Foodways and Recipes of the Ashkenazim and Sephardim

Nov 10, 2023 | Article, Newsletter

Foodways and Recipes of the Ashkenazim and Sephardim

Nov 10, 2023

By: Bill St. John

French lawyer and gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin published his magnum opus “The Physiology of Taste” (“La Physiologie du Goût”) in 1826. Of all his voluminous reflections on eating, cooking, and drinking, his most famous aphorism is “Tell me what you eat. I shall tell you what you are.” (In the original French, “Dis-moi ce que tu manges. Je te dirai ce que tu es.”)

Most English speakers boil that down to a simple “You are what you eat,” largely to mean that “If you eat healthy food, then you’ll be healthy and fit.”

But Brillat-Savarin had much more than that in mind. Note the big difference that merely one vowel makes in the French. It’s not “qui tu es” (“who you are”). It’s “que tu es” (“that which or what you are”).

Brillat-Savarin’s richest meaning, in this aphorism, is that what we eat makes us a certain sort of person. Further, how we eat, with whom we eat, even when and where we eat—all of these, together, mark us as a certain sort of person.

So, the differences, as well as the similarities, between the foodways of the two Jewish peoples widely called Ashkenazim and Sephardim mark them as Ashkenazic or Sephardic separately—as well as mark them as Jews collectively.

For example, while the two traditions might treat the same vegetable or fruit (for instance, the beet or raisins), quite differently, both would eschew, say, the consumption of shellfish or definitely elect to eat matzah for Passover.

Over millennia, Jews have settled away from Biblical lands due to diaspora, exclusion or banishment. Two of those groups—the Ashkenazim and the Sephardim—hold special culinary interest.

The Ashkenazim made homes in countries such as Germany, France, and countries that neighbor both, with many Ashkenazim migrating during the modern era to the United States, Canada, Australia, and Argentina. “Ashkenaz” is the name of a descendant of Noah, the eldest son of Gomer (Genesis 10:3), but it is also Hebraic for “German.”

Meanwhile, beginning with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E./A.D. by the Romans, a large population of Jews was taken as slaves to the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal). They flourished there, living among the native populations of Christians and, from 711-1492 C.E./A.D, alongside Arabs who had come up to the Iberian Peninsula from Africa in conquest of Spain. It is helpful to note, especially today, that by and large, it was a peaceful coexistence.

Then, beginning in 1492, Christian Spain began to rid Iberia of those Jews and, in yet again another diaspora, many of those Jews settled in North Africa (especially Morocco), Italy, and Turkey, although many remained. All of these Jews, those from ancient and medieval Spain, and those dispersed from it, are named the Sephardim, after “Sepharad,” the Hebrew for “Spain.”

It makes complete culinary sense that these many hundreds of thousands of Jews, both Ashkenazim and Sephardim, over all those centuries and into modern times, would assimilate into their cooking the foodstuffs (and, indeed, foodways) indigenous to or cultivated in the lands where they settled.

For example, as in much of the non-Jewish cooking of Northern and Eastern Europe, the cooking of the Ashkenazim pickles, preserves, “corns” both vegetables and meats in salt, sometimes with the addition of souring agents such as vinegar, often flavored with the spices and herbs of cold-climate Northern Europe (fennel and caraway, say, or dill and celery seed) and served alongside the very Teutonic horseradish and mustard.

You might recognize such food as classic U.S. Jewish delicatessen fare. It is indeed, brought to this country by those Ashkenazim who emigrated here.

Sephardic cooking also was widely influenced by the foodstuffs and foodways of its lands. In truth, it sports a strong Arabic influence. The Moors (as they were named during the lengthy Arab occupation of Iberia) brought north from Africa into Spain their own cooking ways which then were adopted by Jew and Christian alike.

Cleary, Sephardic cooking readily incorporated the ingredients (animal or piscine proteins, vegetables, fruits, flavorings, nuts, and seeds) indigenous to Iberia, North Africa, Turkey, and the Mediterranean Basin.

Hence, you’ll find sweet dates and raisins, a decidedly Arabic trait, dotting many a Sephardic casserole, stew or soup; ample use of citrus—historically rare in the cuisines of Northern and Eastern Europe, although prominent throughout the Middle East, thence the Sephardic lands; the presence of olives, chickpeas and lentils; and a preference for lamb over beef, the latter red meat a hallmark of Ashkenazic cuisine.

Nonetheless, in whichever cooking either tradition excelled, both adhered to another overarching tradition, that of being fundamentally Jewish. So, for example, both Ashkenazim and Sephardim developed dishes to be eaten on the Sabbath but that were prepared and set to flame (“worked”) before sundown on Friday night.

One of these is the Ashkenazic “cholent”; the other, the Sephardic “adafina.”

Both are hotpots (thick stews or casseroles) of mixed meats, starches, vegetables, and seasonings, assembled the day before the Sabbath and put into the embers of the dying hearth, or given to the local baker’s idle oven, or (in modern times) put over a low flame, into a slow oven or—miracle of miracles!—into the crock of a slow cooker. These are the recipes here.

When I asked her if she had a family recipe for cholent, a well-known cook in Los Angeles, who is Jewish, said that “no one makes that anymore.” The recipe for cholent here, then, may be less a Brillat-Savarin-like marker of contemporary Jewish life as it is a talisman from the long history of the Ashkenazim.

It is noteworthy, though, that the ancient Sephardic adafina (sometimes called “hamín”) remains the precursor to many beloved Spanish wet-cooked hotpots, such as the famed “cocido Madrileño,” the chickpea-based stew of Madrid, or the “puchero Canario” of the Canary Islands, almost a ratatouille with meats.

These historical ingredient lists, cooking methods and foodways— how we eat, with whom we eat, even when and where we eat—all are touchstones for Brillat-Savarin’s aphorism written in the early 1800s, “Tell me what you eat. I shall tell you what you are.”

They identify, they mark, the Ashkenazim as Ashkenazim and the Sephardim as Sephardim. And, more important, they say to them, “You are a Jew.”

Adafina (Mediterranean Sabbath Hotpot)

Long ago, observant Jews from Spain and other Mediterranean Basin countries such as Tunisia prepared this dish on Friday evenings and cooked it overnight to eat for meals on the Sabbath. “Adafina” derives from the Arabic word “dafīnah,” for “hidden” or “buried,” as in set into the dying embers of a fire. Adapted by Bill St. John from and Hélène Jawhara Piñer’s “Sephardi: Cooking the History” (Cherry Orchard Books, 2021). Enough for 6-8.



3-4 beef marrow bones
2-3 bone-in beef short ribs, browned if desired
2 whole chicken legs (drumstick and thigh, connected)
1 medium yellow onion, chopped roughly and broken apart
10 pitted dates or dried apricots
1 cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon dried Aleppo, Urfa or Spanish paprika pepper flakes
1 large bay leaf
1 teaspoon coarse salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon ground turmeric powder
1 pound small waxy potatoes (fingerlings work well), peeled if desired
1 head of garlic, in peeled cloves
1 small bunch chard, tied together at the stem end
3-4 small ribs celery, leaves attached if present
1 cup dried chickpeas (about 1/2 pound), soaked in water to cover overnight, drained
2 large eggs
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
Up to 2 quarts chicken broth, “light” apple juice or cider, or water (or combination)
2-3 large meatballs, made of turkey, lamb, beef or chicken (or combination), prepared and cooked ahead, set aside and for serving


In a large casserole or Dutch oven (or, if using, the crock of a slow cooker), place all the ingredients in layers, as listed: After the meats, scatter the onion pieces and dates, strew the seasonings evenly, imbed the potatoes and garlic cloves as a layer, arrange the celery, chard and chickpeas as another layer, and gently imbed the two eggs.

Pour in the olive oil and then the cooking liquid until it reaches just to the top of the pot.

Beginning Friday just before sundown and until late morning or noon the next day, cook the pot in or over low heat in any of several ways: If using an oven, at 190-200 degrees; if using a stovetop, over a heat diffuser and a low flame; if using a slow cooker, on “Low” throughout the time.

Disassemble the adafina using tongs, ladles and slotted spoons, arranging its elements on a large platter from which to serve. Peel and halve the eggs and add the cooked meatballs. Defat the cooking liquid, if desired, and serve it alongside the adafina.

Slow-cooker Cholent

Adapted from recipes at,,, and in “The 100 Most Jewish Foods,” Alana Newhouse, editor (2019). Serves 6-8.

Cholent items


2 medium yellow onions, peeled and thick-sliced
4 medium yellow or white potatoes, washed but unpeeled, cut into large chunks
1 pound bone-in beef short ribs
1 pound beef shank with marrow bone
4 cloves garlic, peeled
1 heaping cup dried garbanzo (or Great Northern or cannellini) beans
3/4 cup pearl barley
1 tablespoon sweet paprika powder (or more, to taste, or a 50/50 mix of sweet and hot paprika powders)
1 tablespoon kosher or sea salt
1 heaping teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon honey (or more, to taste)
Optional: 1 teaspoon each powdered cumin or fennel or caraway seeds
3-4 cups, or more, chicken, beef or vegetable broth


In the bottom of a slow cooker, arrange snugly the onions and potatoes. Top with the beef pieces and the garlic cloves, evenly distributed. (If in search of additional flavors, you may brown the onions and meat pieces ahead of time in 2 tablespoons cooking oil, atop the stove in a heavy-bottomed Dutch oven.)

Scatter about the beans and barley and all the remaining spices and seasonings. Pour enough liquid into the pot to just cover all the ingredients.

Beginning Friday just before sundown and until late morning or noon the next day, cook the pot in or over low heat in any of several ways: If using an oven, at 190-200 degrees; if using a stovetop, over a heat diffuser and a low flame; if using a slow cooker, on “Low” throughout the time.

Vegetarian and gluten-free version: Omit the meat and barley. Use water or vegetable broth as the liquid. Add 2 medium carrots, peeled and cut into chunks and 3 stalks celery, sliced into chunks along the bias. Increase the beans to 1 1/2 cups.


Interesting mini-histories of the foodways of the Ashkenazim and the Sephardim

  • Whereas Sephardic Judaism allows for the use of rice and legumes during Passover (over and above the five grains Biblically permitted with which to make matzah), Ashkenazic communities disallow both rice and legumes during the same ritual time. This is so, not because Jewish law bans them directly, but because it was thought that their flours might be confused in the kitchen if stored near the flour from any of the five permissible grains.
  • In 1492, Jews living in Spain (and, later, in Portugal) were given the opportunity to convert to Christianity rather than be expelled from their land. If converts, they were known as “coverso(s).” Many conversos began adding pork meat, in several forms, to their wet-cooked dishes as a sign to ecclesiastical authorities that they no longer were observant Jews. They even took to hanging their hams outside, ostentatiously, from their roof rafters.
  • Likewise, they busied themselves with cooking on the Sabbath for the same reasons. Tomás de Torquemada, the notorious first Grand Inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition (and himself a “converso”) sent emissaries through the countryside to ascertain whether or not smoke rose from household chimneys. No whiffs of smoke indicated the probable homes of Jews refusing to leave Spain.
  • As was the case in medieval Italy, the Jews of Iberia developed an intricate cuisine using olive oil, as distinct from one utilizing other fats: lard, which was prohibited, though widely used by Christian cooks, or even butter, favored by Arabs, because mixing meat and milk was likewise prohibited. In large part, we today have Jewish cooks responsible for the dominance—or at least preeminence—of olive oil cooking in Italy, Spain and North Africa, and Spain.
  • The near-ubiquity of meatballs (“albodingas”) in both sweet and savory Spanish cooking came about due to a combination of both Arabic and Sephardic influences. “Albodinga” derives from the Arabic word “al-bundug” or “hazelnut,” an indication of ancient meatballs’ size. Meatballs, being constructed from scraps of meat and filler such as bread, are cooking of the non-aristocratic classes, hence many Jews and Arabs living in Spain in olden days.
  • Many conversos considered that having a priest or a nun as a member of the family was a way to protect themselves from persecution under the Inquisition. Many of today’s famed “convent pastries” originated from this time. Saint Teresa of Avila was herself of Jewish descent. Her nunnery still makes “yemas de santa teresa,” a rich, creamy egg yolk and sugar dessert. Teresa obtained her egg yolks from the local gentry who, after having finished cleaning up (or “fining”) their newly fermented wine with egg whites, as was the winemaking practice of those days, handed over a plethora of egg yolks to the nuns.