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Passover foods

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When celebrating Passover, an essential element of the holiday is the food, which is both a traditional one, as well as a particularity of the celebration.

There are several foods to be found on the Passover table. The following paragraphs shall present them in great detail, together with the traditions accompanying them, which should be respected to the core in order to preserve the integrity of the holiday, just as the ancient Jews used to celebrate it. Additionally, we shall present those foods which should not be eaten during the holiday. Therefore, this is a complete guide of what ”to eat” and ”not to eat” during Passover!

According to the story, the Jews fled Egypt so quickly that they did not have the time to wait for the bread dough to bake. As a result, during Passover, unleavened bread is eaten.

Leavened bread is known as ”chametz” (leavening) and one is forbidden to eat it or even have it around the house for Passover. This type of dough is made of 5 types of grains (wheat, oats, rye, barley and spelt) mixed with water, and left to relax for around 18 minutes. The process of making chametz includes also yeast and fermentation. However, the fermentation process is not forbidden during Passover, as it is also used in wine making and wine is drunk on the occasion (the four cups of wine drunk during the Haggadah).

The five grains are prohibited from consuming if they had contact with water or any kind of moisturizing agent, as it is a fact that all these in contact with water for approximately 18 minutes are likely to produce a dough, which will rise or leaven. Other leavening agents, such as yeast and sourdough are also forbidden during Passover, as they are considered chametz.

The forbidding of Chametz does not include products such as baking soda or baking powder. These are chemical agents, and not biological ones, ergo the ban is not extended over them as well. Consequently, one can eat bagels, waffles and pancakes made with baking soda and matzo during Passover. However, if these bagels and pancakes are made with yeast, they are banned from eating.

The ban on having chametz around the house during Passover is recorded n the Torah, in the Exodus 12:15 more precisely, as follows: ”To remove all chametz from one's home, including things made with chametz, before the first day of Passover”. (Exodus 12:15). This means that it should be used prior to the holiday, destroyed (by burning) or given away to non-Jews. The ban on eating chametz or products containing chametz, during the holiday is recorded in the Exodus, verses 13:3 and 12:20 and the Deuteronomy 16:3. To sum up, this ban refers to people not having chametz in ”one’s domain”, meaning house, office, car, etc.

Even if the Jewish law calls for one to remove morsels of leavening from one’s possession before Passover, which are the size of an olive or larger, observant Jews embark on a cleaning spree long before the holiday to ensure that even the smallest shreds of chametz are removed from the home prior to the holiday. Bowls and items used during the cooking, which have been in contact with Chametz are thoroughly cleaned and put aside, not to be used again during Passover, while the corners of cupboards and other small cracks of the kitchen furniture are scrubbed in order to remove any trace of yeast and flour.

This cleaning spree ends on the night of the 14th Nisan, before the Passover dinner, when it is traditional to perform a formal search of the house, known as “bedikat chametz”, to remove any remaining trace of chametz. This formal search is recorded in the Talmud, where it was instructed to perform similar searches not only of the home, but also of the office and other places where chametz was likely to have been brought during the year. In case the Passover Seder will fall on a Saturday, then the search should be performed on Thursday night, which is the 13th of Nisan.

Leaving aside the tradition of not eating chametz, the traditional symbol of the holiday is “matzo”, which is an unleavened bread, made entirely from a mixture of flour and water. Water is incorporated continuously in the flour during the baking, not allowing thus the dough to rise. Matzo can be made with a mixer or by hand. If it is made by hand, it is called “shmura matzo” (meaning “watched/guarded” matzo) as well as Lechem Oni (meaning “bread of poverty”) and is commonly eaten during the Passover dinner in the Jewish Orthodox communities.

It is a Divine commandment in the Torah according to which one should eat unleavened bread on the dinner held on the first night of Passover and continue doing so throughout the remaining days of the holiday. The tradition of eating matzo is justified by several explanations. The first one is the most well-known one: in their haste for leaving Egypt, the Jews had no time to allow the already baked bread to rise. Consequently, the unleavened bread is a reminder of the Exodus of Egypt. Another explanation claims that this type of unleavened bread was the most appropriate for travelling as it was easy to carry around and would be easily preserved. Thus, it appears that unleavened bread was especially baked like this for the upcoming journey.

In the absence of the chametz from the house, for the whole duration of the Passover, one would be wondering which are the foods eaten during this holiday. Here is a list of foods commonly consumed during this period of time:

- Matzah brei – a soft matzah fried in a pan with eggs and fat, which can be served either savory or sweet;

- Matzo kugel – a kugel made of matzo, which is a traditional dish in Ashkenazi cuisine;

- Charoset – is a combination of fruit, spices and nuts, accompanied by wine. The mixture is symbolic and reminds one of the clay made by the Israelites while working in Egypt;

- Chrain – is another traditional Ashkenazi dish, made with horseradish and beet relish;

- Gefilte fish – is again a traditional Ashkenazi dish, consisting of poached fish balls, usually made of carp or pike;

-chicken soup with matzah balls (kneydlach) – a type of chicken soup with matzah dumplings;

- Kafteikas di prasa – this dish is typical of Sephardic cuisine and consists of fried balls of leeks, meat and matzah;

- Lamb or chicken leg – this is called korban Pesach and is usually left on the plate during the Seder;

- Mina (pastel di Pesach) – is another Sephardic dish – a meat pie made with matzah;

- spring green vegetables, among which the most common are artichoke, peas and fava beans.

Just as is the case with any other meal, during Passover, it is very important to ensure that every food is kosher. Thus, apart from the foods which are already forbidden for this specific holiday, Jews need to remember any other kind of produce which is not traditionally considered kosher.

There are specific types of meat which are not to be eaten, including here: pork, shellfish, lobster, shrimp, crab, rabbit, seafood without scales and fins. Additionally, products containing among ingredients such meats are also not to be eaten.

Meat is not to be combined with dairy products. Consequently, meat dishes are not to be garnished with cheese sauces, butter, cream sauce, etc. The only neutral products are fish and eggs, which can be combined with dairy products and even meat.

These are the major kosher-eating rules which should be maintained even during Passover. However, there are other particular rules which apply only to Passover. There are two major Jewish groups – the Ashkenazi and the Sephardi and they have different eating-related rules concerning Passover. However, both groups forbid the eating of chametz during Passover, for the reasons already explained above.

Apart from the chametz, one needs to remember that grain-related products, and even beer are not kosher foods for Passover. Instead, one should use matzo and matzo cake flour.

As far as the Ashkenazi community is concerned, they also forbid the eating of kitniyot during the holiday. Kitniyot comprises the following: rice, corn, millet, dried beans and lentils, peas, green beans, soy beans, peanuts, sesame seeds, poppy seeds and mustard. The ban of all these products reunited under the name of “kitniyot” dates back to centuries ago and is, in fact, unknown. There are several theories used to explain the ban. The first refers to the similarity of these products with grains and the fact that they used to be stocked in similar bags, which might lead to grains being mixed with kitniyot, ergo the fear that pieces of chametz might be accidentally consumed during Passover (on account of the mixing). Another explanation is the fact that once these products are put into water they expand, which was associated by the rabbis with a form of leavening.Despite the fact that the Torah does not expressly prohibit the eating of these products, the Ashkenazi Jews refrain from consuming them during Passover.

On the other hand, Sephardic Jews consume kitniyot during Passover, being however careful not to combine them. The fear of having chametz bits mixed among the kitniyot is present though and it is common for Sephardic women to pick the kitniyot by hand in order to ensure that not even a crumble of chametz has mingled in.In the American Jewish communities, kitniyot is banned as well during Passover. Thus, before consuming kitniyot on the Passover Seder it is highly important to establish to what branch does one’s community belong to: Ashkenazi or Sephardic.

Apart from the banned foods, it is common for Jews, be they Ashkenazi or Sephardic, to avoid eating lamb, due to its symbolism in the Paschal sacrifice. Although the shankbone of lamb meat is a must on the Seder plate, it will remained there, untouched throughout the meal.

After having gone through the banned types of food, the natural question arising here is “What can and should one eat on Passover?”.

And the list is endless.

Firstly, matzo and matzo related products (matzo meal, matzo farfel, etc.) are free to be consumed, due to the strong symbolism of the food. Also, matzo is considered a kosher food on a regular basis. An exception to this is the “gebrokts”. This refers to matzo soaked in water. Although the Talmud refers to this possibility during Babylonian times, and does not ban it, in many Ashkenazi communities, gebrokts is forbidden, on account of the possibility of it entering into contact with shreds of flour that have not been properly mixed with water; once in contact with water, the respective piece of flour shall leaven, resulting thus in chametz. The Hasidic Jews refrain from eating matzo ball soup during Passover and it is common to have matzo meal replaced with potato starch. The word “gebrokts” means “broken” in Yiddish, but has eventually been used to refer to “wet matzo”.

Fruit and vegetables are allowed, with the exception of those vegetables considered to be kitniyot.

Meat is also allowed, provided it is bought from a kosher butcher or is purchased as a kosher cut of meat. The following types of meat are allowed: beef, chicken, turkey, duck, goose and fish with scales. Eggs have previously been described as neutral foods. Other dairy products, including cheese, yoghurt and kefir are allowed, provided they do not contain additives (such as corn syrup, as corn is banned from consumption) and that they are not mixed with meat.

Nuts, butter nuts and seeds can be consumed, with the exception of those listed above as being kitniyot (peanuts, sesame and poppy seeds). Quinoa is allowed as well, as it is not considered to be a grain. Spices and herbs are free to be used, as well as broth coming from kosher meat or from vegetables.

In case one resorts to prepared foods to be bought, one should look for those meals which have a Kosher for Passover hechsher (a stamp issued by a kosher organization). This type of stamp is present on all kinds of foods for Passover and not only: dairy, nuts, broths, quinoa, spices and even matzo. The presence of the respective stamp on matzo is important as there can also be matzo which is not kosher for Passover.

Thus, despite the restrictions, there are many options, ensuring that Passover is observed both traditionally, as well as in a savory manner.

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