It is customary for Sephardi and Mizrahim (Jews of the Arabs lands) to say blessings over an array of seasonal food items at the Rosh Hashanah dinner. Some call this ceremony the Yehi Ratzon seder. Each of these Hebrew blessing is a pun on the food’s name and expresses a specific wish for the new year. Given the history of our people, quite a few of them ask for the decimation of our enemies.
One example is leek, my favorite of the ceremonial vegetables. Its Aramaic name (cartei) is used as a wish for our enemies to be cut off (yikartu) in Hebrew. Sounding more like a curse, the blessing has also a more positive, “other-side-of-the-coin” interpretation: Some read it as a wish for friendship, which we can all use, individually and collectively.
The preparation of these ceremonial foods varies based on the edah (ethnic group). One such dish is the Sephardi keftes de prassa (leek patties) typical of the Balkans and Turkey. While eaten year round, Sephardi Jews customarily serve them on Passover and on Rosh Hashanah and recite the blessing over them. There are several versions of these patties—with ground beef, with or without potatoes, with neither. Leek is a must though.
When I visited Israel during Passover ten years ago, an old friend of Moroccan descent served me keftes de prassa—my first. I took a bite of the delicious-looking patty and quickly realized it contained meat. Needless to say, this friend did not approve my recent conversion to pescatarianism—what utter nonsense! However, I made a mental note to make a vegetarian version of the scrumptious patty.
The opportunity to do so presented itself a decade later when my friend Andrea Kalin invited us to the seder last Passover and asked me to prepare keftes de prassa, for which she sent me a recipe.
Andrea’s family came to this country from Rhodes, an island east of the Greek islands and close to Turkey’s Anatolian coast. The Jewish community in Rhodes dates back to 300 BCE, when Jews who left Judea. In the 15th century, Jews expelled from Spain joined them. The community gained privileges and experienced relative prosperity during the Ottoman rule, but by the end of the 19th century, economic strife led many to leave to the US, Argentina and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), among other places. Those who stayed suffered under the Italian rule in early 20th century and were largely decimated in the Holocaust.
Food represents a powerful way to preserve of our own memories, as well as the memory of a community. That much is clear from the words Andrea shares, “On Rosh Hashanah and Passover, I relish opening up my worn and stained Sephardi cuisine cookbook—[this] modest cookbook…filled with endearing expressions and sayings in Ladino, brings to life memories of my grandmother Regine and our Sephardi heritage.” Making the old recipes, which survived movement across continents, is a way to honor our community and the history it endured.
About the food of the Rhodesli Jews, as they’re known, Andrea says, “The traditional dishes…rely on basic ingredients, not too much in the form of exotic spices—mostly garlic, olive oil and tomatoes either fresh or as a sauce or paste. No effort is spared however stuffing vegetables or, for this recipe, chopping large quantities of leeks to make equally large portions of patties. Its a holiday ritual to serve these patties as a warm appetizer and tuck away a stash for leftovers and a savory snack.”
I used the recipe Andrea sent me to develop a vegetarian patty in which I substituted mushrooms for the traditional beef and added a handful of spices to mimic the earthy meat flavor a vegetarian could miss. While it is not this traditional preparation, we all loved the vegetarian keftes so much that I will serve it for Rosh Hashanah this year. It will be a delicious reminder of friendship, new and lost.