In keeping with our exploration of holidays from around the world, the Jewish holiday of Passover offers an array of traditions involving one of our favorite topics—food!
Food is an important part of any holiday, but for Passover, food and ritual are intertwined. Here we will offer ideas for preparing your own vegan seder plate and provide some recipes in the spirit of the season.
When celebrating Passover, the traditional family meal called a “seder” retells the story of how the Jewish people were released from slavery and their exodus from Egypt, an event that occurred around 1446 BCE.
Passover takes place annually on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Nisan, during the full moon of the lunar calendar—which falls sometime during March and April. The dramatic story in the Haggadah (prayer book) includes the incident when the angel of death “passed over” specially marked residences, sparing the Jewish population from death—hence the name “Passover.”
Although Seder customs and traditions vary between the Ashkenazi and Sephardic, Mizrahi, Yeminite, and Persian traditions, all include the story of Passover and partake of symbolic foods placed on a Passover seder plate. This is a ritual feast. The question that is asked at the beginning of a Seder is “Why is the meal eaten during the Passover ritual different from all other nights?”
As mentioned above, the story retold during Seder recalls the mass exodus of the Jews from Egypt. Because there was no time for yeast in the bread to rise, the bread was cooked unleavened. To commemorate this, Matzah (or Matzos) are eaten instead of bread as a reminder of the Exodus. Matzah is an unsalted, large wheat cracker. Traditionally, all food containing leavening is removed from the house during this time, and leavened products or “chametz,” are not allowed at the Passover table. Ashkenazi cook with matzah meal (wheat). Foods that are allowed, are labeled with OU, OU-P, KLP (Kosher for Passover / Kasher L’Pesach).
Passover is often celebrated with a ceremony, especially on the first night at the family Seder when foods of symbolic significance are served. The meal is meant to be joyous, but strict dietary laws are also observed.
The Seder plate is a symbolic representation and contains food items to help remember the plight of one’s ancestors. These foods contain Maror (bitter herbs), Chazeret (bitter greens), Charoset (apple and walnut mixture), Karpas (a vegetable dipped in salt), Zeroa, and Beitzah.
- Maror represents the bitterness and pain of slavery. It is represented by bitter herbs. Ashkenazi traditionally use horseradish while Sephardic use romaine or endive lettuce.
- Chazeret is additional bitter herbs, often romaine lettuce or green onion, dandelion greens, celery leaves.
- Charoset represents the mortar made by the Jews when in captivity. There are many varieties of this recipe according to different traditions:
Dried fruit (cooked, dried or soaked) is chopped or puréed in the Middle east. Yemenite Jews add pepper and coriander. Persians use pomegranate or vinegar. Iraqi Jews boil dates into a syrup and add walnuts.
The crunchy and juicy Ashkenazi recipe usually includes apples, chopped walnuts, and raisins (optional), and include a sweetener like honey or agave. The dish contains spices like ginger and cinnamon.
The Sephardic tradition purées dried fruit, including date, orange or lemon, and even banana along with fragrant spices. A thick date syrup, called “halek,” is also incorporated into the recipe.
The “fruit of the vine” is added to all Charoset. Grape juice satisfies this requirement.
- Karpas can be any vegetable, other than bitter herbs. Ashkenazi dip the vegetable into salt water. Sephardic dip celery in vinegar or lemon juice. Both practices are done to represent the anguished tears shed during bondage. Cooked potato, parsley or cilantro, or some of the Charoset can be used. Sephardic tradition includes a second bitter vegetable.
- Zeroa represents the sacrificed animal, a ritual from early times. A raw or roasted red beet can be substituted for a shank bone.
- Beitzah represents the festival sacrifice. The traditional egg can be replaced by an avocado (or avocado pit) or a small white eggplant.
This ritualized eating practice—done during the reading of the Haggadah–connects the Jewish people to each other in a worldwide net of memory.
The main food items not allowed in cooking during this time are any grains that can ferment and become leavened, including wheat, barley, spelt, oats and rye. Recipes may vary from one region to another, but the Seder menu may include cooked rice, corn, dried beans, millet, and lentils, buckwheat, caraway, cardamom, corn, edamame, fennel seeds, fenugreek, green beans, lentils, linseed (flaxseed), millet, mustard, peas, poppy seeds, rapeseed, rice, sesame seeds, soybeans and sunflower seeds. Since medieval times, until 2015 CE, eating “kitniyot” (legumes, grains and seeds) during Passover was not an accepted custom with Ashkenazi Jews. Quinoa, however, is allowed.
Recipes for Passover
Because unleavened bread is not eaten during Passover, recipes using matzo meal (ground wheat Matzo crackers) are eaten. Although you won’t find Matzo Ball Soup on the seder plate, it’s a favorite recipe served during this time of year. Try our vegan version here.
For a dish containing bitter greens, try our Swiss Chard Sauté, substituting half of the greens with bitter greens like escarole, dandelion, and celery leaves.
Our chunky applesauce recipe is perfect for your Passover meal. Add walnuts and raisins.
Learning about foods from different traditions enriches our global awareness and brings us closer to understanding each other. We hope you enjoyed reading about the Passover Seder. Chag Pesach Sameach (happy Passover)!
–I and M from the Veggie Fest Team