A Food Lover's Guide to Passover

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Each spring, Passover arrives on the cusp of spring. Winter's chill has faded, the days are longer and warmer, and hopeful green buds have started to appear on tree branches. It is the perfect time to celebrate a holiday focused on freedom. Passover, after all, commemorates the Israelites’ Exodus from ancient Egypt, and their transition from a life of slavery to one of freedom.

In addition to retelling the Exodus story, and meditating on freedom in all its forms, food — and particularly sharing meals with family and friends — makes up a significant portion of the holiday. Do you celebrate Passover? Whether you're getting ready for the holiday or just want to learn a little more about it, here are some of Passover's most delicious edible traditions.

Making matzo in Jerusalem.
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What NOT To Eat

Passover is without a doubt a food lover's kind of celebration. But the week-long holiday is defined as much by what you don't eat as what you do. Traditionally, Jews abstain from eating chametz, which refers to leavened foods made from wheat, barley, rye, oats, and spelt.

Jews originally hailing from Eastern Europe, called Ashkenazi Jews, also refrain from eating a category of foods called kitniyot, which closely resemble prohibited grains. These include corn, millet, rice, legumes, and lentils, among other things. Sephardi Jews (originally hailing from Spain) and Mizrahi Jews (hailing from the Middle East) do not typically share this additional restriction. Lucky them!

The Seder Meal

The seder is the heart of any Passover celebration. The word comes from the same Hebrew root as the word "order," and the seder fittingly lays out an ordered script for retelling the Exodus story. The are four parts to the seder — kind of like acts of a play — each initiated by blessing and drinking a cup of wine (or grape juice). And in between the second and third "act," a festive dinner is served.

Different families serve their own favorite traditional foods, but a typical meal in an Ashkenazi home would likely include matzo ball soup, gefilte fish, chicken or brisket, and coconut macaroons. Roasted or steamed asparagus, while not traditional, has become a common addition because asparagus comes into season in the spring.

Vegetarians might serve a matzo lasagna, made with softened matzo in the place of noodles.

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The Seder Plate

In the center of the seder table, alongside the matzo, sits a plate filled with symbolic foods meant to viscerally connect participants to the Passover story. They include:

  • A bitter herb, often horseradish, which represents the bitter treatment the Israelites faced as slaves in ancient Egypt.
  • Charoset: a mixture of fruit, nuts, spices, and sweet wine that symbolizes the mortar used by the Israelites when they were forced to build stone structures as slaves.
  • A green vegetable, typically parsley, that represents springtime. Passover is sometimes called Chag Ha'aviv, literally "spring holiday" in Hebrew. Before it gets eaten, people dip the vegetable into a bowl of salt water to represent the Israelite's tears.
  • A roasted lamb bone, which represents the sacrifice offered by Israelites at the Temple in Jerusalem during ancient times. Some vegetarians substitute a roasted beet.
  • A roasted egg, which represents springtime and fertility.

The Afikoman

One of my favorite seder traditions includes the afikoman — a broken piece of matzo that is eaten as part of dessert. Eating matzo for dessert admittedly may not sound thrilling. But many families make it fun by hiding the afikoman from the kids, and rewarding the child who finds it with a prize, or having the children "steal" the afikoman from the seder leader, hiding it, and making him or her search for it.

Matzo Brei and Matzo Granola

After the seders, there are still many days of Passover left! Lots of Jewish families pass the days more happily by transforming crumbled matzoh into delicious dishes. I personally love matzo brei, which soaks crumbled matzo in egg and fries it, a la French toast. Matzoh granola, made with crumbled matzoh instead of rolled oats, is another favorite.

Do you have family Passover traditions that you'd like to share? Passover begins next week — look for some fresh recipes and ideas this week for your Passover celebration.

More posts in this series

Passover at The Kitchn

(Image credits: Rachelle Burnside/Shutterstock; ChameleonsEye/Shutterstock; Emma Christensen; blueeyes/Shutterstock; Leela Cyd)