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It is common to characterize Ashkenazi food as sweet, and Sephardi as spicy. In fact, the picture is much more complex, with cooks in each community utilizing sweet, spicy and tart elements in different proportions. Indeed, quite a few Sephardi dishes also gain their special flavor from a touch of sweetness.
In his introduction to Esther Benbassa's Cuisine Judeo-Espagnole, a book on Sephardi cooking in Turkey, Tugrul Artunkal of Istanbul Bilgi University and the UniversitÃ© de Paris wrote: "What is the Sephardic contribution to Ottoman cuisine? It is very simple and very subtle. The Sephardim [whom he calls Judeo-Espagnols or Jewish Spaniards] introduced sweetness into concoctions that are ordinarily seasoned with salt. A light sweetness, a pinch of sugar, an almost undetectable hint that makes so much difference. The whole secret is there."He goes on to explain that this pinch of sugar softens certain rustic Turkish dishes normally seasoned with salt; "sprinkled with sugar, they obtain a different sensuality."
The Jews of Turkey especially like sugar in cooked dishes made with tomatoes. Some say this serves to balance the tomatoes' acidity, yet in some Middle Eastern cuisines people prize this tart flavor and do not try to offset it with sugar.
A popular Sephardi dish from Turkey is tomato ragout, a puree made by cooking a generous amount of grated tomatoes with sauteed chopped onions, sliced green pepper, parsley, rice, sugar, salt, paprika and oil, and served warm or at room temperature as a side dish.
Benbassa makes a simple zucchini side dish by gently stewing the vegetable at length with sauteed onions, grated tomatoes, parsley, dill, sugar, salt and paprika. She makes two versions, one meatless and one with ground beef. Green beans are cooked by a similar technique with olive oil, grated tomatoes and a little water, and flavored only with sugar, salt and paprika. These subtly seasoned dishes highlight the natural flavor of their main ingredient. They are perfect for Rosh Hashana, especially if you prefer just a hint of sweetness.
Almost all the dishes containing tomatoes in Meri Badi's 250 Recettes de Cuisine Juive Espagnole, another book on the Jews of Turkey, are seasoned with sugar, whether they are composed only of vegetables or whether they contain meat as well.
All Badi's stuffed vegetables, whether the stuffing is rice alone or made with beef, have sugar in their sauce. Even stewed eggplant and okra, which are usually associated with spicy rather than with sweet flavors, are cooked with sweetened tomato sauce. So is turlu, the Sephardi Turkish version of ratatouille made with green beans, potatoes, peppers, zucchini, eggplant, and okra, thus clearly differing from French ratatouille, which does not contain sugar.
Cooks from other Sephardi communities use sugar in their cooking too. Moroccan meat tajines (stews) might be sweet, like the one of Cornish hens with fresh figs and honey in Kitty Morse's book, The Scent of Orange Blossoms, a book about Sephardi cuisine from Morocco. Persian Jews might cook prunes, dates or quinces with chicken and meat. Jennifer Felicia Abadi, author of A Fistful of Lentils, a book on Syrian-Jewish recipes, makes a stew of meat and white beans flavored with sauteed onions, garlic, tomato paste, cinnamon and brown sugar.
When I prepared a dish like Badi's Sephardi-Turkish pumpkin and prunes stewed with oil, a squeeze of lemon juice and a pinch of sugar, and served with meat, my guests insisted that it tasted like Ashkenazi tsimmes.
Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast.
SEPHARDI BEEF STEW WITH GREEN BEANS
You probably won't notice the sugar in this gently seasoned stew; it's a background flavor that helps the elements to meld together. For Rosh Hashana, white Basmati rice garnished with raisins and toasted almonds is a lovely accompaniment.
The green beans cook directly in the stew so they become very tender and absorb flavor from the sauce. If you prefer beans that are bright green, boil them in water for about 7 minutes or until just tender, rinse them with cold water, then reheat them for 2 or 3 minutes in the sauce.
Instead of peeling and seeding the tomatoes, you can coarsely grate them using the large holes of the grater, a favorite technique in traditional Sephardi cuisine.
2 Tbsp. olive oil or vegetable oil
2 large onions, halved and sliced thin
900 gr. beef shoulder, excess fat removed, cut in 2.5-cm. cubes
2 garlic cloves, minced (optional)
4 large ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and diced (see note below)
1 sweet red, green or yellow pepper (optional), cut in thin strips
1 tsp. sweet paprika
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 cup water
700 to 900 gr. green beans, ends removed, halved
2 Tbsp. tomato paste (optional)
1 tsp. sugar, or to taste
Heat oil in large casserole, add onions and saute about 7 minutes over medium-low heat. Add beef and saute about 7 minutes, stirring often. Stir in garlic, then add tomatoes, sweet pepper strips, paprika, salt, pepper, and 1 cup water. Stir and bring to a boil. Cover and cook over low heat for 11â„2 hours.
Add green beans and cook for 30 minutes or until beef and beans are tender, adding a few tablespoons water from time to time if needed. Add tomato paste and sugar and mix well. Cook over low heat for 2 or 3 minutes to blend flavors. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve hot.
Makes 4 or 5 servings.
How to peel and seed tomatoes: Cut green cores from tomatoes, turn each tomato over and slit skin on bottom of tomato in an x-shaped cut. Put a few tomatoes in a saucepan of enough boiling water to cover them generously. Boil tomatoes for 10 to 15 seconds or until their skin begins to pull away from their flesh. Immediately remove tomatoes from water with a slotted spoon and put them in a bowl of cold water. Leave for a few seconds so they cool. Remove tomatoes from water and peel their skins with the aid of a paring knife. Continue with remaining tomatoes, in batches.
Cut tomatoes in half horizontally. Hold each tomato half over a bowl, cut side down.
Squeeze tomato to remove the seeds and juice. Don't worry if some of the seeds remain.
Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast.