgar (the coppersmith – mes is copper – who also did the tinning). The bottom is wider so that there is a good crispy crust of tahdig in the bottom and the rice is piled inside to steam in a cone shape.

Preparations required purchasing huge sacks of rice and, although it always had to be cleaned of little pebbles and chaff, the cleaning for the Passover rice was much more stringent. It was poured onto huge round metal trays or tightly woven round mats. We spent hours sifting through the grains and removing anything that wasn’t rice!

Also, huge quantities of nuts and dried fruits appeared in the kitchen – I soon learned why. There were bags of large pistachios, sweet almonds, hazelnuts, pumpkin seeds. My mother-in-law washed the nuts, salted and dried them and then roasted them at home to make sure they would be kosher. Bowls of various nuts are staples on the coffee tables of Persian homes all year round, and we also needed to make a lot of badam sukhte – caramelized almonds – a Passover treat.

Raised Ashkenazi in Brooklyn – my family’s charoset (supposed to symbolize mud bricks and mortar used by our people when they were slaves in Egypt) was the wimpy traditional Eastern European sort using only red wine, walnuts, apples, cinnamon and sugar. A small bowl of it was made and used only for the ceremony.

Imagine my surprise during my first Teheran Pesach when I saw huge bowls of the Persian version – called halegh – incorporating as many as 20 types of nuts, dates, golden seedless raisins, fresh and dried fruits (banana, apple, pear, apricot and more), pomegranate paste, vinegar, sweet wine and many spices (cinnamon, clove, pepper). We ate it at the two seder dinners and all week long, spreading it on matzoh, as a filling for Passover cakes or just by the spoon as a snack. In New York, we had tuna sandwiches on matzo; in Teheran, it was halegh. Once you try halegh, you’ll never go back.

The first year in Teheran was hard for me, as one doesn’t easily forget lifelong traditions of matzo balls (unheard of in Teheran), gefilte fish, chopped liver, brisket or Passover cakes and pastries (also unheard of, except for meringue cookies). There were no Passover candies, no Passover dairy products. Occasionally, someone would make a flat cake that tasted like sawdust. What was popular however was marzipan, molded and painted to look like different fruits. That was almost an art form – some women were very talented at designing these.

My adventures included trying to bake holiday cakes without anything as simple as a set of measuring spoons and cups – the family didn’t really bake, why would they need those? I fashioned a set myself out of various utensils – so many of these spoons was a tablespoon, so many of those were a cup, I decided. Our own things had not yet arrived and I’m sure everyone thought the American daughter-in-law was more than meshuganah (crazy, Yiddish). I missed my grandmother’s ingberlach (carrot, ginger and honey candy), and tried to make it on a rainy, damp day (big mistake). Hint: If you are now nostalgic for this old-fashioned treat, wait for a dry sunny day.

I ground matzo in a blender for matzo meal and ground it still finer for cake meal. I figured out how to bake in strange utensils at Celsius. I made matzo balls uneaten except my husband – everyone laughed at them. Why eat strange fluffy matzo balls when there were delicious firm, peppery gondi (chickpea flour, cardamom, onion and ground meat formed into balls and simmered in chicken soup). There was no gefilte fish or horseradish.

When my husband first came to America, he mistakenly heard the words gefilte fish as “filthy fish,” and to this day that’s what he calls it. Of course, he says, if you put enough chrein (fresh ground eye-watering horseradish) on anything, it will be palatable – and also clear your sinuses.

When our things finally arrived in Teheran, I was prepared with cookbooks, proper utensils and an American (Farenheit scale) oven, and started my own tradition of making holiday cakes for the family – including brownies, Italian mocha cake, macaroons. Cake was essential if you didn’t want to eat matzo all the time.

Continued in Part 2……

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