Saturday, June 5, 2021


Most Spaniards probably never imagined that some of their favorite home-cooked meals come from the ancient Jewish tradition. The famous cocido, for one; Christmas roscos, for another; Holy Week puddings and festive sponge cake.

A recently published cookbook, Sabores de Sefarad, “Flavors of Sephardic Spain,” by Javier Zafra (Red de Juderías de España; 2020; Spanish language), delves into the rich history of the Jewish people in Spain and their contribution to Spanish cuisine. The book’s subtitle is Los Secretos de la Gastronomía Judeoespañola, or “the secrets of Judeo-Spanish cooking.”

Sabores de Sefarad--Flavors of Sephardic Spain--by Javier Zafra.

Sepharad was the name that the Jews gave to the Iberian peninsula, where the first Jews arrived as early as 586 BCE. For more than 13 centuries Jews lived alongside Romans, Visigoths, Muslims and Christians in communities throughout the country. The Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492 by the same Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, who, having defeated the last of the Moors in the kingdom of Granada, funded Columbus’s wild scheme to sail west to look for the Spice Islands.

Cookbook author, Javier Zafra.

Javier Zafra is not Jewish. But, his last name, Zafra, appears on the list in the book’s appendices of Sephardic surnames. I asked him why he decided to concentrate on Sephardic food and not, for example, Moorish. “Perhaps it was a strong pull of Jewish blood,” he replied. “I feel a responsibility to dig deeper into a history and culture that is our own, but that has been, not forgotten, but hidden, down through the ages”

Javier has found many convergences in the cooking of his own family. For example, his grandmother who ran a guest house in Jaén used to make filetillos de huerta, breaded and fried slices of eggplant, a very Sephardic dish, masquerading as breaded meat cutlets. Turrón (almond nougat) and mantecados de aceite de olivo (cookies made with olive oil), both Sephardic/Moorish, were Christmas treats.  He remembers fondly the fried papajotes or bermuelitos and perillas al azafrán, pears in saffron syrup, made by his aunts, recipes that he includes in the book.

The object of the book, he writes, is to recapture the flavors and aromas of the Jewish cooking that once impregnated the narrow streets of Spain’s aljamas, Jewish quarters; recipes that passed from mothers to daughters, secrets of an oral tradition of a cuisine that, in that epoch, did not include the exotic products of the New World. Nevertheless, our Sephardic ancestors used some 200 ingredients that later fell into disuse for fear of being accused of being marranos, secret Jews.

Is this the origin of Spanish cocido? It is Olleta de Adafina de Toledo. (Foto by Javier Zafra from the book, Sabores de Sefarad.)

When Javier began researching for the book, he found almost no resources about Sephardic food, pre-1492. Sephardic cookbooks are the cooking of the diaspora, of the Jews after they moved on from Spain and gradually acquired influences of other countries and the addition of New World ingredients. The best resources were those about Sephardic food’s “twin,” la cocina andalusí, the Moorish cuisine that was contemporaneous and which, he says, is quite well documented. 
The record of crypto-Judaism, he says, was fundamental in tracing the foods of a normal family in Sepharad. Here he credits the late Professor David Gitlitz, author with Linda Kay Davidson of A Drizzle of Honey—The Lives and Recipes of Spain’s Secret Jews, which draws on records of the Inquisition to track what Jews who had converted to Christianity were eating.

Javier told me that most surprising is that all of traditional Spanish cooking has been influenced by the fear of being accused by the Inquisition of Judaizing. So, who ate pork (prohibited by Jewish dietary laws) and who avoided pork became two distinguishing factors in figuring if someone was or was not crypto-Jewish. 

Another way that Sephardic influences have been passed along to Spanish cuisine is through the religious orders. Following forced conversions and the fear of being accused of crypto-Judaism, converts sent their daughters to the convents. The newly-minted Christian nuns took along with them their family recipes passed from mother to daughter for Sephardic stews and sweets. Thus, flourless almendrados (almond cookies) or yemas (egg yolk confections), both popular convent sweets, may have been originally Passover sweets. 

Javier developed his interest in history growing up playing in the ruins of an ancient Iberian settlement (Jaén) and exploring caves in search of prehistoric drawings. Following a love of cooking, he attended the Escuela de Hostelería de Jaén (professional cooking academy). He also studied computer sciences, teaching and photography. 

What started as a simple project—to write about Sephardic cooking—soon developed into major research and questioning of how to proceed. “I felt the responsibility to portray it accurately.” The project led him to recovering lost kitchen molds, commissioning reproductions of Jewish ceramics and researching everything from archeo-botany to perfumes and medicinal herbs.

What´s in Sabores de Sefarad

Sabores de Sefarad begins with a Forward by Luis Bassat, a well-known Spanish publicist, author and TV personality, who is of a Sephardic Jewish family. 

Kosher dietary laws are summarized. All the recipes follow the norms, although there is mention of how the current-day versions have been altered

In his introduction to the book, Javier notes that many traditional recipes from before 1492  are preserved intact in modern-day Sephardic communities of North Africa, the Balkans, Turkey, Greece and Israel as well as in the Xueta community of the Balearic Islands, where crypto-Jews—converts—kept many old dishes.

Six pages, illustrated with haunting photos from Sephardic sites throughout Spain that have been preserved through the ages, summarize the history and culture of the Jews in Spain. 

The table of contents at the front of the book lists the recipes by their Sephardic names. Regrettably, there is no index at the back of the book to cross-reference ingredients and other names for recipes.

The book finishes with useful appendices: bibliography and web links; list of surnames of Sephardic origin; glossary; calendar of Jewish holidays; a map showing sites in Spain of recovered Jewish quarters and of migration routes of Sephardim who left Spain after 1492;

The recipes 

Recipes are divided into nine chapters: Entrantes (Starters and Snacks), Bebidas (beverages), Panes (breads), Verduras (vegetables), Pescados (fish), Guisados (stews), Carnes (meats), Dulcería (sweets) and Indispensables (essentials). 

I admire Javier’s decision to adhere to pre-1492 foods—no New World potatoes, tomatoes, peppers or chocolate! Of course, these ingredients have been adapted to Sephardic cooking in the subsequent centuries. I’m less interested in the recipes that have no real connection to Spain, except that they were created by Sephardic cooks after they migrated to other countries. (Example; stuffed grape leaves—yaprakitos de oja—from Turkey or the Ottoman Empire, where Jews landed when fleeing Spain. 

All of the recipes in the book (in Spanish, with metric measures) have extensive headnotes, telling the origin of the dish and putting it in historical perspective. Ingredients and cooking methods are explained and modified, as needed.  Every recipe is illustrated with full color photographs by Javier Zafra.

The chapter on Dulcería—sweets and desserts—is outstanding, as it reveals how many of today’s pastries and desserts, often with saints’ names, are Sephardic in origin. Even the famous Menorcan ensaimada, a spiral sweet roll made with lard, can be traced to a type of challah or bread roll, made then with butter or olive oil. Here also are recipes for festival day sweets such as buñuelos, fried puffs, and rosquillas, fried rings, sweets hardly changed from when they were confected in medieval Toledo zocos. 

Some recipes I like
Roasted eggplant puree with olives, pomegranate and yogurt. (Berenjenas or Jandrayo).
Empanadillas filled with eggplant (Burekitas de Berenjenas).
Almond.garlic spread, to serve with matzoh. (Hechura de Almendras con Ajo).
Chard with garlic (Pazí Kon Ajo)
Carrot salad with mint, pomegranates and fresh figs (Salata de safanorias).
Fish balls with lemon sauce (Albondaquillos de pescado con Limón).
Vegetable stew with eggplant, leeks, carrots and chick peas (Alboronía).
Slow-cooked lamb with pomegranate, sour orange, prunes and honey (Hamín de ternasco enmelado
Sweet and sour meatballs of lamb and beef (Albondaquillos agridulces).
Almond cookies (mostachudos or almendrados). 
Sponge cake (bizcocho, known as pan d’Espanya).
Almond tartlets, a version of the Christianized torta Santiago (Torta de los reyes). 
Cheese tarts (flaons de Menorca). 

I chose a stuffed chicken recipe, Picantón al Horno Asado en Barro, from Sabores de Sefarad to try. Stuffed with a mixture of nuts and dried fruits and seasoned with spices, the birds are slow-roasted in a covered clay pot. The recipe reminds me very much of a present day recipe, Catalán stuffed capon or turkey. The Sephardic version would make a lovely dish for a family Shabos (Sabbath) or holiday dinner. 

Small chickens are stuffed with a mixture of fruits and nuts and slow-roasted in a clay pot, then browned in a hot oven. (This photo is from my kitchen in Spain, ©Janet Mendel)

Slow-roasted chicken served with the stuffing.

Stuffed Chickens Roasted in a Clay Pot
Picantón al Horno Asado en Barro
(Translated and adapted from Sabores de Sefarad.)

In the intro to this recipe, Javier writes that an anonymous manuscript from the 13th century Almohade dynasty, describes a recipe for Perdiz Judía (Jewish-style Partridge). The birds are stuffed with a mixture of the giblets mashed with almonds, pine nuts, almorí spices, oil, cilantro juice, pepper, cinnamon, lavender and cooked eggs and cooked in an earthenware pot with olive oil, vinegar and sugar and more spices. Almorí was a paste of flour and spices and herbs, sun-dried and fermented. It was used extensively in the Moorish cuisine at the time as both thickener and aroma. It was probably used in Sephardic cooking as well, as the two cultures existed side-by-side in medieval times. 

He has adapted the almorí spices to today’s kitchen. The spice rub of saffron, pepper, fennel and caraway is terrific.

The birds are cooked in a covered clay pot. In medieval times, the pot may have set in the hearth. Javier suggests cooking the small chickens in the oven at a very low temperature. Javier suggests using a Moroccan clay tagine. (A slow-cooker or Crock Pot would probably work well.) 

Javier’s recipe calls for two picantones, which are very small chickens, weighing each under one pound. The closest equivalent would be Cornish game hens (each about 1 ¼ pounds). I was unable to find the picantones (only during the Christmas season), so I substituted two whole broilers, each weighing just under two pounds—or about twice the size of the picantones. I necessarily had to adjust cooking times. The quantity of stuffing would work for three or four Cornish game hens.

Spices, herbs, fruits and nuts.

Serves 4.

2 small broilers (1 ¾ pounds each) or 3-4 Cornish game hens  
Freshly ground black pepper

½ teaspoon coarse salt
¼ teaspoon saffron threads
½ teaspoon black peppercorns
¼ teaspoon fennel seeds
¼ teaspoon caraway seeds

Olive oil
1 cup diced carrots
1 cup finely chopped leeks or sweet onions
½ cup fresh breadcrumbs
½ cup black olives, pitted
¼ cup seeded raisins and/or chopped figs
¼ cup chopped prunes
¼ cup chopped dried apricots
3 tablespoons toasted pine nuts
¼ cup toasted almonds, chopped
1 cup diced apple

½ cup chicken broth
1 apple, quartered
Carrots (optional)
2 teaspoons honey
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
Fresh figs (optional)
Chopped cilantro or parsley

Clean the cavity of the chickens. Wash and dry the chickens, making sure the cavity is clean. Pat them dry inside and out. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and allow the chickens to come to room temperature.

In a mortar crush the coarse salt, saffron, peppercorns, fennel and caraway seeds. Reserve 1/8 teaspoon of the spice mix. Spread the remaining spices on the two chickens. 

Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a skillet. Sauté the diced carrots and onions on moderate heat until the onions are soft, 8 minutes. Stir in the breadcrumbs and remove the skillet from the heat. 

In a bowl, combine half of the olives (reserve the rest), the raisins and/or figs, the prunes, apricots, 2 tablespoons of the pine nuts (reserve the remaining pine nuts) and the almonds. Add the sautéed carrot-onions and the reserved 1/8 teaspoon of mixed spices.  Add the diced apple and mix well.

Stuff the cavities of the chickens with the fruit-nut mixture. Use short skewers to close the cavity openings. Tie the legs together with kitchen twine.

Place 1 tablespoon of oil in the bottom of a lidded earthenware pot large enough to hold the two chickens. Place the chickens in the pot and pour the stock around them. Add the reserved olives, quartered apple and carrots, if using. Put the lid on the pot.

Clay pot for roasting chickens.

Place the pot in a cold oven and set the temperature to 350ºF. When the oven reaches temperature, leave the pot, without opening, for 1 hour.

Remove the pot from the oven and check the chickens for doneness (they should register 155ºF in the thickest part of the thigh). If they are not done, return the pot to the oven. Add additional stock or water if the liquid has cooked away.

When the chickens are done, set the broiler to 450ºF. Remove the lid from the pot or place the chickens in another oven pan so they fit side by side. Dribble a teaspoon of honey over each and sprinkle with cinnamon. Sprinkle the reserved pine nuts on the chickens. Cut figs, if using, in half and place around the chickens. Place the pot under the broiler until the chickens are nicely browned, about 10 minutes.

Allow the chickens to rest 10 minutes before cutting the chickens in halves. Place olives, quartered apple and figs around the chicken on a platter or plates. Garnish with a little chopped cilantro. Skim excess fat from the cooking juices. Pour the juices into a saucepan and reheat. Serve alongside the chickens and their stuffing.

You can order SABORES DE SEFARAD  at

More Sephardic recipes that have appeared on my blog:



  1. This chicken dish sounds wonderful! I'll have to try it.

    1. Donna: It is wonderful, very festive. I'm sure it would work with a big roasting chicken, as well. Just need to adjust the roasting time.

  2. How fantastic! I can't wait to read the book.

  3. How very interesting ! Historically, culturally and in a practical way !! The book is actually available at my favourite Australian on-line store and homework is ahead with a probable order to follow - thanks ! Love the flavour profile of the chicken dish and shall definitely copy . . .

    1. Eha: Although the recipe in the book is for wee birds, the stuffing and method would work for any size chicken. Good to know you can acquire the book down under!

  4. The "cocido" is typical of all cultures, each wirh its own i gredients.
    Many explanations in this book are easy aftermaths.
    Have you tried preparing his matzah, improved with yeast?

    1. Dominique: Thank you for your comment. Perhaps I (not the book's author) made assumptions about the origins of cocido. And the recipe for matzoh does not call for yeast (baking powder), nor is it any way intended to appropriate for Passover.

  5. Thank you for pointing out this book. One of my favorites is "The New Mediterranean Jewish Table" by Joyce Goldstein. I became interested in Sephardic cuisine after visiting Spain, and thinking about how it evolved. Would you consider a column featuring books, in English, about life/cooking in Spain? They are hard to find. Mad Dog mentioned one a few months ago I hadn't heard of. Thank you

    1. Heather: The Joyce Goldstein is one I do not have in my collection of Sephardic cookbooks. I, too, became interested in Sephardic cooking when I realized how profoundly it has influenced Spanish cooking--which I've been researching for 50 years. I don't have many general books about life/cooking in Spain, although my publisher in Spain, Santana Books, now out of business, had quite a list of them.