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Essential Sephardic Cookbooks

Learn how to make everything from almodrote to sofrito in your own kitchen

by
Leah Koenig
August 02, 2021
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

For too long, Sephardic cuisine has been reductively defined as anything “not Ashkenazi.” But Sephardic culture, which was born and flourished in Spain and Portugal, and spread widely throughout the Ottoman Empire after the Spanish Inquisition of 1492, is incredibly rich and distinct. The community’s cuisine—filled with flaky, savory pies, rich casseroles and fritadas, sweet and sour fish dishes, endless variations on the eggplant, an abundance of herbs and spices, and delicate, syrupy pastries—soaked up flavors from the shores it landed on, and had a deep impact on those places’ cuisines as well.

The nine cookbooks in this (admittedly subjective and incomplete) collection celebrate Sephardic cuisine in all of its delicious intricacies. Some of the books are brand new, while others are out of print, but entirely worth tracking down. Together, they offer a true glimpse into one of the globe’s most beguiling, if underappreciated, cuisines.

Sephardi: Cooking the History by Hélène Jawhara Piñer

The new kid on the block (Sephardi: Cooking the History came out last month) is also one of the more exciting Sephardic cookbooks available. Written by Hélène Jawhara Piñer, a Ph.D. of medieval history and the history of food, it offers recipes plus a deep dive into their context from medieval Spain and in the Sephardi diaspora. The recipes—for caçulelas, or eggplants with saffron and Swiss chard, converso fish pie, calentita, a savory chickpea flour cake from Gibraltar, and a 13th-century Iberian rice pudding—exclude tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, chilies, and any other “new world” ingredients that would not have been present in the Iberian Peninsula before the 16th century. The cookbook also features the culinary wisdom of Maimonides, Spain’s most beloved Jewish scholar, who wrote extensively about food and medicine.

Cookbook of the Jews of Greece by Nicholas Stavroulakis

First published in 1986, this cookbook remains essential for anyone intrigued by the culinary history of Greece’s historic Jewish community, which grew significantly in the 15th century as Jews fleeing Spain and later Portugal joined the ancient Romaniote Jews already living in cities like Salonika. Written by artist and scholar Nicholas Stavroulakis, it contains well-known dishes that held significance to Greece’s Jews (like spanakopita and stuffed grape leaves) as well as more particular recipes like the syrup-covered fried Hanukkah pastries called loukoumades. Reading through the extensive Passover recipe collection, one learns that Greek Jews’ love for baklava was so strong, they created a version made with softened matzo sheets, so as to not have to go a week without it. Like many older cookbooks, Stavroulaki’s book contains no photos. But it is joyfully illustrated with the author’s pen-and-ink drawings depicting Greek Jewish life.

This visually stunning, content-rich cookbook explores the many delights of Syrian Jewish cuisine, which has roots that stretch back to 586 BCE, and was significantly influenced by Sephardic Jews arriving after the Inquisition. Author Poopa Dweck is one of many thousands of Jews with Aleppian heritage whose families immigrated to New York and New Jersey in the 20th century. Her recipes for fassoulieh, beef and white beans in cinnamon-spiced tomato sauce, fish stuffed with rice and pine nuts, ejjeh b’kerrateh, or leek fritters, and marzipan candies celebrate the community’s complex and overlapping history. Better yet, they really work. The gorgeous, oversize photos, meanwhile, beckon readers into the kitchen.

Too Good to Passover by Jennifer Abadi

Author and culinary instructor Jennifer Abadi’s most recent cookbook (published in 2018) explores Sephardic, Judeo-Arabic, and Central Asian Passover dishes—more than 200 recipes from 23 distinct Jewish communities that Abadi gathered over the course of nine years of research. In addition to recipes for dishes like albondigas (Sephardic meatballs) and minas (layered savory matzo pies), Abadi included interviews with people from the communities represented, sharing their priceless family stories and traditions that, if not recorded, would be lost to history. Abadi’s book is worth making room on the bookshelf for—whether cooking for Passover, or year-round.

Drizzle of Honey: The Lives and Recipes of Spain’s Secret Jews by David M. Gitlitz and Linda Kay Davidson

History buffs, this one’s for you. The authors mined 500-year-old texts for clues into what medieval Jewish cooking on the Iberian Peninsula looked and tasted like. At the heart of the authors’ explorations were the dishes and customs of crypto-Jews and conversos—Jews who furtively, and at the risk of great peril, preserved their culinary and cultural identities in their kitchens. Recipes for almodrote, a savory Sephardic casserole, quince paste, and sturdy fish pies are presented alongside researched historical accounts. The book’s title comes from Sephardic cuisine’s historical propensity for sweetness. “A drizzle of honey or a sprinkling of sugar over a dish often added a finishing touch,” Gitlitz and Davidson write. “In some parts of the Iberian Peninsula, a cinnamon-sugar topping ... was sprinkled liberally over vegetable, egg, and meat dishes.”

Sephardic Baking from Nonna by Linda Capeloto Sendowski

Sephardi Jews share a strong love affair with pastries both savory and sweet, and this cookbook captures the entire carb-happy spectrum. Sendowski was raised in Seattle, which is home to a prominent community of Sephardi Jews hailing from Greece, Rhodes, and Turkey, and learned to love cheese bourekas, coiled spinach bulemas, and rich kourabiedes, nut flour cookies rolled in powdered sugar, at a young age. Her cookbook offers a taste of history and a chance to delight in the Sephardic tradition’s unique repertoire of baked goods.

Stellas Sephardic Table by Stella Hanan Cohen

Born in Zimbabwe to a prominent Sephardi family from Rhodes, cookbook author and artist Stella Cohen was drawn to her family’s heritage and cuisine from a young age. Her cookbook is her gastronomic ode to that heritage, featuring vibrant dishes like leeks and beans braised with veal, pastelicos, miniature meat- and rice-filled pies, and a bevy of sweets. The oversize, beautifully illustrated cookbook is coffee-table ready, but squarely belongs in the kitchen where Cohen’s recipes come to life.

In this cookbook—published 21 years ago, before Sephardic dishes had gained much traction among American Jewish cooks—chef and prolific cookbook author Joyce Goldstein turned her attention toward Jewish cooking in the Mediterranean. Drawing from her own travels and her extensive research of the region, Goldstein offers a glimpse of Sephardi Jews’ cultural and gastronomic heritages, as well as a bevy of well-tested dishes from Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Turkey. From fidellos tostados, toasted noodles, and bulgur-lentil croquettes to syrup-soaked semolina cakes, Goldstein’s book captures and serves forth the heart of Sephardic cooking.

The Book of Jewish Food by Claudia Roden

True to its name, Roden’s masterpiece of a cookbook covers the entire world of Jewish cuisine. But Roden, who was born in Egypt, holds a special place in her heart and kitchen for the cuisines of the Mediterranean. Roden devotes the entire second section of the book to Sephardic cuisine, broadly defined, from medieval Spain, to the Ottoman Empire, and beyond. Her meticulous research and carefully collected recipes for dishes like Greek avgolemono, chicken sofrito, and egg-white-lightened almond flour cakes, set her work apart. First published in 1996, Roden’s The Book of Jewish Food was an immediate classic, and continues to educate and delight readers interested in the world of Sephardic cooking and beyond.

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