If you’re concerned about keeping your children wide awake during the Passover seder, the Talmud has a suggestion: Feed them walnuts to prevent them from falling asleep.
They’re not the only ones who should be enjoying walnuts—at the seder or anytime. Walnuts have been much loved by Jews since biblical times. In fact, walnut trees were so widespread in ancient Israel that egoz—the Hebrew word for “walnut”—became the generic term for “nut.”
Walnuts are widely used in Jewish cooking all over the world, especially during Passover. They appear in numerous Ashkenazi cakes, pastries, and fritters like the German schokolade nusstorte (chocolate walnut cake), Czech nuss-schnitten (chocolate walnut cookies), and Hungarian kremslach (sweet matzo meal fritters). Italian Jews make sfratti (walnut- and honey-filled pastries), pizzarelle coi miele (matzo fritters that include walnuts, raisins, and honey), torta di noci per Pesach (Passover walnut cake), and many recipes for charoset that are made with apples, walnuts, dates, and prunes, with the possible addition of chestnuts, bananas, or cocoa.
Sephardic Jews add walnuts to both sweet and savory Passover dishes, especially fritikas de prasa kon muezes (leek, potato, and walnut fritters) and keftes de espinaca (spinach croquettes). Walnuts also appear in numerous Sephardic cakes, pastries, and confectionery, notably tishpisti (a walnut cake soaked in lemon-flavored sugar syrup), babanatza (a Passover pudding that includes walnuts, dried fruit, and orange juice), zaban (North African walnut nougat), and karydoglyoko (chocolate walnut sweetmeats traditionally served for Passover). In wintertime, meals often end with datiles reyenadas (dates stuffed with walnuts) and a cup of Turkish coffee.
But walnuts are loved most of all by Georgian Jews, who use them to make a variety of sauces and pastes, like bazha (an uncooked walnut sauce flavored with dried marigold petals, fenugreek, cayenne, and ground coriander) and satsivi (a creamy walnut sauce made with garlic, red wine vinegar, and spices that is usually served with poultry, or egg or vegetable dishes). Other walnut dishes of note include khenagi (walnut dumplings similar to matzo balls), labda (a potato and walnut omelette that is traditionally served for Passover), and gozinaki (candied walnuts), which are traditionally made for Rosh Hashanah. Georgian charoset or harazoti is usually made with pears, apples, walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, black raisins, sweet wine, honey, and cloves.
The walnut tree is said to have originated in Persia, although walnut trees have grown wild from Southeastern Europe to the Himalayas since Neolithic times. The walnut (juglans regia) has been a symbol of prosperity, protection, and a happy union for millennia, probably because the shell consists of two closely united halves. The Greeks called the walnut karyon basilikon—the “royal nut,” from the Greek word kara, meaning “head”—because of the resemblance of the walnut and its shell to the brain and skull. In Afghanistan, the word for walnuts is charmarghz—meaning “four brains”—because of their convoluted shape. Both the Greeks and the Romans believed the walnut had magical healing powers and increased fertility; walnut shells were often scattered on the ground at weddings as a symbol of fruitfulness and prosperity. In the Middle Ages, walnuts were also used to make a milk substitute for the poor. Rena Tannahill writes in her book Food in History, “Walnuts blanched, pulverized, and soaked in water provided the staple milk of many households until at least the end of the 18th century.”
Although the walnut is usually thought of as a nut, it is, in fact, the edible seed of a drupe. There are two main species of walnuts: the Persian or English walnut—a native of Persia—and the black walnut, which originated in North America. Today most walnuts are cultivated in China, the United States, Europe, Turkey, Ukraine, and Mexico. Walnuts are ready to be picked toward the end of September, when their husks have formed and begin to split. The shell encloses the kernel or meat, which is enveloped in a seed coat that is rich in anti-oxidants. This seed coat helps prevent the walnuts from turning rancid. Walnuts can be soaked in water overnight, then peeled, which makes them light and fresh tasting. Walnuts are also used to make walnut oil, which is highly prized for its distinctive flavor, especially in France and Switzerland. It is mainly used in salad dressings or to drizzle over pasta and desserts, rather than for cooking or frying, as it has a low smoke point. Green unripe walnuts are used to make a variety of preserves, chutneys, and pickles, as well as various liqueurs like the Italian Nocino, the French Brou de noix, and the Croatian Maraska orahovac.
Walnuts are very good for your health and, in moderation, your waistline. They are rich in omega-3 fatty acids that are said to help lower your risk of cardiovascular disease. Walnuts are also a good source of vitamin E, minerals, fiber, micronutrients, and polyphenols that can help improve your brain function, as well as the health of your bones and gut. They may even reduce the risk of cancer. Walnuts are also a very good source of protein, especially for vegans and vegetarians. They also help you feel full, so they may aid in weight management. Recent research suggests that eating a few handfuls of walnuts a week may even lengthen your life span. Nicholas Culpeper, the 17th-century English herbalist, used the juice of green walnut husks boiled in honey as a gargle for sore throats. He also recommended a distillation of walnut leaves for ulcers and running sores and claimed that a mixture of walnuts and red wine would prevent hair loss.
Right now, though, walnuts are perfect for Passover—whether you’re keeping your kids awake or making a memorable meal.
Paola Gavin is a food writer and author of four vegetarian cookbooks including Hazana: Jewish Vegetarian Cooking.