A Karaite seder

What comes to mind when you hear “Passover foods?”

If you’re like most American Jews, it’s matzah ball soup, gefilte fish, and charoset made of apples, nuts and Manischewitz wine — basically, the European Ashkenazi tradition. Maybe if you’re a little adventurous, you’ll picture a Sephardic charoset based on dates and other dried fruits.

But here’s something completely different — a Karaite Passover menu.

No matzah balls. No charoset. No eggs, parsley, salt water, wine or even a seder plate.

Instead, a unique kind of unleavened bread with coriander, bitter lemon salad, barbecued meat on the bone, and juice made from fresh grapes and raisins.

Rollers that were used to knead matzah dough, outside the Karaite synagogue in Cairo, 1985 / Photo by Ira Nowinski, Stanford University Libraries

Karaism is a small but ancient stream within Judaism that was based primarily in Russia and Egypt. What distinguishes the Karaites from other wings of Judaism is that they don’t follow or acknowledge the Talmud, the rabbinic commentary on the Bible that mainstream Judaism sees as inspired by God. For Karaites, Jewish law ends after the Tanach.

A Karaite web site puts it this way:

Karaite Judaism rejects later additions to the Tanach (Jewish Bible) such as the Rabbinic Oral Law and places the ultimate responsibility of interpreting the Bible on each individual. Karaism does not reject Biblical interpretation but rather holds every interpretation up to the same objective scrutiny regardless of its source.

At first glance, one might assume that Karaites are some kind of primitive fundamentalist sect running around Monty Python-style in Biblical tunics. Not so. David Darwish, who catered the luncheon after my Bat Mitzvah, comes from a Karaite family and is not only a cell phone-wielding citizen of the 21st century but a terrific chef who whips up a mean Caesar salad. His brother owns Mezze, a lovely pan-Mediterranean restaurant on Lakeshore Avenue.

I asked David what he ate for Passover growing up, and he referred me to the keepers of culinary tradition in his family — his cousin Nadia Hartmann and her mother Nelly Masliah.

Nadia and Nelly came to the U.S. from Egypt 46 years ago. They’re affiliated with Congregation B’nai Israel of Daly City — the only Karaite congregation in America with its own permanent building.

The Karaite community, Nadia told me, celebrates only one Seder on the first night of Passover. Like an Ashkenazi haggadah, a traditional Karaite haggadah tells the story of the Exodus from Egypt and lists the ten plagues. But the text is almost all verses from the Torah: There is no story of the Four Children, no Chad Gadya. All those readings were added after Biblical times.

Karaites don’t drink alcohol during Passover since their reading of the Torah defines hametz  as not just leavening but fermentation. Instead, they say a blessing over “wine” that is a freshly-made blend of grapes and raisins. They soak raisins in water overnight, then put them in a blender with red grapes and water.

“It’s thicker than grape juice but not as thick as a smoothie,” Nadia said.

Back in Egypt, many Karaite families made their own matzot. Today they buy them at the supermarket like everyone else. But they also make a unique kind of Karaite matza called “orsa” — thin, flat crackers made from flour, oil, water, salt and ground coriander. (Although the flour would make this off-limits for Ashkenazi Jews during Passover, the Karaite tradition allows it since there is no yeast.)  I’m including Nadia’s  recipe below.

“The coriander gives it its flavor,” Nadia said. “It’s square, easy to eat, and you can get addicted to it.”

Rather than a ritual shankbone on a seder plate, Karaite families serve a main course that involves meat on a bone — typically barbecued.  “We often have lamb chops or a lamb shank,” Nadia said.

For bitter herbs, they make a salad — bitter frisee lettuce, six other kinds of lettuce, an oil and lemon dressing, and little pieces of pickled lemon.

Other traditional parts of their Seder meal are rice dishes and grape leaves stuffed with meat and rice. (Like other Sephardic Jews, the Karaites don’t prohibit rice during Passover.) Traditional desserts are Pain d’Espagne, an angel-food-like cake with jam, or cookies with nuts — both made with flour but no leavening.

After speaking with Nadia, I decided to try baking my own orsa — before Passover, so my Ashkenazi self could eat them.

It was a strange experience following a recipe for a food I’d never tasted or even seen, kind of like a Martian following notes for some alien item called “hamburgers.” I couldn’t even find a photo of them on the Web. Here’s how they turned out:

Dough for orsa / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Karaite matzot, or orsa / Photo by Ilana DeBare

They were crisp and a little crumbly like thin, savory graham crackers. Some ended up bitter because they were in the hotter part of my oven and got a little burnt.

My daughter suggested adding cheese. (Not part of the Karaite tradition!) My husband trotted into my study  later in the evening and said, “We don’t know why, because we don’t think they taste that good, but we’ve each eaten three or four of them.”

(What was it that Nadia had said about them being addictive?)

Meanwhile, I’m thinking of making that grape-and-raisin “wine.” There are always some folks at our seder who don’t drink alcohol; this could be a tasty and fun alternative to Welch’s.

Whether you celebrate Passover, Chag HaMatzot or Easter next week, happy holidays!

______________________________________

Nadia’s Orsa (Karaite matzah)

 

Ingredients:
5 cups & 3 oz. regular flour
11 oz. oil
1 cup water
1-1/2 tblspn salt
2 tblspn ground coriander powder — preferable to grind your own from coriander seeds, leaving it a little flaky, since the pre-ground powder from the store has a tendency to burn
Preheat oven to 350.

In a big mixer like a Kitchen Aid, combine all the flour, spices, and a little of the oil and water. With the mixer going, add the rest of the oil and water gradually until it forms a ball. It should be soft enough to work. If it’s too soft, add more flour. Too hard, add water.

Work it on a table until it is very thin. (I used a rolling pin.) Then put a little bit at a time on an ungreased cookie sheet. Cut it in shapes. There should be enough dough for three, maybe four, cookie sheets.

Bake for about 25 minutes until very light brown. Be careful not to overcook.

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8 Responses to “A Karaite seder”

  1. debra solomon Says:

    Loved reading this.

  2. Mary Says:

    Cool entry! You should take on the tricky question of how vegetarians are supposed to get through the eight days of Passover. Using Ashkenazi rules, it turns into a cheese-and-egg fest. At least, if you go Sephardic, you still have (green) beans and rice to fall back on.

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      I believe quinoa is okay under at least some Ashkenazi opinions.
      I also have a recipe for matzah-meal “bagels” from a back issue of Reform Judaism magazine that were very tasty when they came right out of the oven — more like donut-shaped biscuits than actual bagels. Less good the next day but would be a great brunch.

  3. Janice Dean Says:

    Thank you for shedding some light on a Passover tradition of which I had never heard! This is wonderful, and it makes me want to find some Karaite Jews and ask if they will let me celebrate Passover with them. I wonder if they also have the tradition of including a non-Jew… :-)

  4. elliot Says:

    Great, Ilana! Even the picture is cool, since the holy rollers look like Torah scrolls.

    Karaites must go way back. On long drives, I’ve listened to a loaned set of lecture-CD about the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Karaites come up, because a sect that evolved into the Karaites was tearing it up way back during the days of Kumran. Much as the Karaites figuratively tore up Talmud as useless rabbinic spin….). So maybe that Karaite matzoh starter yeast is REALLY old. Anyway, anything these days to make matzoh more enticing after a steady diet of it for a week is welcome indeed.

  5. Nicholas Herold Says:

    Fascinating story. And the Karaite matzoh sounds delicious. I’m going to make it some time. Sam says the pieces that weren’t burnt were very tasty ;)

  6. shawnjoelichaa Says:

    This is a great story. In case you want to see the Karaite Matzah recipe from my family, check this out. I run a blog on karaite judaism that many of you might find interesting and the recipe is below.

    http://wp.me/p2MerI-fy

  7. Shawn Lichaa Says:

    Also, I have a video on the Karaite passover seder. You should check it out if interested.

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