Diverse and indigenous cuisine brought by the many ethnic people to St. Maarten from all over the world piques our interest. To this end, we are on a quest to find where it comes from, if it is used for celebrations, if it is exotic to some but everyday food to others. Anything to do with keeping the body and soul nourished with that which is produced from good old terra firma, is what makes the world go around.
To the uninitiated, the celebration of Pesach/Passover is confusing to say the least. This is a major Jewish holiday that celebrates the story of an escape from slavery in Egypt by the Israelites. Over 3,000 years ago, the Pharaoh of Egypt allowed the Jewish people their freedom and they took off en masse on a trip known as the Exodus. The events are recorded in the Book of Exodus.
In the Book of Exodus, God commanded Moses to tell the Israelites to mark their doors with lamb’s blood so that the Angel of Death would pass over the house and family. This came about because of an event in Egypt that was known as the tenth plague, where the first born of the house died - unless the mark from lamb’s blood was on the door jamb – there, the firstborn survived! This story is read aloud, every year, at the first meal of the celebration – Seder. The story is known as Haggadah.
This celebration is the oldest continuously celebrated holiday on the Jewish calendar. Within the celebration are a number of seriously meaningful traditions and rituals. The celebration lasts for seven or eight days, depending on where in the world you live. This year, 2023, Pesach begins before sundown on Wednesday, April 5, and ends after nightfall on April 13.
The verb “pasàch” is first mentioned in the Torah's account of the Exodus from Egypt. There is some debate about its exact meaning – the commonly held assumption is that it means: “He passed over.”
The Torah is a compilation of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible – the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.
The term “Pesach” may also refer to the lamb which was designated as the Passover sacrifice. Four days before the Exodus, the Hebrews were commanded to set aside a lamb and inspect it daily for blemishes. On the eve of Passover, they were to slaughter the animal and use its blood to mark their lintels and doorposts. Before midnight, they were to cook and eat the lamb.
The tradition requires that the lamb be roasted, without the removal of its internal organs with unleavened bread, known as matzo, and bitter herbs known as “maror”. Nothing of the sacrifice may be eaten once the sun rises the next morning, any remains must be burned! No leftovers allowed from this celebration.
The English term "Passover" was recorded in the English language in William Tyndale's translation of the Bible. The term later appeared in the King James Version. It is a literal translation of the Hebrew term. In the King James Version, you can read Exodus 12:23, this tells one clearly about this event.
The entire Passover celebration involves food in one form or another. Traditionally, the 1st celebration in Israel, the Seder (meaning “Order” in Hebrew) is called Chag HaMatzot, which is the feast of unleavened bread – Matzas/Matzah/Matzo. (A number of spellings are used for this special cracker-like bread we can find here on island.)
The biblical requirements were to slay the sacrificial lamb in the individual homes of the Hebrews and then smear the blood of that lamb on their doorways. However, once the Exodus started and the Israelites were in the wilderness, the “tabernacle” (the portable dwelling built by Moses for worship) came into operation; the rules changed and the lambs were to be sacrificed at the door of the tabernacle – no longer in the homes of the Jews. Also, the blood did not need to be smeared on doors or lintels of their homes.
Today, the lamb eaten for Seder is not cooked with the innards unless one follows the traditional way of cooking/eating.
Seder is usually a big ritual meal shared by friends and family. The traditional Seder Plate includes hard-boiled eggs, greens, bitter herbs, salt water, a lamb bone and a mix of fruit, nuts, apples and wine known as “charoset”. On the table is an important pile of the Matzos crackers/bread. This cracker is “unleavened” – this means it has no yeast and therefore is not “risen” bread.
According to the traditional story; the Israelites were forced to leave Egypt so quickly that they didn’t have time to wait for their bread to rise. They put the dough in travelling sacks and as they crossed the desert, the hot sun baked the dough into the thin, hard matzah.
At the beginning of the Seder meal, one piece of the matzos is broken and a piece (or more) of it is hidden. After the meal, the children search for the hidden pieces of cracker – first one to find it is the winner and often receives a prize. Lights are turned off and the search is done by candlelight (these days a torch is used) and a feather and a wooden spoon are used to find that Matzos!
During Passover, orthodox Jews eat no food made with yeast, at all. In fact, shops in the Jewish quarters stop selling all products with yeast completely. Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men burn leavened food – food made with yeast – before the Passover celebration.
Every day of Passover has a special meaning – and song, chants, readings and foods with no yeast are eaten. Below are a few of the dishes served during this time.
Matzah brei – Matzo softened in milk or water and fried with egg and fat; served either savoury or sweet.
Matzo kugel – A kugel made with matzo instead of noodles.
Charoset – A sweet mixture of fruit, fresh, dried or both; nuts; spices; honey; and sometimes wine.
Chrain – Horseradish and beet relish.
Gefilte fish – Poached fish patties or fish balls made from a mixture of ground, de-boned fish, mostly carp or pike.
Chicken soup – with matzah balls.
Passover noodles – prepared from potato flour and eggs; this batter is fried like thin crepes, then stacked, rolled up and sliced into ribbons and used in soup.
Kafteikas di prasa – Fried balls made of leeks, meat, and matzo meal.
Lamb or chicken leg.
Mina – a meat pie made with matzos
Spring green vegetables – artichoke, fava beans, peas.
Charoset – quick, easy and delicious
3 medium apples, finely diced
1 cup toasted walnuts, roughly chopped
¼ cup golden raisins (I prefer craisins)
¼ cup sweet red wine
½ TBL honey
1 tsp lemon zest
½ tsp ground cinnamon
Combine all ingredients in a medium bowl and stir to combine.
Set aside 30 minutes before serving.
Roast Lamb - Sephardic style
1 5/6LB lamb shoulder, bone in
8 cloves garlic, finely sliced
3TBL olive oil
Salt, to taste
Black Pepper, to taste
Preheat oven 325° F.
Cut slits in the lamb – all over.
Push a slice of garlic into the slits.
Rub with oil, salt, and pepper.
Place in a shallow roasting pan.
Roast 15 minutes per LB until meat thermometer registers 145° F (medium cooked).
Allow to stand covered, 10 minutes before carving.
Matzo Brei – a great Passover breakfast, or for any time of the year
2 cups boiling water
4 sheets matzo
4 large eggs
1½ TBL unsalted butter
1 TBL chopped chives
Salt to taste
Crème fraiche and Applesauce for serving
Pour hot water over matzos, let sit 1 minute, drain.
Break softened matzo into pieces.
Add salt and pepper to eggs – beat.
Add matzo to beaten eggs, stir.
Let sit 5 minutes.
Heat butter over low heat in frying pan.
Pour egg-matzo batter into pan
Stir off and on.
The egg will set as in scrambled eggs.
When egg is almost all set, turn off the heat.
Served topped with sliced chives crème fraiche and applesauce.
Variation: Sweet Matzo Brei
Lightly brown pieces of matzo in butter before soaking in 1/3 cup whole milk for 1 minute.
Combine with beaten eggs.
Fry as above but make into patties.
Turn off heat.
Sprinkle with 2 tsp palm sugar.
Serve with honey or maple syrup, applesauce and crème fraiche or jam/preserves.